19 Aug 2015
Empowering Social Sector Leaders

Veronika Scott is the founder and CEO of The Empowerment Plan, an organization that provides job training and education to homeless women in Detroit. Catalina Escobar Restrepo runs the Juan Felipe Gomez Escobar Foundation, which helps lower infant mortality rates and improve the quality of life of adolescent mothers in and around Cartagena, Colombia.

Though separated by many miles, the two women and their organizations have much in common. They are positively impacting society by empowering others, each has met with great success and received numerous awards (such as a John F. Kennedy New Frontier award and a CNN Hero award, respectively), and they are now focusing on how to scale their efforts. Both Scott and Escobar cite the Strategic Perspectives in Nonprofit Management (SPNM) executive education program at Harvard Business School (HBS) as being critical in helping them to make strategic decisions that will further grow and deepen their impact.

SPNM is a weeklong program sponsored by the HBS Social Enterprise Initiative that brings together more than 150 nonprofit leaders from around the world each year. Participants spend the week in a cohort of approximately 75, partaking in large group plenary sessions, small consultative workshops, industry group meetings, and networking opportunities. Harvard faculty lead SPNM attendees through rigorous case studies, interactive lectures, and exercises tailored to developing the unique leadership skillsets required of nonprofit executive directors and CEOs.

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“At HBS, we are committed to our mission to educate leaders who make a difference in the world,” says Matt Segneri (MBA 2010), Director of the Social Enterprise Initiative. “Nonprofit leaders are tackling some of society’s toughest problems. Over the past twenty years, we have brought together more than 2,300 nonprofit Executive Directors and CEOs to explore how they can lead their organizations more effectively. We want these executives to be well-equipped with the strategies and tools they need to take their leadership to the next level.”

Segneri notes that SPNM is consistently oversubscribed and garners rave reviews from attendees in post-program evaluations. And, he says, ”we routinely hear from past participants that SPNM had a transformative impact on them and their organizations. Even more than what happens in the classroom, it’s what happens back in their communities, that makes us so proud of this program.”

The Empowerment Plan

Veronika Scott
Veronika Scott launched The Empowerment Plan in 2010 as a 20-year-old art student, after designing a water-resistant and self-heating coat that transforms easily into a sleeping bag. Her organization distributes these coats to homeless individuals to help them cope with inclement weather and estimates that for every 1,000 coats they distribute, they can save 14 lives and reduce healthcare costs by $58,800 annually. In just five years, the organization has grown to serve 30 states, five Canadian provinces, and has provided assistance in disaster relief situations all over the world. Building on the success of the coat distribution, Scott realized the organization could offer more robust support to those that they were serving. Today, the Empowerment Plan employs homeless single parents and trains them in sewing and manufacturing to produce the coats, providing job opportunities and training to people who need it.

“We’re one of the few organizations that serve the homeless community in the way that we do,” Scott said. “It’s taken a lot of hard work and dedication. I went to art school and studied design and have no business background. So the chance to go to Harvard Business School and take part in the SPNM program was amazing because I was able to sit with founders of organizations much larger than my own, as well as talented faculty, and gain deep insights into the social sector and how to grow and strengthen our efforts.”

Scott’s timing was fortuitous, since she had just finished The Empowerment Plan’s five-year strategic plan before arriving on the HBS campus. That allowed her to use the SPNM program as a workshop, studying the plan through the lenses of different readings and case studies and improving it in real time with the help of faculty and participants. The combination of collaboration and reflection helped Scott realize that her organization needed to do a better job of soliciting feedback from the people it served. In addition, a session based on the book Uncommon Sense, coauthored by HBS professor Frances Frei, made it clear that, despite the best of intentions, no organization can be good at everything and must reconcile itself to that reality if it wants to continuously improve.

“The professors in the program set an amazing tone, and it was inspiring to see so many executives there taking time to reinvest in themselves and their organizations,” Scott said. “The program was hugely beneficial not only to our strategic plan but to our employees. When I get back, I’m starting a book club so that our entire staff can benefit from what we studied here. I also want to implement a questionnaire for our customers and employees to enhance our feedback and responsiveness. Those are two simple things, but they’re going to inform so much of what we can and should be doing.”

