The economy yawns but social innovators persist. Here are three catalysts under the age of 30 who we at Cause Global have met in the past month. All three bear watching over the next year:
Ariel Zylbersztejn, 28, founded and runs Cinepop, a company that projects movies onto inflatable screens and shows them free in poor rural communities. Zylbersztejn said he started Cinepop four years ago because some 90 percent of the people in Mexico can't afford to buy movie tickets. His first corporate sponsor was Act II, the microwaveable popcorn company; he has since linked up with micro-credit agencies and social welfare groups, as well as dozens of small and medium-sized businesses across Mexico which will pay him to score a table in an "opportunity tent" that Cinepop sets up in rural neighborhoods for a week before each screening. "Each showing is a way to promote social programs, like free medical consultation or employment training," Zylbersztejn says.
Some 350,000 people have watched movies on his screens so far this year. His goal is to reach 1 million people by the end of 2010 and 5 million people by 2015—as well as take the Cinepop model to Brazil, India, China and other countries. And down the road? Zylbersztejn, a film school graduate, wants to make movies of his own, to raise awareness of "real people with real problems," he says. "Am I a social entrepreneur?" he shakes his head. "In Mexico, nobody knows what that is."
Another young social innovator to watch is Emily Pilloton, 27, founder and executive director of Project H Design, a social nonprofit that creates problem-solving designs to empower individuals, communities and local economies in need. Pilloton said at last month's CUSP conference in Chicago that she came up with the idea for Project H while she was living with her parents and had only about $1,000 to her name, as well as "a laundry list of people I was going to prove wrong about consumption-driven design."
Over the past 18 months, Project H has collected $46,000 in donations averaging $43 each, which are being used to support nine chapters, six in the United States and 3 internationally, and engage 300 designers working on 22 projects. One, called Learning Landscape, helps students and teachers in Uganda, North Carolina and the Dominican Republic to "play" their way to better math scores. The simple, $500 playground installations are comprised of 25 reclaimed tires "that you bury halfway in the ground in a grid and base learning games on," Pilloton says. A student favorite? "Match Me" -- a game in which students line up in 2 teams, one on each side of the playground; teachers call out math questions and the first student to sit on a tire numbered with the correct answer wins. Pilloton is working with the Palo-Alto-based design firm, nonobject, to develop an off-the-shelf retail and tabletop version that would be available to teachers anywhere.
Chapters of Project H Design also have collaborated with LA's homeless and delivered Hippo Rollers to Africa (cutting production costs of the water-transport devices in half). "We devise systems, not stuff; we work with, not for," she says. "I started this with no particular business plan in mind but I believe that design can change the world," she says. "The need will shape the business." Indeed, Pilloton, author of the just-released book, Design Revolution: 100 Products that Empower People, said she hopes to launch Studio H next fall, a design/build program to teach creative problem-solving and building skills through community engagement projects.
Sarah Evans is another young social innovator to watch. What we like most about her social venture is that it involves a paradigm-shifting use of of social capital—in this case, the 30,000 people who follow her on Twitter—to create a new type of company. Her firm, Sevans Strategy, helps causes in need of rapid action. Last summer, when a financially beleaguered Elgin, Ill. crisis hotline came to her for help, Evans mobilized her network to raise $30,000 in 12 hours -- and $164,000 in two weeks -- to save the center. "I donated my network, but I am also creating a new model for business," she told me at CUSP. "Social media isn't about having a Facebook page. That's just noise. The real promise of social media is being able to mobilize networks to execute. Social capital for good—and for hire—represents the next wave of new businesses."
Follow or ignore the debate over whether President Obama deserves his Nobel Peace Prize—that's your call. But it's really good to know that people are working in the trenches to make the world a better place, regardless of what happens in Washington.
—By Marcia Stepanek
(Illustration, Hanging by $100; istock.com)
(This article was first posted on Justmeans.com)