Tibetan Social Enterprise Lab Fellows
This past month, twelve entrepreneurs from the Tibetan Plateau in Western China have been immersed in an intensive learning experience in the San Francisco Bay Area. They were selected as the first group of Fellows in a new program called the Tibetan Social Enterprise Lab. This program was created to help Tibetan entrepreneurs build their business skills and make connections with the Bay Area social enterprise community so that they can start or expand their own social enterprises on the Tibetan Plateau.
The Fellows spent their first two weeks on the Stanford campus attending classes, meeting with teachers and students, and developing their business models. Some have well-defined ideas and are in full business start-up mode, while others are at a very early stage, exploring the potential of social enterprise as an alternative to a charity giving model. They are starting product businesses –selling yak dairy products, solar cookers, baked goods, and traditional artisan products, and service businesses –providing digital medial skills training, eco-travel services or vocational training.
Sharon Miller, CEO of Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center connected me with the program, knowing of my long-standing interest in the Himalayan region and Tibetan culture. I got the chance to attend one of their mentor evenings on the Stanford campus, listening to the Fellows “pitch” their business ideas and sharing feedback in one of their “mastermind” sessions.
These young entrepreneurs face challenges unique to the Tibetan Plateau – including extreme weather conditions and limited local markets (one Fellow plans to start a farm-to-table farm business but must figure out how to get his products to the nearest farmers’ market—a seven-hour drive away). Yet as I learned about their ideas and projects, it was clear that they also face some of the same challenges as entrepreneurs everywhere.
Fellows visiting La Cocina
During the last two weeks of the program, the Fellows visited Bay Area small businesses and social enterprises. I gave them a tour and overview of Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center and we talked about the Renaissance approach—a business planning model within a supportive environment, with teams of advisers and peer-to-peer support. We discussed some of the many Renaissance graduate food and product businesses where they might seek direction and mentorship, such as Cheryl Burr of Pinkie’s Bakery, Judi Henderson of Mannequin Madness, Jackie Huang of Woolbuddy, Eloisa Serrano of Bay Thread, Heidi Gibson of The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen and Neil Gottlieb of Three Twins Ice Cream. We specifically talked about the importance of getting hands-on advice and specific direction from other small business owners. The Fellows then visited Renaissance graduates Laurie Kanes of 12 Small Things and Rachel Saunders of Blue Chair Fruit Company, as well as La Cocina and other Bay Area social enterprises.
I believe that mentorship and support from other business owners is key to small business success and is just as important as training in business planning, budgeting, evaluation metrics, and market research. By hearing success stories and lessons learned directly from other business owners, and getting questions answered by people who operate businesses every day, new entrepreneurs can tangibly see what it means to start and run a small business.
As so many of us know, being a small business owner is a job like no other. It can be incredibly rewarding but also potentially isolating. In this virtual age, though, these Tibetan entrepreneurs have the opportunity to create lasting relationships with the people they met during the program and most importantly with each other. With peer support from the Fellowship cohort and support from advisers (ideally other small business owners), these young entrepreneurs will be able to stay focused on their goals, put their plans into action, and ultimately create positive economic and social change in their communities. I look forward to staying in touch with all of them!