The following is a conversation between Devin Hibbard, the Founder and CEO of the Street Business School, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.
Denver: Street business school, SBS, trains women to launch microbusinesses, gain confidence, and leave poverty behind. But how do you provide training in the midst of a pandemic? And what can you do to achieve rapid global expansion of this model? To find that out and more, it’s a pleasure to have with us Devin Hibbard, the founder and CEO of the Street Business School.
Welcome to The Business of Giving, Devin!
Devin: Thank you, Denver. Happy to be here.
Denver: The founding story of what was to become the Street Business School started in Islam, in Uganda, when you met a woman by the name of Millie Grace. Share with us that story.
Devin: Millie Grace was a woman, a Ugandan woman, who had fled from Northern Uganda with her five children from a rebel group called the Lord’s Resistance Army. And I met her one day while I was walking through this slum community, and she was sitting on the front step of her house with strips of paper. And I stopped to ask her what she was doing, and it turned out she was making beads… beaded jewelry out of recycled paper, Denver. And she told me her whole story, which is that she had fled from this conflict where children were being kidnapped to become child soldiers.
She had taken her children and come to Kampala, this little slum, but they had no jobs. And so, the entire family, she and her five children would sit in the hot sun every day and pound rocks into pebbles to sell into the road construction business, earning about 65 cents a day. She had learned to make this jewelry, but she had no markets for it. And that was the story that we learned on that day.
Denver: And where did it go from there?
Devin: We thought that the jewelry that she had was beautiful, so we bought some and found that people loved it. And we thought: How can there be no markets when people are asking us every day about these beautiful items?
And so, we went back, and we met Millie and about 100 other women in that community, and we bought their jewelry and we brought them back to the United States. And out of that, an organization called BeadforLife was born.
Denver: There you go. And that was really the start of SBS. I know that they have just sunsetted BeadforLife, but they really got this off in a wonderful direction.
Devin, what are some of the proven strategies to help women living in poverty increase their income?
Devin: We have found that there’s two really important components. One is that – when you’re teaching women living in extreme poverty, you have to understand the conditions that they’re living in. Many, many of the women that we serve are not literate, for example. They never had a chance to finish even primary school education. And so, the style of learning has to be something that is very interactive and engaging, that helps women get concepts, as one of our trainers in Uganda says, that they can use tomorrow.
So, we don’t teach anything that’s theoretical. We don’t teach anything that is hard to wrap your head around. And we have distilled the concepts of business training, things like: How do you identify a market opportunity? How do you build customer loyalty? How do you do bookkeeping if you are not literate? And so, we’ve taken those things, and we’ve made them really accessible. So, I think that’s one important component.
The second that we believe is absolutely critical is to help women believe in themselves. Because so many of the women we serve, they’ve never had anyone in their life saying, “You can do it. We believe in you.” And so, they don’t come into our training as entrepreneurs, thinking of themselves as entrepreneurs. They don’t say, “Wow, I’ve got a great idea. I’m going to go start a business!” And so, a big piece of what we do is we help them believe in themselves. And those two pieces together have proven to be very sustainable tools to help women lift themselves out of poverty.
At the end of six months, we know that women have increased their income about 54%. So women coming into our program start at about $1.35 a day; six months later, they’ve increased 54%.
Denver: That’s so interesting. And the first thing you said, it reminded me of El Sistema – the music theory of teaching where there is nothing theoretical, and you get these kids and you play an instrument, and in no time, you’re getting feedback on: that sounds pretty good. None of these notes and clefs and things of that sort, but that’s what keeps people going. They see that improvement, and then they go from there.
So, let’s get into this training. How does SBS, that’s Street Business School, how does it work? Who’s admitted? How long is the program? And what do women come out of after completing it?
Devin: So we’re really serving women who are living in extreme poverty, defined by the World Bank as $1.90 a day. We are targeting those women who really are struggling every single day to meet their basic needs, to feed their children, to educate their children, to provide housing, to provide healthcare. So that’s the demographic that we serve. We are going out and recruiting women into our program in different communities and enrolling them in a six-month program.
Over those six months, Denver, we teach them eight different modules of business training. They’re about three hours each, and they’re taught in the local language and in the local community. So, they’re not coming to… traveling across town to a fancy office building with computers. No. Sometimes it’s under the tree in their community, or in their local community center, or in the local church or somebody’s house.
