Entrepreneurship is a wonderful opportunity to not only take your life in your own hands, but also to do some social good. Over the years, Bangladesh has seen numerous ventures come to limelight with a strong social activist mindset. To engage Bangladesh’s untapped and talented youth, to help catalyze social change and to empower the masses. There are success stories like Jaago, and 1Degree Initiative. There are also ventures like Tinder Capital helping bring OPEN Accelerator to the rural entrepreneurs in the poorer regions of the country. The developing entreprenurial ecosystem of Bangladesh has turned more eyes to the possibilities in entrepreneurship and helping herald a change through it. It has ALSO neccessitated the presence of means for these budding entrepreneurs to access training, mentorship and network. Sometimes one needs more than local insights and ties to help develop their business and think global. This year, Jolkona through their much praised Project Catalyst is taking 16 Social Entrepreneurs from Bangladesh to one of the biggest entrepreneurial centres of the world, Seattle. We caught up with one of the founders, Adnan Mahbub and executive director Monica Mendoza.
Q. Tell us about Project Catalyst.
The project Catalyst is an accelerator program aimed at social entrepreneurs. It is a part of Jolkona. Jolkona is a non profit foundation that aims to engage, educate, and empower a new generation of philanthropists and young social entrepreneurs. Any developing society is riddled with unmet needs which can be met through social business. We try out best to expose them to those needs. We try to provide them with the tools to increase their impact, and also to show the world what a great difference to the society mere tiny contributions can make. We want to invest in social good, we want to invest in the future. One of our concerns is Lift Bangla which helps donors reach vetted projects in Bangladesh in a transparent manner.
And another among of our initiatives is the Project Catalyst. As Confucius one said “Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. Teach the man how to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.” Through this very program we try to reach out to fledgling young social entrepreneurs in developing countries, and help them develop through training.
Selected entrepreneurs are taken on an all expenses paid trip to Seattle. It has a thriving entrepreneurial community. So we bring in trainers and speakers who are well respected members of the community, have experience of building startups from the ground up, worked in several countries worldwide, and have valuable insights to offer. Our hope is that the budding entrepreneurs will learn and take these tools to develop and improve their business strategies. And hence they can deepen their impact in their respective communities. We hope to connect them to the international business
Project Catalyst ran its pilot last year. We brought in entrepreneurs from Indonesia. One of those ventures, called Agrosocial were hoping to improve annual household income for farmer families and production houses. So they trained wives of the households to make new products, like Casava Chips and other delicacies which brought them some additional income.
Q.What criteria do you want the entrepreneurs to meet and how many do you plan to train per year?
We plan to take 16 entrepreneurs this year from Bangladesh to Seattle. Eight entrepreneurs per session. One of them happens from April 20th through may 8th. Our requirement for an entrepreneur to be eligible is at least a year’s worth of experience, a proven, effective business model.
Q. What are you hoping that this program will accomplish?
We wanted find places with disproportionately high number of young people dissatisfied with status quo. A place where they don’t get a lot of attention in international aid agenda for their activities. We chose not to focus on India or China because they get support. But there’s Indonesia (100 million under age of 25), where the entrepreneurial ecosystem is not as built out. That is why believe we can make a difference through our focus on entrepreneurs who want to have a positive impact on their respective community.
As you know, the accelerator program is run in Seattle. It is the base for Microsoft, one of the best companies for CSR, It is also home for Boeing. There are plenty of Bangladeshi figures within the business/startups community of Seattle holding very formidable positions who would be very eager to help. We have trainers and mentors with years and years of experience under their belt in various organizations and numerous countries. They have a wealth of very useful insights to offer to help our trainees think strategically, learn, grow, improve and deepen their impact. We want them to make some lasting friends in the process. We hope that the experiences we provide can have a dynamo effect by transmission from our trainees to the business ecosystem in Bangladesh.
Q. What are some challenges you faced settting this up?
We continually seek to understand challenges of entrepreneurs, opportunity exists to keep in touch, get feedback. We are also expanding visibility, getting folks to support us with time, talent and monetary contributions. We want to scale these problems, and have a high ambition in terms of reach. We want to be more effective. We want people whom we can imagine down in 20 years who are successful and inspiring millions of other youths of Bangladesh. We want to find them early in the process. We want to teach them to be global citizens, and have a global impact
Q. What are your thoughts on the entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Bangladesh?
We think it is growing. SDasia, and people like Fayaz, Mustafizur and many others have clearly been very active and done a great job. It has come a long way. Entrepreneurs have better access to tools to build their business, to experienced mentors, and to each other. It could not be possible without people working tirelessly to build a community.
Q. What advice would you like to provide budding social entrepreneurs who are looking to apply for your program?
Anyone that is considering applying, should put some thought into the impact they are hoping to make. if they can communicate and explain the passion, it sets the tone. Need to have a long term vision. we want to have them paint a picture for us on what they see down the line in ten- fifteen years.