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YouthActionNet Blog

What Writing a Case Study on a Youth-led Venture Taught Me About Grassroots Change

Rushika Shekhar | May 16, 2017
Student participants of UniTED

When I first heard about the International Youth Foundation’s work to support and expand the impact of youth-led social ventures, I was excited to learn more about the successes and challenges faced by budding social entrepreneurs around the world. Through IYF’s University Connect program, my classmates and I at Georgetown University’s Global Human Development Program were partnered with YouthActionNet Fellows to develop case studies on their enterprises. After reading about each of the entrepreneurs and the work they are doing to address some of the world’s most difficult challenges, I was blown away by their determination and passion and how much they had accomplished at such young ages.

I was lucky to be partnered with Leo Henghes, founder of UniTED, an organization working to build the capacity of Ugandan youth to become social entrepreneurs. I was struck by how similar the goals of UniTED were with those of YouthActionNet. Leo has designed a curriculum that supports university students in developing the entrepreneurial skillset needed to bring a social enterprise from initial ideation to fruition.

As a student at Oxford University, Leo initiated a program for conducting student exchanges with university students in Uganda. He saw the potential for university students to gain exposure to students in other countries and work in collaboration to address global challenges. Part of UniTED’s mission became partnering Ugandan youth with university students in other countries to jointly develop enterprises while gaining exposure to different mindsets and cultures.

Working with Leo to develop a case study on UniTED, I was impressed by the potential of the venture and amazed by how much Leo has managed to accomplish with limited resources and staff. Toward the end of our practicum, my classmates and I presented our case studies. It was remarkable to see the commonalities of experiences across the Fellows, despite vastly different focus areas, geographies, and target populations.

I was struck by how similar the challenges faced by different entrepreneurs are. This strengthened my belief in how much potential impact organizations like IYF and UniTED can have in providing budding social entrepreneurs the right support at the right time.

Through my University Connect experience, I saw that some of the most common challenges youth-led grassroots social ventures face are:

1. Building operational sustainability

While the passion and drive of each social entrepreneur was one of the most impressive qualities of their enterprises, this sometimes ended up being a limitation in ensuring the organization’s operational sustainability. Many of the enterprises were solely reliant on one individual or a small group of individuals, putting pressure on the entrepreneurs themselves to dedicate all their energy toward keeping the organization running. Many entrepreneurs invested their own savings and spent years building up their organizations, but were challenged in building teams and ensuring the organization could function without them at the helm.

2. Diversifying funding mechanisms

As with many social ventures, ensuring diverse, reliable, long-term funding mechanisms was a consistent challenge for the youth-led ventures my class worked with. It was striking how many entrepreneurs reported that the amount of time they spend fundraising is a challenge and limitation in delivering programs effectively.

Having worked in international development for several years, I’ve seen that even the largest organizations continue to face the same challenges. Seeing how much time entrepreneurs had to invest in fundraising made me wonder if organizations supporting social enterprises could do more to help streamline funding sources and free up organizations’ time and resources to focus more on program delivery.

3. Strengthening evaluation metrics

As a graduate student studying development, I am always learning about rigorous evaluations and the importance of ensuring evidence-based decision-making. It was a valuable reality check to work with real social entrepreneurs and understand some of the limitations they experience in implementing rigorous program evaluations on the ground.

Many organizations simply do not have the resources or capacity to develop comprehensive evaluation plans—and unless there is pressure from donors to do so, there is little incentive to divert precious resources that could be used for delivering programs into evaluations. It was interesting to think about how to build both the capacity for and motivation for comprehensive evaluations in social ventures.

Working with YouthActionNet Fellows was a great way for my classmates and I to take what we were learning in our classes and apply it to very real settings, giving us a reality check on our theoretical understanding of international development. Seeing the commonalities of the challenges faced by social entrepreneurs around the world, I am encouraged by the potential of initiatives like YouthActionNet and UniTED to increase the impact of youth-led social ventures doing such important work.

Rushika Shekhar is a master’s student in Georgetown University’s Global Human Development Program. Previously, Rushika worked with various international development programs focusing on health, education, and gender equity in Asia and Africa. Rushika is originally from Singapore and has a BA in International Affairs from Northeastern University.