In that six months, they’re also going to get three visits one-on-one. We call these mentoring visits, and that’s really interaction that’s intended to help women believe in themselves, build their confidence. We also bring in a lot of alumni to tell their story because there’s nothing like seeing someone else that looks just like you, that’s in the circumstance that you’re in, and now they’ve got a couple of businesses, and they’re doing really well. And that’s really when you see women sit up straight and say, “Wow, if that lady can do it, then maybe I can do it.”
And at the end of six months, we know that women have increased their income about 54%. So, women coming into our program start at about $1.35 a day; six months later, they’ve increased 54%. But we care a lot about sustainability, and we want to know once they’ve graduated, if they fall right back into poverty, that’s not success in our book. And so, we actually go back two years later to evaluate what that impact is, and what we see two years out is that 89% of women still have a business, at least one. About 46% actually have two or more businesses, so they’ve diversified. And we know that women have gone to an average of about $4.19 a day. That means that their families are now above the global poverty line.
And $4.19 cents a day doesn’t sound like a lot to you and me, Denver, but in a community where you are living in extreme poverty, what that now means is kids are eating three meals a day. They’re all in school. The whole family is getting access to healthcare when they need it. So, it’s pretty transformational in the life of a family.
Denver: Life-changing! You talked about 89% of those women having a business two years later. Let me ask you this: What’s been the impact of COVID? I’m sure it is hitting women entrepreneurs more so than men entrepreneurs. What have you seen from that?
Devin: Yes. COVID has erased years of progress against global poverty. So, I just heard a report that the World Bank thinks between something like 115 million and 130 million people are going to be pushed back into extreme poverty because of the economic fallout of COVID. And we know that those impacts are disproportionately hitting women, that many people who are in extreme poverty now have been forced into poverty because they’ve lost a low-wage job. That means that they’re going to have to survive in the informal sector because those jobs are likely not coming back in the next months or a year. And we know that entrepreneurship is one of the remedies to address those issues.
And so, we have been leaning in as hard as we can in this past year to try and reach more women. And through our partner network, we have more than a hundred partners in 22 countries to help them reach more people in their communities, as well as a response to COVID-19.
Denver: Well, you said there is nothing more resilient than a woman entrepreneur, right?
Devin: That’s right! I truly believe that.
In our model of social franchising, we find those local organizations, often led by a person from that community, and we basically partner with them to embed our proven curriculum, our proven program, into their work to help them amplify their own mission. And they bring the expertise and customization needed for the local community. And this is how we’ve been able to scale to 22 countries today.
Denver: Well, an innovative business model that is helping SBS achieve rapid global expansion is something called social franchising. Tell us what that is and how it works.
Devin: Social franchising is really just taking a page from the business world. You think of a franchise like McDonald’s, a proven product that is licensed to other business owners to implement in their own communities. Social franchising is doing that for social good.
So, when Street Business School looked at the ways to expand our proven model and help far more women rise out of poverty, we knew that we didn’t want to self-replicate. That going to a new country and renting an office and hiring a team and buying a vehicle – it just didn’t feel like the most cost-efficient way to scale. And more than that, we knew that we were experts in economic capacity building for women in Uganda, but we didn’t know the local situation in Ethiopia or Cambodia. And so, the idea of partnering with a local partner who had that expertise seemed like a faster and more effective way to hit our goals.
So, in our model of social franchising, we find those local organizations, often led by a person from that community, and we basically partner with them to embed our proven curriculum, our proven program, into their work to help them amplify their own mission. And they bring the expertise and customization needed for the local community. And this is how we’ve been able to scale to 22 countries today.
Seeing poverty eradication as a tool to achieve the other goals is a really important part of our work.
Denver: Amazing. And you don’t call them franchisees; I think you called them “global catalyst partners,” which is a little bit more fitting. Give us an example of one of those NGO partners in these 22 countries that have worked with you and how it has amplified their mission as well as yours.
Devin: So we have many, many amazing partners, but I’ll tell you about one. It’s a group named Kesho Kenya. They are located on the coast of Kenya in a town called Kilifi, and this organization has historically worked on children’s education. So, they have had to raise money year after year in order to provide kids with a quality education.
