After two full days of business pitches, I sat in a circle of judges, a thick pile of business plans on my lap and discussed which ones were going to be funded by Dare to Innovate. This was Dare to Innovate’s 6th Social Business Pitch Competition and it was the first one since the inaugural one in 2012 that I was able to attend. Back in 2012, when I founded Dare to Innovate, we had $16,000 of seed funds to award to seven entrepreneurs. It was the first pitch competition in the country and nobody was sure what the outcome would be. This year, we had $100,000 of seed funding (thanks to the support of the United Nations) and I knew the entrepreneurs that we chose would leave that competition on a new trajectory; that they would leave with the confidence and resources to change their communities for the better. It was exciting, but it was also a lot of pressure.
This year’s competition was special because in order for a youth to be eligible for our training program and ultimately the competition, they had to have volunteered with the Red Cross during the Ebola epidemic that swept Guinea from 2014-2015. One of the entrepreneurs was a single woman—her husband left her because she volunteered; there was a lot of distrust in communities for everyone and everything involved in the epidemic. They were not only risking their physical lives when they decided to volunteer, but risked being ostracized from their communities in a culture where community is paramount. This was a strong demonstration gratefulness and of confidence in youth who have the fortitude to be “positive deviants”.
We ended up being able to fund 17 businesses that ranged from education, to agriculture, to small scale manufacturing. All the businesses were run by youth and all of them sought both financial and social returns. For these 17 entrepreneurs, their relationship with Dare to Innovate is just beginning. They will be receiving coaching from our staff as the launch and access to a network to grow. It felt like we were brining 17 new people into a growing family.
As we announced the winners, I was of course, overwhelmed with excitement about what we were enabling, but in the back of my head there was a nagging voice, a voice that often pulls me out of the moment when I am working in West Africa — “Don’t be a white savior”. My thoughts, feelings, identity, and place are all very complicated; tension between what I believe and what I represent. I am a white, upper-middle class, educated American women. I believe that young Africans are 1000% capable of driving their personal development and the development of their continent. But I also know that my skin color, passport, and pedigree give me access to resources that most Africans my age are shut off from. I guess it’s me trying to come to terms with my privilege not just as an individual living in society but as a leader. I do not have an answer to these feelings, but I am open to continue to explore this tension over the summer. For now, what I know for sure is that I enjoy the work that I am doing and that if I want to spend my career doing it, I have some reflecting to do.
To learn more about Dare to Innovate, visit www.daretoinnovate.com.