“Alex, have you ever made this much money in your life?”
The young man had sold four products in a single day and was going to earn a respectable $30 in commission. He got very quiet, and a hesitant smile spread across his face, eyes sparkling.
“Only when I was stealing.”
That story was related to me by Maria Springer of the Kenya based social startup LivelyHoods as we skyped from half a world apart. Springer and her co-founder and longtime friend Tania Laden are addressing social issues in Kenya via a two-prong approach. First identifying promising street youth and offering them training and employment in salesmanship. Then putting the team to work selling socially beneficial goods (think clean burning stoves, solar lamps, and feminine hygiene products) to people in the surrounding area. Their hope is to use entrepreneurship to offer economic opportunity and a standard of living previously unknown to the slums of Kenya.
And the model is working! Their first shop opened in Nairobi in 2011, and since then has trained and employed more than 65 youth salespeople. It was showing an operational profit in a little over a year, which is amazing for any retail location, and has prompted the team to open its second location, which officially kicked things off in the middle of August.
“We had no idea how talented these young people were going to be at sales,” Maria said of their brand’s impressive growth, “I mean, just incredible, natural salespeople.”
LivelyHoods funded the second store through an amazing Indiegogo campaign, which raised more than $27,000 without levying even one single ounce of guilt, or what’s known in the industry as “Poverty Porn”. No pictures of starving babies, no tent cities or thousand yard stares. Just a sincere, even comedic call for legitimate solutions to solvable problems. Oh, and one crazy stunt: Springer vowed to wear 25 bandaids on her face throughout the campaign, one for every thousand dollars they wished to raise. A call for an end to temporary “BandAid solutions” to social problems. She did, and dozens of fans jumped in on the #BeyondBandAids campaign, posting pictures of themselves all over the world with colorful strips of elastic rubber adhered to their cheeks and foreheads.
“It was a way to make talking about job creation fun. You know what I mean? Like, that’s typically pretty yawn-worthy,” she laughed.
And they’re not just changing the conversation on employment. They’re changing the perception of what street youth are capable of, and they’re changing lives. Take the young man, Alex, from the story at the beginning of this piece. His early life was characterized by drifting in and out of orphanages, and hustling the streets of Kangaware just to survive. Unfortunately that story’s not so unique. Kenya is a nation of roughly 40 million, where 75% of the youth are unemployed, three-hundred thousand of whom are estimated to be living on the streets. But when he began work with LivelyHoods Alex was transformed into someone truly remarkable. He showed an instant capacity for sales, rising in just days to the top of the leaderboard, and setting records that remain unbroken. Today, he works as the group’s Director of Recruitment. And while he’s certainly headed for a promising future, it’s his words about his past that Springer will never forget. Words straight from the source on what matters most even to those who have least. His new job provided for him in a way that only stealing once could. And he was the top salesman. What did that say about his peers?
“It was at that moment,” Springer said with a tone that can only come from remembering something that truly changed you, “that my co-founder and I realized that in some cases these young people are willing to take a pay cut in exchange for dignity, in exchange for opportunity, and in exchange for a future, and that… Well, I guess there’s a lot you could say about that”
This article originally appeared on MISSION.tv You can find it and a ton of other great articles on social good here