Not so long ago, my grandfather and I visited East Timor, a Southeast Asia country often plagued by militia violence. Through a large window above my hotel’s all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet, I could see women and children in a refugee camp across the street — displaced by violence. The stark contrast transformed my future. I walked outside and began to listen.
We spoke with Ben Lyon, the founder of FrontlineSMS:Credit*, a non-profit focused on micro-financing. After his experience in the East Timor hotel, his passion, drive and motivation to help those in need brought him back to Africa, only this time, with a plan of action. In fact, when we spoke with Ben, he was in Uganda promoting FrontlineSMS:Credit with an operational budget of less than $1,000 budget.
Ben, like many social entrepreneurs, merge passion with business savvy to make meaningful impact on the world. Like many of his peers, took his academic background in economics (with a focus on micro-finance) and merged it with his passion to improve the lives of others. He and a team of driven entrepreneurs launched, FrontlineSMS:Credit.
Only around a year and a half after establishing FronlineSMS:Credit the non-profit has connected with regional partners throughout Central & South America, Sub- Saharan Africa, North Africa & the Middle East, and Asia & Pacific. We’ll discuss the many challenges and rewards of FrontlineSMS:Credit and social entrepreneurship with Ben.
What motivated you to become an entrepreneur?
Life-changing experiences are pervasive among social entrepreneurs. For Blake Mycoskie, his trip to South America as a contestant on the Amazing Race, sparked the idea for TOMS Shoes — a non-profit shoe company that gives a pair of shoes for every pair sold. For Ben, it was his trip to East Timor that began his quest for the other bottom line — or people at the bottom of the economic pyramid.
Typically, entrepreneurs are seasoned industry veterans, which has many benefits. As a recent college grad, what advice can you give other young entrepreneurs?
Age can have some impact, depending on your field. For instance, the tech industry is built by young, cutting edge programmers and developers, while in micro-finance, you’re selling your idea to engineers, venture capitalists and governments — much more challenging if you’re a “young whippersnapper,” says Ben. At the end of the day, age plays a very minor role. “You have to be aware of it and at times it requires finesse, but it shouldn’t dictate what you can and cannot do.”
There is also a lot of on-the-job learning. “While I have my BA, I’m learning my MBA on the job,” says Ben. “You make a lot of mistakes, but it’s your ability to be ahead of the learning curve that will ultimately make you successful.” For instance, he did not start out with a comprehensive plan of action nor was he trained how to pitch to a venture capitalist.
Like all small businesses, there are challenges of getting off the ground with limited resources. What challenges did you face and how did you overcome them?
“For FrontlineSMS, we have had such tremendous support for our message and through the efforts of our passionate team, we have been able to overcome a lot of financial hurdles.” Non-profits need to sign-on inspired, passionate high-caliber people who will fight for the mission. FrontlineSMS’s team is comprised of volunteers or paid through sweat equity. It is through their efforts that FrontlineSMS can function with an operational budget of less than $1,000. “While today we are essentially working for free, someday we will be able to put groceries on the table.”
Any last advice for emerging entrepreneurs?
Entrepreneurship is a learning process. You have to be a learning organization and change with the constantly evolving market. While your organization might evolve, always keep your mind on the long-term objective. “As we have learned more about urban environments, we have changed our strategy. One thing you can never sacrifice is your message.”
*Ben Lyon is raising money for FrontlineSMS:Credit at the Unreasonable Institute. We encourage you to read Ben and his team’s profile and contribute to his cause.