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I knew my skills and professional experience would be beneficial but I wanted service to test my abilities and ingenuity. As a Community Economic Development (CED) Volunteer, I wanted to truly make a difference for the people of Sheki, my host community. My Social Entrepreneurial Program (SEP) project would allow me to do just that. The first month at site after settling into my host organization I met Ilyas Safarli, Executive Director of “Uluchay” Social-Economic Innovation Center. Uluchay’s outreach includes community and civil society programs. The idea for a community focused, income generating project came during a brainstorming session. We felt the project had to motivate participants to be innovative and foster social entrepreneurism, which is identifying and addressing societal issues through targeted business development. SEP included training on social entrepreneurship, business development and business management. The project would take approximately nine months to complete. The training phase would culminate with a business plan competition. Winners of the competition would receive technical support to start their social entrepreneurial business.
The project budget was $8,900 funded by USAID Small Project Assistance grant and in-kind contribution.
Project Promotion and Recruiting
As part of project promotion and participant recruiting, information brochures were designed, printed and distributed. Uluchay also promoted the project by posting information on its website and social media websites. Interested persons at least 18 years of age were provided a participant’s application.
Two public, round-table type meetings were organized to disseminate information about the project and to solicit ideas on community priority social needs. The forums also included discussions on how to involve young, aspiring entrepreneurs in finding new, innovative solutions to social issues through business development.
Eight business-focused trainings were provided to project participants. Guest speaker sessions on economic development, microfinance and social entrepreneurship supplemented training. Rounding out the training phase were two sessions on business plan writing. Participants then submitted business plans in competition for technical support.
As a result of the business plan competition, two social entrepreneurial business ideas were selected for start-up technical support. The businesses were structured as microenterprises and aptly named for the type of services they provide, “Rainbow” Preschool Education Center and “Buta” Handicraft Courses.
SOCIAL ENTREPRENEURIAL BUSINESSES
Rainbow Preschool Education Center is for children up to 6-years of age. The owner, Güna Rahimli, is 19 years old and wants to contribute to the community by helping children develop social, emotional, cognitive and physical skills.
Narmin Nurullahova is 26 years old and the owner of “Buta” Handicraft Courses. It is a place where women enroll in handicraft workshops with the long-term goal of becoming a cooperative for making and selling handicrafts. The handicrafts will be sold locally, eventually branching sales outward including via the Internet. As part of a collaboration effort, Rainbow Preschool Education Center will “outsource” arts and crafts classes to Buta Handicraft Courses.
Subsequently, a portion of the monthly fee for childhood development will be transferred to Buta Handicraft Courses to pay for instruction and supplies. Although the businesses will operate independently, they will be synergistic and cooperate under a collaborative framework sharing resources and help each other in their respective service outreach.
TECHNICAL SUPPORT AND SUSTAINABILITY
Each of the women signed a Technical Support Contract and evidenced a 10 percent cash match prior to receiving business start-up assistance. Technical support included items such as tables, chairs, shelving, cabinets, books, and training aids, ancillary included in technical support. Both businesses were ideally established in the same building as Uluchay. One of Uluchay’s priorities is to foster economic development, including “incubating” start-up businesses. Establishing the social entrepreneurial businesses in the same building as Uluchay increases oversight by Uluchay technical advisors and provides a safety net for the new business owners in instances where business challenges arise.
COMING FULL CIRCLE
I feel the success of SEP helped me come full circle in my Peace Corps service. Arriving in Azerbaijan was an instant overload of the unfamiliar. Like other volunteers, I had to learn the subtleties of life in an environment very different from the one I knew back in Seattle. Challenges notwithstanding, my work in Azerbaijan has been fulfilling far beyond what I hoped it would be. Believing in my own abilities, believing in Uluchay and the SEP project, believing in my host community and most of all, believing in the spirit of Peace Corps helped make service successful and unforgettable.