Last week, I received a series of notices about a blog item that was posted on www.forbes.com and written by Alex Blum (Panama 2011-12) entitled, “How I Became A Social Entrepreneur.” So successful is Alex that Tufts University recently selected him as one of their final 12 candidates to receive $100,000 in their New Ventures Business Plan Award.
But you know PCVs and RPCVs…they have a lot to say about Alex and his entrepreneur work.
But sure, let Alex speak first. He writes in his bio that appears next to his short article about become a Social Entrepreneur, the following:
I am the founder and CEO of Rugged Communications, basically, Verizon for the Jungle. We are a social enterprise dedicated to delivering holistic connectivity solutions to rural people in developing countries. We connect rural people to opportunities. I am also an American Express Emerging Innovator and Fellow at The Global Good Fund, an organization committed to supporting leadership growth in young, social entrepreneurs. After living without phone or internet service as a Peace Corps Volunteer with an indigenous tribe in Panama, I received an MS in Global Technology and Development. My goal is to shift the telecommunications ecosystem towards a more human-centered focus and to challenge leaders to see their personal growth as a critical aspect of their professional success by candidly sharing my experiences.
Alex then tells his story. But before he can say anything, the Editor of the Forbes.com site writes a note:
Editor’s Note: Alex Blum will no longer be contributing to Forbes.com.
Okay, what gives?
Well, read what Alex has to say and then read the comments (so far). By the way, this blog item appeared on 6/15/2015 and has had 3,726 views.
How I Became A Social Entrepreneur
In the beginning there was an idea. When Eulalia approached me, I had already lived for four months with the indigenous Ngäbe tribe in Western Panama as a Peace Corps volunteer teaching English with no books and feeling silly trying to write a novel.
“Chori [my indigenous name], we want your help selling our bags,” she said.
Like thousands of other small communities in the area, the artisan collective of Pueblo Nuevo, Panama hand-wove gorgeous, authentically designed bags, called chakaras, out of a stringy plant fiber and flower dyes. Unfortunately, we lived a five-hour hike/bus ride/boat ride away from the nearest touristy area. The women couldn’t afford to pay for the trip with no guarantee of a sale. We couldn’t sell them online either because we didn’t have electricity or running water, much less internet service.
The chakaras easily sold for $30 in front of the right people. Yet, they rarely reached those people due to cultural, logistical, and technological barriers. Still, I could see that with tighter organization and the proper business model, these bags could make a good living for the 50 or so grandmothers that comprised Las Artesanías de Pueblo Nuevo. And they did. We sold the bags by consignment to gift shops throughout the country. The stores had no reliable, bulk supplier. Despite our lack of communications with the outside world, within two months, in an area where the average family of 8 lives on about $150 a month, the women were making $5,000 a month. If we could have sold those puppies online we would have made a killing. Nevertheless, the benefits to the women and the community at large became apparent immediately. With the money, the women started side businesses raising chickens and pigs, bought school supplies for their children, and gained a greater degree of financial independence and self-confidence. It was the most exciting and gratifying experience I had ever had.
Entrepreneurship, I realized, allows me to channel the creativity I had hoped to bring to my writing into something more tangible and concretely beneficial to the people around me. It felt like writing a novel into the actual world.
I started thinking about what else I could do to improve this jungle business or the English classes I taught with limited resources or the medical care I helped deliver with an NGO in the area, The Floating Doctors. Well, if I could at least call the community artisans by phone rather than canvas a five mile radius of the jungle for four hours just to hold a meeting, now that would improve our business. And we could call the doctors for emergencies and medical advice too! And if we had the internet, well, then the possibilities became near infinite, exponential.
So that’s what I set out to do, finishing the Peace Corps and founding Rugged Communications, “Verizon for the Jungle.” It turns out that deploying rural telecommunications networks to areas without electricity is slightly more complicated than selling bags under the table to gift shops. The regulations, financial barriers, cultural complexities, and business environment posed, and still pose, major hurdles.
But the biggest obstacle of all was that I didn’t have the personal maturity, experience, or leadership skills to really run a large organization and navigate these hurdles. Six months before I started this journey, my primary skill with an established track record of success was asking out girls in my college English classes.
As I’ve gone along, connecting a few thousand people to telecommunications services and electricity, forming partnerships, and winning a few awards and fellowships, challenges of ethics, leadership, and personal growth continue to arise. Now that we are just beginning to roll out a larger network for 200,000 more people in the indigenous Ngäbe region of Panama, expand to Mexico, and develop projects for several other countries, I see that I must be my best self and more if I am going to adhere to the pure ideals that got me started down this path. I sense that more than external circumstances, funding sources, or business models, my personal development will determine the outcome of my business and life. I don’t just want to grow Rugged Communications; I want to improve the world around me. That is the whole point of Rugged Communications. When compromises must be made and employees pushed and big money is on the line, who am I going to be?
