NZ’s Social Entrepreneurs School – making a difference

by Carroll Du Chateau / 27 October, 2012
Our first Social Entrepreneurs School is helping grass-roots people use their ideas and passions to build businesses.
NZ's Social Entrepreneurs School - students

Eleven students sit in a semi-circle in Room 113 in the new Ko Awatea Centre at Middlemore Hospital. They’re not patients, doctors or nurses, most wear jeans or baggy trousers, many are brown-faced and/or middle-aged and generally they’re a quiet, self-effacing bunch. It’s only when they get up and talk about their projects that you see the fire in their eyes. These are the foundation pupils of New Zealand’s first Social Entrepreneurs School – creative and independent citizens who are running small but exciting projects in their communities. All are making a difference by identifying a need and finding a way to fulfil it. Some are even making a living from their project. They are, however, short on business skills, which is why the school exists. The idea came from the UK and Australia, where for the past 20 years grass-roots innovation has been hailed as one of the keys to a successful society.

High-profile social entrepreneurs include Jamie Oliver and Richard Branson – people who got their ideas going first and found the money later. In India they’re called “barefoot entrepreneurs”. And everywhere, they are seen as one of the answers to the social problems that undermine communities. Chloe Waretini, one of the school’s first students, believes they will also be part of the solution to feeding a world that will soon have a population of nine billion. During a visit to Wellington in June, famed “barefoot entrepreneur” Sanjit “Bunker” Roy explained how he had helped uneducated and penniless social entrepreneurs, mostly grandmothers, transform the impoverished villages of India. Roy recruits illiterate women to his Barefoot College where, in a few months, they learn to install, fabricate and maintain solar systems to power their villages. They also learn to perfect age-old methods for collecting and conserving precious drinking water.

As Roy says, “It’s the people who live in these communities who have the answers. They also have the motivation to make things better.” New Zealand’s School for Social Entrepreneurs, which opened in March, is the brainchild of Auckland business consultant Faye Langdon and former Aucklander Justine Munro, a Rhodes scholar whose passion is “social innovation”. Although still a board member, Munro is now with Social Ventures Australia.


The school is run by Nicky Benson, who worked for the Body Shop in the 80s when it was owned by famed social campaigner Anita Roddick. As Benson explains, “What we’re doing here is helping grass roots people build businesses out of their ideas and passions: ‘Can I create something that enables me to meet my values, make a difference and make a living out of it?’” Although all students have scholarships, they must personally contribute $1500 towards their course. The curriculum is based on a successful UK programme where 85% of student enterprises are still operating after seven years, and each student creates an average of three jobs and seven volunteer positions. The first 64 Australian fellows have already collected $4 million in funding, created 79 jobs and 360 volunteer positions.

Students meet at Ko Awatea every Thursday for nine months for a full day of classes taught by a line-up of “expert witnesses”, who run successful ventures and offer immediately useful hands-on advice. Students also complete “action learning” modules in which their peers dig deep with questions, to help identify each project’s strengths and clarify its goals. Each student also has a mentor and business coach. But, Benson emphasises, “we’re not an incubator. We supply support and access to experts, but the students own and drive their own projects.” Today, they’re learning about the legal and financial hurdles involved in setting up a charity, company or co-op, from sports lawyer Maria Clarke. She stands there in her classy city suit and high heels and explains the pitfalls of not protecting themselves and their families from disaster should their project fail. A few of the students shift in their chairs, but most of them, in this supportive environment, look interested rather than nervous. Later, Benson will “help students make sense of their formal classes”, which is obviously a vital part of the process. Some didn’t finish high school, let alone get a degree.


Even this beautiful building, Ko Awatea, designed by Jasmax architects and finished and wired to the highest standard only last year, is a far cry from the smashed playgrounds of Manurewa that student Lua Maynard is hell-bent on cleaning up and delivering back to the community. Later, they’ll hear from disabilities campaigner Minnie Baragwanath. You’d never guess Baragwanath is legally blind as she sits in front of the students, blonde curls bobbing, reminding them of how important it is to consider the disabled when they plan their projects. Previously, social campaigner Dame Lesley Max, of Great Potentials, taught them about fund-raising, and former TVNZ presenter Susan Wood helped improve their presentation skills. All donate their time for free.

Deputy Prime Minister Bill English and Social Development Minister Paula Bennett have also backed the project, and encouraged the involvement of prominent business leaders such as former Air New Zealand boss Rob Fyfe and Telecom Retail head Chris Quin. Counties Manukau District Health Board chief Geraint Martin found a room for them at Ko Awatea. Martin sits in the centre’s open-plan cafe and talks about how he wants outcomes to be about “hard heads and high minds”. He wants this to be the place where debate takes place about how to transform health and social outcomes in South Auckland. “It’s all about connections. We should be joining the dots. These students will become alumni. They give back by coming in and talking to next year’s intake.”

Lighting up lives

For 40 years, Sanjit “Bunker” Roy has worked ceaselessly to improve the lives of penniless villagers. In 2010, he was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world. Although the son of wealthy parents, Roy decided to use his many gifts to help India’s poorest people. He started in the most remote, impoverished villages, helping those left behind after their children headed for cities. “They were living without light,” he says with agony in his voice. The core of his method is the Barefoot College, which he founded in 1972 in Tilonia, Rajasthan. “We trained grandmothers to be solar engineers,” he says. “They can only do sign language and in six months they’re more competent than any graduate after five years. People are looking at this bottom-up approach much more than [at] governments. Communities have the answers. They know what they need.”

