Five years ago Laurien Meuter set her first steps into the ‘doing good business’ in India hoping to change a few children’s lives by getting them into school. Today she is lifting an entire community of 700 out of extreme poverty by running a foundation and a social enterprise who’s products are sold in design shops all over the world. What happened in between? Laurien shares her learning experiences: valuable lessons to anyone who wants to follow in her footsteps and realise their own (social) dream.
Tiny Miracles: how did it start and where are they headed?
For Laurien it took a car accident – and the accompanying 6 months of rest and rehabilitation – to realise she wasn’t on the right (career) path as a corporate banker. What she really wanted was to follow her dream that started in India years before when she was working there. She had then started supporting a few Indian families by financing their children’s education. She decided to set up a foundation – Tiny Miracles Foundation – to grow and structure her wish. Initially only two days a week. But, after teaming up with her cousin designer Pepe Heykoop to set up a social enterprise next to the foundation, she took a leap of faith and quit her ‘safe’ job entirely.
Today Laurien and Pepe are not only providing work for over a 100 Indian woman but they are trying to uplift an entire community of 700 extremely poor people living in the streets of Mumbai’s red light district. Their dream is to enable this one slum community to break out of the poverty cycle and become self-supporting middle class citizens by 2020. They are more than halfway there. Not just by creating jobs through their amazing and cool social enterprise but by using a model that is built on four equally important pillars; educating the children, educating the parents, providing jobs and improving living conditions through for example health care.
# 1: don’t spend too much time on writing plans. Just start and make mistakes quickly instead.
When I ask Laurien if she spent a lot of time on doing research or writing plans before plunging into the ‘doing-good business’ in India, she starts laughing.
“Basically, I just started. I knew I needed help from local people to gain real knowledge on the issues concerning poverty but I hadn’t worked out a well thought-through plan or anything. But I don’t regret that. Making a lot of mistakes quickly is the best way to get ahead. Don’t dwell on what you did wrong but learn from it and move on. That process is essential to getting it right. Things never go as planned anyway. Even after 5 years there are still so many things new to me. I just do it and learn along the way . My motto is ‘The only way out is through’.
# 2: if you want to make an impact, perseverance is key. There is no such thing as a quick fix
After about a year ‘into business’ Laurien experienced a rather unpleasant setback; parents started pulling their children out of the schools the foundation had put them. They couldn’t see the value of it and they needed their children to add to the family income. This taught Laurien an essential lesson:
“Just focussing on helping the children but leaving their unemployed and uneducated parents out doesn’t work. It made me see I needed to address all aspects of life simultaneously to really break the cycle of poverty these people had been in for generations.”
This is how her ambition gradually changed to lifting the entire community instead of just a group of children. All though this meant she had to put in a lot more effort , Laurien never thought about it twice: “From the moment I decided to do this I wanted to make a real impact. That means you have to accept there aren’t any quick fixes. Things might take longer this way but the effect is a hundred times greater. I have always been in it for the long run.
#3 create a product that sells itself. The story behind it should only be a plus, an extra.
Having the people become self-supporting is an essential part of realising the foundation’s ambition. Laurien realised she needed to start a business if she wanted to reach that goal because there wasn’t any suitable work available to them. Eventually she teamed up with her cousin Pepe Heykoop who had just graduated from the Design Academy Eindhoven.
Pepe tried to come up with a product they could manufacture. It was far from easy. Most of them were illiterate and couldn’t even count. What made it even more difficult was that Pepe was determined not to create a typical ‘fair trade product’. “(…) all of them can do basketry weaving with their eyes closed but I said I don’t want to do something with weaving or bamboo, because it has this ethnic look and this fair-trade image and I think we should focus on something new. That a product should sell itself. You want it because you like it, you buy it and then the story is a plus, an extra.”
After nearly two years (!) of experimenting and designing products which were far too difficult for people who cannot read and write, let alone make high quality design products, Pepe came up with the idea of a flat-pack folded paper vase. All though even the folding proved to be a challenge to the women, he succeeded in teaching them how to do it. His determination and perseverance have been rewarded; the vase turned out to be a runaway succes. Today it is sold in over more than 400 places around the world, creating work for more than a 100 women.
Source quote Pepe Heykoop: dezeen.com