With no guarantee of success, little experience, and personal character still evolving, there is a wide chasm between a young person with a good idea and Elon Musk or Muhamad Yunus. I intend to cross this gap as well as possible. I don’t have all the answers and I don’t have all the experience, but I am passionate as hell. I invite you to join me in learning and reflecting with a weekly post as I go. I hope you will engage in dialogue with me, sharing your views and insights. Let me know what you would be interested in reading about.
It seems like a good idea to me.
Now here are the comments, mostly from other RPCVs who served, it appears, with Alex in Panama:
Cindy Garrard 1 week ago
Tikkun olam. Where does the impetus to repair the world come from? Thanks for a provocative post.
Elaine Winters 1 week ago
Bravo! Alex. Nicely done. Others may have had a similar idea and be farther along — perhaps in Africa or elsewhere in Latin America. I KNOW there are other such environments — and you can try networking and, perhaps, find them. Best of luck! EW RPCV/Fiji/COS ‘80
clau 1 week ago
Excellent story!!! Really inspiring. Myself and 2 more partners just started our own social Enterprise in Perú. Your story really encourage me to keep on going no matter what!! Thanks for sharing and the best luck for you.
Debra Sebastian 1 week ago
Is this the same Alex Blum who was stealing from his community and fellow Volunteers, and Peace Corps Panama offered to let him resign rather than terminate his service?
Kady 1 week ago
Might want to do your research next time, Forbes. Alex is not the man and does not have the story he claims to be/have.
Kady 1 week ago
The truth is he embezzled somewhere around $5K from the poorest, most-underserved indigenous group in Panama. On top of that, he preyed on the women, who traditionally have lower education and opportunities, of the most underserved indigenous group.
Andrea 1 week ago
Adding my voice to the comments warning potential investors and foundations about the writer. Do careful research into who and what you’re giving your money to. The word “social” in front of entrepreneurship does not grant the endeavor amnesty from accountability and scrutiny.
Alex, you write here that you’re going to need to be your best self to contribute positively to the world. And yet, you begin your first op-ed by misleading readers into thinking you “finished” your Peace Corps service. Were you not asked to terminate your service early due to accusations about your handling of the artisans’ earnings and fellow Volunteers’ personal belongings? Perhaps the accusations were unfounded, but that still doesn’t excuse misrepresenting the fact that you did not, in fact, close out your Peace Corps service as most Volunteers do.
There’s no shame in making mistakes — none of us were perfect Peace Corps Volunteers. But here you are grossly misrepresenting your Peace Corps story and profiting from that misrepresentation. That’s not a way to make amends for past mistakes. You could’ve easily mentioned that you had to leave the Peace Corps early because you didn’t have the maturity to serve honestly and responsibly. Or you could leave your Peace Corps story off your article completely and make sure to profit only off of your current (hopefully honest) work.
I truly hope Rugged Communications is actually doing good work in the communities it claims to serve. Just remember that transparency is part of doing good work.
Matthew 1 week ago
I am shocked by the audacity of this post and by Forbes’ ignorance in allowing this individual to have a platform.
Alex was asked to leave Panama by the Peace Corps under credible accusations that he was being dishonest with communities and embezzling money from their communal funds. Us Volunteers who served with him are familiar with additional criminal behavior on his part. Never once has Alex shown remorse — instead having the arrogance to incessantly ask RPCVs to support this farce.
In addition to Alex lying about finishing his Peace Corps service, there are several other lies and half-truths laced throughout this article. The community where Alex worked is nowhere near 5 hours from tourists (2 would be more accurate). A chakara does not sell for $30 unless it is substantially marked up (with money presumably going to Alex), and I would be extremely skeptical about the statement that Ngobe women bring in $5k per month. ANNUAL incomes of those in the semi-autonomous indigenous community rarely exceed that much, even in the most well organized cooperatives, and EVERYONE sells chakaras — the market is completely saturated.
I mean . . . this is all just the tip of the iceberg here. I can not state this loudly and clearly enough — do NOT support this individual! Him calling himself a social entrepreneur is deplorable and infuriating.
Jess 6 days ago
Hi Alex, since returning from Peace Corps Panama, I have actively cited your story as an example of one of the biggest problems that the development community faces: a lack of accountability on the part of some development workers (nominally with good intentions) that act on behalf of poor communities. Your ability to lie about your Peace Corps service to obtain funding, fellowships, and become a contributor to Forbes highlights the failure of the development community to be held accountable for its actions.
On a larger scale, it may imply that development programs run by large institutions unintentionally lead to negative outcomes for communities and no one ever learns about it. On a smaller scale, it means that individuals, such as yourself, have the power, privilege, and platform to behave in a way that impresses other wealthy Westerners without being held accountable to state true outputs (be it prices/income, distance to market, number of people served, or a 0/1 binary for completion of Peace Corps service without stealing from locals).
Fortunately, social norms can be kept in check by dispersed communities via comments sections and Facebook (such as the Peace Corps Community) to limit your ability to sustain lies in the long term.
Now what does Alex Blum have to say in his defense? We wait for his reply.