The slow, inevitable conversion
I’m pretty confident that every gal on the RadGram team would describe herself as a nonprofit type; that is to say, we’re basically masochistic in our altruistic motives and we make as little money pursuing them as possible. Before starting Radical Grandma Collective, none of us had any business experience, and the work we had done was always for nonprofits, whether in study abroad education, civic engagement, wetlands restoration, or outdoor leadership. We were used to scrounging for money and applying for grants. The thought of developing a product and turning a profit seemed absurd. The business world was “the dark side,” an arena populated with greedy, self-interested corporate types and aimless, soulless 9 to 5 employees. Businesses sold stuff to people, they didn’t solve problems. Such was our pseudo-socialist mindset.
Enter social entrepreneurship
Of course, this is a horribly reductionistic and ill-informed way of looking at the business community, and much of the world has caught on to the fact that this polarized view serves no one. Business is often a force for good, and the change it creates can be much more transformative and sustainable than what the nonprofit sector can achieve.
The concept of social entrepreneurship, in particular, has gained significant traction in the past few years. Dr. Muhammad Yunus, the Bangladeshi Nobel Peace Prize winner and founder of Grameen Bank, largely pioneered and popularized the idea of microfinance and social enterprise. Yunus envisioned a world where finance and business could be transformed into pro-poor tools for development. He shattered the perception that these activities could only be used by the wealthy to generate more wealth, and by redefining who has economic “worth” and disseminating access to these tools to the poor, Yunus’s initiatives have revolutionized development as we know it.
In social enterprise, Yunus asserts that by placing social and environmental objectives at the heart of business activities, companies and startups can become the world’s premiere problem-solvers. Businesses by nature are self-funding; so long as a well-run business offers a quality product or service at an appropriately calculated price, it will be, hypothetically, financially sustainable. This eliminates the issue of donor fatigue and the fundraising hustle so familiar to us in the nonprofit grind, and the business approach allows solutions to be scaled much more efficiently. In short, while no single strategy is development’s silver bullet, if the private sector can break “business as usual” and align social goals with profit, far-reaching and enduring benefits can follow.
How is Radical Grandma Collective a social enterprise?
Currently, Radical Grandma Collective is a project of the 501(c)3 nonprofit Educational Network for Global and Grassroots Exchange (ENGAGE), which was founded by alumni of a study abroad program based in Khon Kaen, Thailand, in which we all (the RadGram team) participated in as college students. Radical Grandma Collective uses a revenue-generating model, but no one takes a salary or any compensation for their help in maintaining the organization. Someday, however, we would like to make it a full-fledged business complete with performance metrics and an eco-friendly office. The enterprise is still relatively new, so we still have a lot of learning and growing to do before we get there.
Although we are legally and functionally a nonprofit, the social business mindset guides the Radical Grandma Collective in everything we do. Our first and foremost goal is to get those g’mas more ca$h money. The grandmas then decide where to best invest those dollars, whether that’s in college degrees for their grandkids, fighting the mining company that poisoned villagers’ land, or buying new equipment and weaving supplies. These investments consequently further the social and environmental goals of the Na Nong Bong community. Our accompanying objective is to keep the business and our international operations up and running, which means we earn just enough profit to keep the website maintained, the scarf shipments coming, and some money in the bank for growth.
We believe in democratizing the idea of who can be an “entrepreneur.” From Steve Jobs tinkering away in his garage to the #radicalgrandmas weaving and dreaming on their porches, humans are creative creatures that can use their talents to change the world, one computer or scarf at a time. Be sure to check out the Shop section of our website for the latest RadGram products, and support these badass ladies for whom there is no “quit”-- only forward, together, now, always.
About the Author: Shortly after helping found the Radical Grandma Collective, Mariko Powers went on to start her MA in International Environmental Policy with a focus in Business and Sustainable Development at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. She finds it quite funny that she went from living as pseudo-socialist on a shared stipend in Thailand to taking classes on impact investing and corporate social responsibility. If only she’d gotten an MBA, RadGram would surely be on its way to capitalist conquest.