Social Entrepreneurship Program Equips Fulbright Students to Rebuild Afghanistan

October 2012

Transforming a country may seem like a daunting task, but in just five days, a group of 59 Afghan scholars took significant strides in that direction. This is the second year the Farmer School's Institute for Entrepreneurship hosted the Fulbright Social Entrepreneurship Seminar for Afghan Students. The social entrepreneurship start-up program focused on experiential learning through workshops, panels, and lectures.

"What we're trying to do is to give tools to the best and the brightest of Afghanistan to go back and rebuild their home country," said Brett Smith, Director of the Institute for Entrepreneurship and Founding Director of the Center for Social Entrepreneurship. "I think sometimes that can be done through traditional entrepreneurship, but more often, particularly in areas where economies are growing, developing, or rebuilding, the social entrepreneurship lens gives a unique perspective on how to combine an underlying economic model with a focus on social value creation."

The U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs (ECA) sponsors the program with administrative assistance from the Institute of International Education. Afghan Fulbright students who participated in the program are pursuing master's degrees at universities throughout the U.S. This program provided a unique opportunity for them to gather and share ideas.

"Being in this group gives me hope and it's just good to see that other Fulbrighters are thinking about the same things," said Ela, a program participant. "We all talk about changes, but it's so tough because every corner of Afghanistan needs some work, and you're doing different fields of study and it's just good to get together and talk about it; what we can do as a group, rather than going back alone and trying to struggle to survive."

The program focused on equipping Afghan students with the practical know-how and confidence to turn possibilities into probabilities. Nine group start-up projects emerged from the program, addressing problems from a wide variety of sectors. They included a nonprofit university, recycling center, diabetes management initiative, and an agricultural project focused on growing saffron instead of poppies.

"This year we made a lot more progress with hands-on, real problems," said Smith. "Last year we used a fictitious case study, this year they got to self-define the problem and the solution. They got to identify what they cared about. We provided the methodology, but they provided the local context."

This emphasis on experiential learning and collaboration resonated with the Afghan participants. "I expected that those three days would not be enough because I had thought of entrepreneurship as something very huge that could not be taught in three days, but what I found was that the scale they had prepared was excellent," said participant Haroon. "It was very efficient. Changing one's mind in three days is a big job."

Participant Mansoor said he came away with new appreciation for group work. "I believe in teams way more than I did. I've been to conferences and I didn't think I'd learn this much, honestly. I didn't think I'd get something to bring this kind of change that we started here. It was because of my teammates. We had tons of energy. We were motivating each other and cheering and having fun with each other, finding out ideas and realizing obstacles. It was way above my expectations."

Smith sees the seminar as enormously beneficial for Miami as well. "The value this provides is an international context that we're unlikely to ever have to interact with in major, substantial ways," said Smith. "It provides huge value from a cultural diversity perspective for our faculty, for our students, for our staff, and for the greater Oxford community."

Thirteen Miami students served as mentors, some returning to the program for a second year. Mentors had the opportunity to work closely with the Afghan scholars and projects. "These are the people that are going to form Afghanistan over the next generation," said mentor Josh Klaben-Finegold, a senior engineering major with a minor in entrepreneurship. "It's a wonderful opportunity to not only be engaged with the entrepreneurship program but also with students from a place that we have such strong misconceptions about. We've been socialized to think of it a certain way. Here I have an opportunity to actually meet people from the country and get to know them on a personal basis."

Sarah Cesler, a senior majoring in international studies, served as a mentor last year as well. She said she values the relational aspects of the program: "I would want it to come across to them that American college students care and we are giving our time to get to know them better. A lot of my reasoning for doing this is so that Afghans know that the people of this country care about their well-being."

The program received media coverage by both NPR and CNBC