When they saw Street Business School, they realized that instead of having to raise funds every year to educate children, they could train some of their staff in Street Business School, and those staff members could go and speak to the mothers of the children who they’re serving. The moms now have been able to start businesses and generate income so that now the mothers are contributing to the fees of their children.
So, it’s created dramatic sustainability for Kesho Kenya. Now, they’re having to raise less money for scholarships for the same children, and it’s been able to support their community in a new way. So, they’re now expanding their reach and fulfilling their mission because they’ve been able to add this program in. They’ve actually now sent, I think, six staff members back to Street Business School to become certified because they’ve seen the impact of helping women start small ventures in their community.
And that’s just one story in our partner network, Denver. We actually have mapped the organizations and the sectors that they’re working in against the Sustainable Development Goals. And collectively, our partners are addressing 16 of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. So, seeing poverty eradication as a tool to achieve the other goals is a really important part of our work.
Denver: Great story. What are some of the challenges or downsides, if you will, of the social franchisee model?
Devin: I’m a pretty big evangelist for this model. I think it makes a lot of sense. So, I have not seen as many downsides. Some people, I think, would say that you are not controlling every aspect of the training because you’re not implementing it yourself. I don’t think that that’s a downside because I don’t believe there’s a one-size-fits-all solution to poverty. These people who think that there’s a widget that they can scale all around the world and make a difference… I just think the context and the culture is so important. And so, I actually think this is a strength of social franchising because it really allows for it to look a little bit different in Kilifi than it looks in Uganda.
Denver: Yes. You can really have that local customization and address the culture and all those other elements.
Devin: I would say one challenge that we run into is just finding new partners. When we find those partners, they’re like, “Oh, this is amazing! We really want this.” But because we’ve been a small organization based in Uganda for many years, raising our global profile so we can find those partners who are looking for something like this — that has been one area there that we are still growing.
Denver: We talked about your program – the six months, the eight modules, the three sessions, et cetera. What have you had to do with anything during the pandemic to pivot and deliver that model in these times that we’re living?
Devin: This has been a year of absolute change in evolution, Denver. We have not stood still one second. So we have seen an enormous amount of evolution. Here’s a couple examples: This year, traditionally we have trained partner organizations in person in an eight-day immersion workshop. This year, we launched our first-ever virtual training, and that is an eight-week course that covers similar material that is delivered over Zoom. So that’s been actually incredible because what it’s allowed us to do is to reach partners that maybe never could travel to Uganda and to broaden our reach. So that’s one innovation that we’ve launched.
In the early days of COVID in Uganda, the government instituted a lockdown. People’s businesses closed overnight. And so, one of the things that we did is we started sourcing “COVID-proof businesses,” we called them. So, what are the kinds of businesses that people could pivot to during the time of COVID that they could run out of their house? And we shared those both with our alumni in Uganda that we serve directly, but also through our partnership network. So, that was an innovation.
And then we’ve also launched a phone training course where we are actually delivering our training in small groups over the phone. So instead of sitting around and waiting for people to be able to gather again, we’ve taken our curriculum and we’ve adapted it in ways that we can just keep going. And actually, it’s helped us reach more women in this year than we’ve ever reached in the past.
Denver: Which leads me to my next question. What do you think the impact of that is going to be on the way global development programs are delivered in the future?
Devin: I think you’re seeing two big impacts. One is that many organizations have taken their trainings online… or their services online, which I think is beneficial to expanding the reach. However, I think that a lot of organizations just threw up what they did in person and now it’s online, and it’s really poor quality. The art of delivering a training online and making it sticky and engaging and fun, and helping people… understanding how people learn and playing to that is not the same as delivering it in person face-to-face.
And so, I think that although there’s more material available, that it might be poor quality, except for those organizations that have really taken time to understand how to deliver effectively through a new medium. That is one of the things we actually… we took six months before we launched our online training. We didn’t just put it up the following week. We wanted to make sure that it was really customized to being able to work on a virtual platform.
Denver: Would there be a generalized tip that you could pass along in terms of how you’re doing it differently from what you would do in person?
