Starting a social business presents its own set of challenges, but couple that with the security risks, poor infrastructure and lack of resources found in a disaster area and you have the perfect recipe for failure.
I connected with Julie Colombino, the founder and executive director of REBUILD globally (RG), a nonprofit that was born amidst the disaster of the 2010 Haiti earthquake to learn more about how she and her organization survived and thrived against all odds.
Through her organization, Colombino has been working to improve the lives of those most affected by the earthquake by creating and incubating a Haitian business and corresponding fashion brand, Deux Mains Designs. She now works in Orlando, Florida with the goal to expand into nine additional communities by 2020, increasing RG's impact globally.
What were the biggest risk factors for you as a social entrepreneur while getting RG off the ground?
Social entrepreneurs innately want to solve big problems quickly and efficiently through innovative ideas. During my early days in Haiti, however, I was more in survival mode than entrepreneurial mode, which made it hard to focus on solutions. One of the biggest risks I encountered was not having enough local knowledge to really understand the context of what was happening in the country. I also did not comprehend the deep multifaceted nature of the needs of the survivors. The instability and chaos present in a post disaster zone makes it very difficult to prioritize tasks due to the constant storm of emergencies that happen every day.
After the first few weeks on the ground, I allowed myself the time to absorb what was happening around me, I listened to the real experts - the Haitians who survived this tragedy - and put together a game plan for our social business.
What sort of unexpected circumstances arose before and during the first few months of opening the RG training centers?
Working in a post disaster developing country brings daily unprecedented situations. I dealt with running out of clean drinking water for days on end (which is truly horrifying when you are actually without water); countless illnesses and protests that forced my team and I to be put on lockdown. I saw starving children begging on the streets as I walked to my work site--there was really no end to the challenges of working in this context. We endured fires, floods, robbery, violence, earthquake aftershocks and even a hurricane in 2011. However, the one thing that held us all together was the unbreakable determination of the Haitian people and the extraordinary trust that was fostered among the RG team.
What security measures did you take to protect yourself and your organization?
When I started REBUILD globally in 2010, I had two wonderful partners who I met during the initial relief effort. When we took the leap to work on our own, we made very strict rules for ourselves. One of the most important rules was that there needed to be two of us in country at all times.
We also built strong partnerships with other organizations and relief workers. In the beginning, people really didn't know what to make of us...three girls without funding, lacking a large-scale organization to rely on, and without a true "strategic plan". We were a bit of an anomaly out here. But we worked hard. We garnered respect from the UN, the military and the established relief agencies. We did what it took to survive the hardships of the initial disaster.
When my partners decided to pursue other opportunities, I made an effort to learn the language and to acclimate to Haitian culture. I used public transportation, lived in the same area as the people I was working with, ate the same foods, and listened more than I spoke. By understanding the needs and the situations faced by those in my community, I was not only protecting myself, I was learning how to operate REBUILD globally and eventually Deux Mains Designs.
Amidst all the chaos, I made it a priority to register with the local authorities and to work with Haitian ministries. It is not enough to simply start a business or a community organization in a country where you are a guest; you must also work with the government and the agencies that will be affected by your efforts. Through these actions, I garnered respect from the local authorities, which, I believe, is what kept us safe and allowed REBUILD to thrive.
How did you navigate the issues that arose with poor infrastructure, limited connectivity and unreliable transportation?
Transportation was not available, so I needed to live at the heart of the disaster area. Had I decided to live in a hotel far from the disaster zone, I would have spent hours trying to commute on "roads" that were essentially broken paths filled with frantic people, smashed cars and cement ruins. Instead, I chose to spend those hours alongside my future employees grieving the great losses of the quake, learning to recover and living with the optimism of rebuilding.
Without Internet I was forced to stay present. I could not tweet about immediate needs, so when I was lucky enough to have access to email I made sure I was intentional with my requests for the recovery effort. I also fought my loneliness and personal despair by keeping a journal and by relying on my new friendships for comfort amidst the frustrations of dealing with new daily struggles.