After electrifying rural India, Bunker shifted his attention to Africa: “We trained 300 grandmothers. Now they’re the only solar engineers in Africa.” He believes that even unemployment can be solved by his solar strategy. “With solar lighting, people can start small businesses, and others come back,” he says. Now, he is focusing on the Pacific islands. In September, 20 grandmothers from seven or eight Pacific islands came to Barefoot College. “People need lighting, water, basic stuff. But we can’t do this alone,” he says. So far, his funding has come from the Indian Government, Chile, the UN and Unesco. “Now we’re looking for philanthropists interested in the Pacific.” His advice to New Zealanders wanting to solve social problems is to think laterally: “Offer something ‘out of the box’ that makes people think!”

The students


Leilua and her husband have turned around the lives of hundreds of disadvantaged children in Mt Roskill by running touch-rugby games and barbecues after school on Fridays. “There were six gangs in our area,” says Leilua. “Only four kids came at first; now we have 60 to 80 every week and six of them are playing for professional league teams.” They have since added music sessions on Wednesdays and a Homework Academy on Tuesdays, and what Leilua calls their “Global Lighthouse” provides support, training and achievement for hundreds of children. “They were struggling. There’s a lot of poverty, but not only from finance. What’s been lost are family values, culture and identity. The kids didn’t know who they were.”

What I’ve learnt: “How to clarify the vision and purpose of my project, then set up a structure to take it across all communities in New Zealand.”


When Waitakere was swallowed by Auckland’s super-city, Waretini was determined Mayor Bob Harvey’s Eco City would go out with a bang. With no money and buckets of enthusiasm, she and her hastily assembled group put together the brilliant Viva Waitakere Festival of 2010, which is now an annual fixture. But Waretini wants to achieve more than that. Her latest project is an “edible food forest” for Westies. Still roughly attached to the festival and still following its “eco” principles, the forest will be a designed eco-system with all the necessary elements: canopies, sub-canopies and a microbial layer, combined with the restoration of a local creek. “That’ll make our cities really healthy places to live and keep the community engaged with local reserves.”

What I’ve learnt: “To hold the vision myself, but also bring a team around me. That was the key to allowing the project to grow.”


The first garden for their project, Plant Medicine Waiheke Island, is already thick with chamomile, plantain, red clover and other medicinal plants – most of them wild – and plans for more community-planted and worked gardens are under way. The pair are also making and selling their first vinegar and medicinal plant products and plan to expand that side into a community project. An Ayurvedic practitioner as well as a plant medicine specialist, Bostock runs a natural health clinic and teaches clients how to use medicinal plants to keep themselves healthy. The next step is to help them make their own remedies and set up a residential retreat for people “who want to turn their health around”. She’s constantly shocked at how much highly processed food teenagers eat and at the number of young people especially who have no idea of the medicinal properties of common plants. With Bostock focusing on medicines and Young in charge of the raw ingredients, the couple make a great partnership. “A lot of what we do is preventative health,” says Young. “My passion is the weeds and the natives, which have incredible potential.”

What we’ve learnt: “The value of networking and collaborating with other passionate and creative students and tutors; learning how to create a business plan.”


After a career that includes working for Maori Affairs, Auckland City Council and ACC, Thompson is facing her biggest challenge: creating a new cultural centre and marae for Glen Innes. Thompson, one of 15 children of a Maori mother and Scottish father, has lived in Glen Innes since she was a child, and knows her community well. “We were one of the first families that settled into GI in the 1950s.” She has been working at Ruapotaka marae for 13 years. “It’s right in the shopping centre, the hub of GI,” she says. The new marae will sleep 200 and have a cultural centre that includes housing for the elderly and emergency housing, plus a health and well-being centre. “The beauty of it is that it answers a lot of our social problems. We also want to train our own people to build the marae and surrounding hub.” But before building begins, Thompson has to get community buy-in. “I’m working with stakeholders and investors, collaborating with the ministries of Health and Education and Housing New Zealand, arguing that for Maori it’s a good idea. But the cultural side is very hard.” What I’ve learnt: “School’s the lifeline that helps me focus on the ever-changing goal ahead. Learning about legal structures was helpful.”


Maynard is Samoan, but with a difference. Because he has lived in Los Angeles most of his life, he has brought a fresh attitude to the social problems of South Auckland. “I came down when my mother was ill and decided to stay on after she died in 2007,” he says in his soft American accent, with his baseball cap facing backwards and a white “anti-violence against women” ribbon pinned to his XL T-shirt. “People were graffiti-ing everything, making our parks into dangerous places, smashing the beautiful new glass bus shelters.” His project is to transform Manukau’s parks into places where people feel safe. “We’re not talking about swings and slides,” he says. “We want equipment like exercise machines where teens can let off energy and [where] older folks can relax.” Maynard, who also runs men’s groups and sits on a family violence committee, says most men with problems are in denial, blaming everybody else. “A lot of young people don’t value what’s around them. It’s best to involve them right from the beginning.” He’s pitching his idea to youngsters, trying to enthuse them. “‘Here, man, these are the open spaces in our community. Let’s clean them up, put up some hoops and have fun!’ I see them being part of the people who’ll maintain the parks.”

What I’ve learnt: “The importance of a legal structure and business plan. Trying to move forward without them is like driving with a blindfold and no steering wheel.”
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