And I’ve seen this so often, particularly with board meetings. All the organizations, when they put on their first board meeting, they did their board meeting online, and it was a disaster. And they recognized that they really had to make it completely different, much shorter, and the rest of it. I’m just wondering if you’ve picked up anything you could pass along in terms of a word of advice.
Devin: One of the things about Street Business School training in person is that it is just like our work with women directly. We understand that the relationship is a core piece of people’s buy-in, of people’s engagement. And so, our entire training is focused on: How do you create opportunities for that relationship to deepen and grow, and for us to believe in our partners and them to believe in us, and for us to see that we are in this together? And we have taken that same principle and embedded it into our virtual training.
And so, our virtual training is like nothing you’ve probably ever experienced. We are dancing together. We have a prize wheel. There are games. There are activities. We really worked hard to see that we could,… and we piloted it and we evaluated it.. What we found is that people are willing to play with us. They’re willing to engage with us in the same way that they do when we’re in person. And that’s been a really important learning for us because we think that that’s pretty core to the stickiness of the knowledge in an ongoing way.
So, I would say to anybody who’s thinking about this – How do you make your training stand out? It’s got to look different. It can’t just be the same old, boring people talking at you. So we use a lot of interactive activities, some offline stuff. So, it’s been a pretty cool process, learning how we take that pedagogy and still make it effective in a virtual format.
I believe that there’s a lot of organizations that are doing nice-sounding work that are not driving true impact, and I think that that’s criminal to be spending resources if you’re not actually moving the needle for people living in poverty. There’s so much need out there.
Denver: Very cool. You can’t be afraid. You have to take some risks on this because some of it’s going to go flat, but you have to do that to really get people going.
You talked a little bit about this before, Devin, but I know that you guys are very obsessive about measuring your impact, both of the programs you do directly, but also of those NGO partners. You just came out with a report fairly recently. Share with us another highlight or two from that report.
Devin: So you’re right. I believe that there’s a lot of organizations that are doing nice-sounding work that are not driving true impact, and I think that that’s criminal to be spending resources if you’re not actually moving the needle for people living in poverty. There’s so much need out there.
So, we are obsessed with not just helping women be confident and believe in themselves, but also creating brass tacks material change in their lives in terms of increased income and all the things that benefit them. And we want to know in our social franchise model, that that impact has trickled through to our partners.
So, we evaluate our partners. We actually, as part of our training, give them a tablet or smartphone-based monitoring and evaluation tools to streamline their recording process so they know how it’s going in their community. And also, when they upload that data, it syncs to a global dashboard that we can see as well. And what we see is that our partners are tracking very closely in change in income. They actually start at a little bit lower level; just over a dollar is the average beneficiary… is the average human being trained. And that they’re seeing a similar increase in income as we see in our direct implementation. So that’s pretty important data that we track in an ongoing way.
Denver: I thought one of the coolest things I saw was that SBS Impact Tracker.
Devin: Yes. Yes. That is this tablet-based system. And the amazing thing about that is that each partner has a license to look at their own data. They can use it for program innovation. They can use it for donor reporting. They can use it for new grant writing. So, it’s really an asset to them.
But also, it allows us to track the network in real time across 22 countries. And so as soon as Evans in Kilifi from Kesho Kenya uploads his data, we see it. It feeds into our network, and we’re able to track: OK. How’s the network doing? Who’s overperforming? Who’s underperforming? How can we step in and provide more support if needed? So it’s a pretty powerful tool that we’re proud of.
Denver: All in real time. If I have your fiscal year right, you’re coming up upon your End Strong Campaign. Tell us about that, and how is it going?
Devin: Yes, we are. So our End Strong campaign, we run it in June, and it really is about helping us end our fiscal year strong. It’s an opportunity for our supporters and our network to stand with us. One of the amazing things this year, Denver, is that we have had a really incredible response from our community to help us lean in during this time, to do more, to allow us to be bold to meet the challenges of COVID.
And as the hub of this network of over a hundred organizations, we’re really aware, too, of the challenges they’re facing. And one of the things we’ve heard from them is that their fundraising has been really difficult. We know from so many organizations, I think 85% of organizations, have seen their fundraising stay steady or decrease in this time of COVID. That is true for our partners.