The Juan Felipe Gomez Escobar Foundation

Catalina Escobar Restrepo
In 2000, business executive Catalina Escobar became interested in improving her home country’s healthcare system. Specifically, she was working in and concerned about maternity wards in her native Colombia, facilities that saw high rates of teen pregnancy and infant mortality. The importance of her mission became clear when an infant died in her arms in one of Cartagena’s largest hospitals, a death she later learned could have been prevented with 30 dollars’ worth of medication that the child’s mother did not have. Her own focus on infant mortality became personal shortly thereafter when Escobar’s 16-month-old son, Juan Felipe, died after falling from a balcony in her home in October.

“It’s a painful story,” Escobar said in recalling that year. “But it has also become a beautiful story of transformation. I made a decision to dedicate my life and my work to whatever I could to better humanity.”

Following her son’s death, Escobar decided she had no time to waste. By the beginning of 2001, she was already studying the healthcare landscape and figuring out how to formalize her efforts. She started the Juan Felipe Gomez Escobar (JuanFe) Foundation, with an initial interest in bettering infant mortality rates in the city of Cartagena, which then had the worst record in all of Colombia (a figure ten times the U.S. average). Though still working through her grief, Escobar managed to build the foundation from the ground up through fundraising and networking. In eight years’ time, it helped reduce the total infant mortality rate in Cartagena by 80 percent by targeting one hospital.

“In Colombia, most nonprofits are charities,” Escobar said. “Their staffs don’t usually have managerial skills or formal business education. So I knew I had something to offer. I studied the social sector, learning the vocabulary and the metrics, and knew I wanted to take the Millennium Development Goals and put them into action to make the situation right. We were able to save 4,000 children in those first eight years.”

Inspired by that early success, Escobar expanded her foundation to tackle the countrywide problem of teen pregnancy, a large contributing factor to maternity ward overcrowding and infant mortality. The foundation now works with thousands of teen mothers, helping them begin or resume their education and employment, and has a 175,000-foot facility that sees 800 to 900 clients every day.

“I was meeting women who were grandmothers at 26 years of age,” Escobar recalled. “It is an all-too-typical problem in poor parts of Latin America. I knew we needed not only to stop that problem, but effect changes in public policy. We needed a model that would break the cycle of poverty and teen motherhood, one that was replicable, scalable, and sustainable. The social and political costs of not doing something are enormous.”

Judging by its growth, the JuanFe Foundation is making progress in enacting such a model. But because the Foundation has been growing so quickly and tackling such systemic issues, Escobar has had to learn and adjust on the fly. That is part of why she applied to attend the SPNM program at HBS this summer. It gave her a chance to step back and reassess where her organization is headed and how it can achieve its mission even more effectively.

“I’ve long been inspired by this quotation: to move the world, first move yourself,” Escobar said. “The SPNM program was important because it made me rethink whether or not the work we’re doing is moving us toward achieving high performance and having a greater impact on society. At the end of every day at HBS, I would call my executive team in Bogota and say, ‘Today’s case studies in class showed me that we’re doing these things right, but we need to rethink our strategy in other areas.’ The lessons that were packed into one week helped us figure out how we can be more focused in our efforts moving forward. And I’m very grateful for that.”

About the Social Enterprise Initiative:
The Social Enterprise Initiative at HBS applies innovative business practices and managerial disciplines to drive sustained, high-impact social change. It's grounded in the mission of Harvard Business School and aims to inspire, educate, and support leaders across all sectors to solve society’s toughest challenges and make a difference in the world. Since 1993, HBS faculty have researched and written over 800 social enterprise books, cases and teaching notes. Today, more than 90 faculty members engage in research projects, course development, and other activities. Research forums and conferences sponsored by the Social Enterprise Initiative have examined a wide range of topics, including Nonprofit Strategy, Business Leadership in the Social Sector, Consumer-Driven Healthcare, Global Poverty, and Public Education.

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