Shawn Smith – What Am I Skating Towards? Investing in Human Potential

This is Shawn Smith's response to What are you skating towards in 2012?

Investing in Human Potential

Avatar_110We’ve all seen the statistics about poverty, and probably felt a bit overwhelmed. When we do engage it is often through a 1-800 number imploring us to ‘save’ a helpless child, or starving person. Our conceptions of the poor are stunted, and our understanding of potential solutions well-intentioned but often misguided. We perceive poverty through our own lens – a lack of material goods or wealth, rather than the poverty of opportunity that truly strips people of their dignity and potential.

So we give stuff – we build schools, donate goats, collect used goods, or buy TOMS Shoes. Unfortunately "schools don’t teach children," (1) wells don’t sustain themselves, and giving away free stuff often disrupts local markets, hampering home-grown solutions and economic growth.

My relationship to the subject has evolved through our own experiences at Global Agents. We have realized that traditional approaches are unlikely to make a dent, and that it is impossible to account for unintended consequences in such a complex environment. While I am not anti-aid when thoughtfully (and transparently) applied to address urgent needs or under-pining longer-term efforts, what has become clear is that the only interventions I am comfortable with invest in human potential, not stuff.

I’m involved with two initiatives with big goals to do that in 2012: 
Education Generation is an online crowd-funding community, bringing people together $20 at a time to provide merit based secondary and post-secondary scholarships to high potential young leaders in the developing world. This is not simply about access, but also about quality of education. Through these scholarships we invest in progressive organizations pushing the boundaries of what education means in the communities they serve, moving beyond out dated curriculum to equip emerging leaders with the skills and perspective to build their own solutions.

The Global Catalyst Initiative (GCI) recognizes that most support for social entrepreneurs and innovative ideas comes to these leaders well after they have battled to overcome countless obstacles. Only the lucky few make it, and if we are to tackle these old problems, we are going to need a heck of a lot more new solutions. There are countless emerging leaders launching market oriented ideas to improve their communities, and countries. GCI is a strategic seed funder, providing one year of “proving capital” and technical assistance to take these ideas from pilot to proof of concept, and on to later stage funders and investors.

The issue I’d like on the agenda in 2012, is how we remain inspired to take these issues head on, while challenging the misconceptions found in development. I want to invest in ideas, and human potential. I want us to ask tough questions about whether the things we support result in meaningful change, or just make us feel better. There are no simple solutions to be provided from afar, but there are talented people fighting like hell to provide a better future for their families and communities, and they could use a bit of support.

1.     Credit to Daniela Papi of PEPY for the phrase “schools don't teach children” – check out some of their great work here

Shawn Smith is co-founder of several successful organizations, including Education Generation, Global Catalyst Initiative, the Equilibrium Partnership and Radiant Carbon Offsets.  He currently works as a sessional lecturer in social entrepreneurship and innovation at Simon Fraser University.

Note: I release individual essays from the collection, What are you skating towards in 2012?  on a regular basis. Upcoming contributions are by Jacques Dufresne, Lindsay Cant, Richard Bridge, Stefan Lorimer  and many others. You can access the accumulated essays here.

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