And so, this year for End Strong, we’re doing something a little bit different. We’ve never done this before. We are dedicating all funds raised in End Strong to support the implementation of Street Business School’s partners. So, if we can raise this money, we will be granting implementation awards to our partners so that they can respond in their communities where there’s so much need with Street Business School.
Denver: Fantastic. “Movement Generosity” is what I’d like to call it. Beyond your own organization, that’s what it is.
Devin: Yes. That’s right. Right. We’re trying to just create a culture of generosity into direct funds where they’re really needed.
The other amazing thing that we’re going to do, Denver, and you’re welcome to join us on this, we’re doing our first ever virtual site visit. So, because people can’t travel to Uganda right now, we’re going to bring Uganda to them. And I’ve just screened the draft of what we’re going to show. It’s pretty cool. You’re going to get right into those communities. You’re going to meet some of the entrepreneurs. You’re going to spend time with our staff. So we’re excited about that.
Denver: Hand along the details. If I can make it, I most certainly will.
Devin, what’s the most difficult decision you’ve had to make since the start of the pandemic, and how did you go about making it?
Devin: I think, there’s been a lot of difficult decisions, but one of them was in the early days of the pandemic, we did not know how our community was going to respond in terms of the financial stability of our organization. There was a lot of uncertainty, and we made the decision early on that we were not going to pull back on our programming, that we were not going to stop serving women… In fact, that we were going to do more.
And we made a decision kind of based on the belief that if we responded, and we’re able to be valuable to the communities that we serve, that the support to us would follow. But we didn’t know that for certain. We made a decision to stay on strong and to lean in before we really had the financial commitments that we knew would sustain us through that.
So that was a scary decision, but it just felt like there was nothing else to do. We really saw the need skyrocket, and so we felt like it was our work to respond.
Denver: Do you think you’ve changed as a leader through all this? Are there going to be some things that you are going to take away that will inform your leadership in the years ahead?
Devin: I think one of the amazing things that I saw as a leader that will change me forever is just how every member of our team stepped forward. It didn’t feel like I was having to lead or to encourage. It felt like this incredible desire to respond to the suffering and the struggle that we were seeing. And across the board, our team has been amazing. I mean, I’ve worked with amazing people, but every single person stepped up and said, “How do we do more? How can we respond? How do we innovate?”
So, as I said, you know, not one day have we stood still. We’ve been like sprinting for a year, which is also hard. There are challenges in that for sure, and our team is tired. But as a leader, I’m just incredibly proud, and it’s helped me see that it’s not all on my shoulders. It’s about all of us.
Denver: Well, it sounds like there could be a distributed leadership model going forward. And then, I’ve talked to a lot of people, Devin, who said that there were some people on their teams that they didn’t really know that they were leaders. They had overlooked them. And all of a sudden, the way they have stepped up, not only into their job but beyond their job, has really been eye-opening. So a lot of talent has been discovered, I have noticed.
Devin: Yes. That’s interesting. I feel like our team is our biggest asset and has always been our biggest asset. And a couple of years ago, I actually went on sabbatical, and I did a lot of research before I went on sabbatical. And I found that one of the great things about going on sabbatical – obviously, it’s nice for the leader, but it’s great for everybody else because they get to step forward in a way that they might not otherwise.
And so, I think that that practice of realizing that you are absolutely dispensable…it should not rest on your shoulders. If things fall apart when you step away, you haven’t done your job as a leader — that’s such an important principle, and to stress test within an organization and give people opportunities to do that. My sabbatical was one, but certainly, COVID has been another.
Denver: Well, your team is a great asset, but also your parents were a great asset to you as well. Tell us a little bit about the influence that they’ve had on you and the work you’re doing today.
Devin: Well, my mother was part of the co-founding team of BeadforLife, the original organization with Millie Grace.
And so, we had the incredible privilege of running that organization together for a lot of years. She’s an amazing woman. And I also have to mention my father who passed away about six weeks ago.
Denver: Oh, I’m sorry.
Devin: But my dad, his vision really lives on in me and in this work. My dad dropped out of medical school when Kennedy gave his “Ask not” speech, and he joined the Peace Corps. He was in the very first group of Peace Corps volunteers in Nigeria. And he really instilled in me that sense of: If you have privilege, if you have opportunity, you need to give back to the community. And so, I miss him terribly, but I feel like his work really lives on.
Denver: It has been said that you are a champion of connections and a gifted bridge-builder. What makes someone successful at that?
Devin: I think the true desire to help other people succeed and be their best selves. I am always looking for ways to help other people be successful. And I’ve been told that that’s unusual or unique, which I find it very hard to understand because I truly believe there is a currency of generosity… because when I help people, they want to help me, and it creates this virtual circle.
So, I’m always looking for ways to help magnify the voices of amazing partners, of people, without any idea of: If I do this, you’re going to do that. No. It’s about like: If we all can rise up, we’re going to have a greater impact. But it doesn’t seem to me that this is some unique superpower. It seems to me that this is something we all should do because when you help other people, they want to help you back.
Denver: Yes. It’s sort of common sense. It really is.
Devin: It seems common sense to me. Honestly, when people are like, “You’re so amazing that you’re just helping me.” I’m like, “Really? Why doesn’t everybody do this? This doesn’t seem like it’s that hard to figure out that we’re all going to benefit.”
Denver: Absolutely. And everybody gets the credit. That’s this thing that people don’t recognize. It all comes back anyway. So, you don’t have to… it doesn’t make any sense.
The fact that poverty has increased this year after years and years of it going down means that every single one of us who has a solution has to step forward and do more. Because if not, we’re not going to meet this big challenge. And I believe we have to do it through collaboration, too. There’s no other way to really hit our goals if we don’t collaborate.
Denver: Let me close with this, Devin. During this pandemic, I’ve talked to a lot of leaders, and they’ve reflected on just how large the problems are and how little they are doing against the scale of those problems in the field that they’re involved. And they said, “We’ve got to take a bigger chunk out of this,” and they’re thinking about setting some more ambitious goals.
You’ve already done that by setting an objective of helping one million women by 2027. And I know it’s never easy for a leader to put a stake in the ground like that, but share with us the process that went into establishing that audacious goal, and how you think about it on a day-to-day basis.
Devin: Saying out loud that it was my intention to help one million women lift their families out of poverty was perhaps one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever done… because then, it was out there. As soon as I said that, I was like, “What have I done?”-
Denver: Put it back.
Devin: And there’s a beauty of that accountability of saying that. And the truth is, is that for my team, if we don’t hit one million exactly, that is not a failure. We might hit 1.2 million. We might hit 800,000 women. The point is at scale. The point is we are building something that is big. We’re not talking about 10 women or 100 women. We’re talking about a million women. Whether or not it’s exactly that number is not the point… although we do have projections on: Here’s what we need to do each year, and here’s our impact assumptions. We have a very clear document and roadmap that we benchmark against. So that was an important… just shift of framing and mindset for our entire team in terms of: What are we going to talk about when we talk about our goals?
I’ve got to say: one million now feels small to me. One million feels small to me, both because of our rapid expansion… Six years ago, we were in Uganda; now, we’re in 22 countries. And we have impact data that shows our partners can train as well as we can and deliver the same level of impact. So, the idea that we can continue to spread this — our board is now launching a new strategic planning process to say: What is that right number? We’re going to look out to 2040,and what is that right number? And what have we particularly learned from this year around different ways of delivering our training that actually might allow us to scale much more rapidly?
So, it feels like a really exciting time, and it feels like no less is asked of us. The fact that poverty has increased this year after years and years of it going down means that every single one of us who has a solution has to step forward and do more. Because if not, we’re not going to meet this big challenge. And I believe we have to do it through collaboration, too. There’s no other way to really hit our goals if we don’t collaborate.
Denver: Well, I guess as you said at the outset of the interview, if you’re going to encourage these women to believe in themselves, from SBS, you’ve got to have the same belief in yourself and in the team that you can hit these audacious goals.
For listeners who want to learn more about Street Business School or financially support this work here as we get to the End Strong Campaign, tell us about your website and what they can expect to find there.
Devin: You can go to streetbusinessschool.org. You can see lots of information on that website. You can read more about how we train partners. You can read about our impact. And you can read about how a gift to Street Business School will help transform the lives of women around the world.
Denver: Fantastic. Well, thanks, Devin, for being here today. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show. And send me that information about your virtual tour.
Devin: Thank you so much, Denver. We’d love to have you join.
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