Social Entrepreneurship Empowers Through Pennies
For women making honey, producing cloth or growing habanero chilies for hot sauce in impoverished developing countries, even a few hundred dollars can make a difference. Sophomore Elena Petre helps business owners through micro-loans from the student-run Social Entrepreneurship Program.
SEP is a service-learning program and a registered non-profit under the umbrella of the University of St. Thomas and the Center for International Studies.
“Students come together to apply the theories they learn in the classroom about the world to participate in the lending of microcredit loans to impoverished individuals around the globe,” Petre said.
Originally from Venezuela, and of Romanian descent, Petre’s family moved to Katy, Texas, in 2008.
She is a double major in international development and general business.
Petre and other SEP students raise money through restaurant fundraisers, personalized video requests and “Pennies for Poverty” campaigns that collect change at UST and in area middle and high schools.
In places like the Yucatan Peninsula, Pakistan, Chile and Malawi, the students visit the site to assess the venture’s probability of success. When the business owners make money, they pay it back to the fund.
“To us, $200 sounds like little money, but we’ve seen videos of their reaction and they’re so happy,” Petre said. “It’s not just an economic profit, but it’s a personal profit.”
Like the proverb about teaching a man to fish so he’ll eat for a lifetime, the no-interest loans help women take care of their families by building sustainable businesses that benefit them for an extended period.
“When they start their businesses, they’re able to impact not only their families, but their communities as a whole,” Petre said. “They become leaders in their community.”
SEP students also study entrepreneurship by attending conferences focused on enterprise and innovation directed not at generating a profit, but social change. As a freshman this spring, Petre attended a conference at Harvard University, and in July, she attended the RESULTS conference for grass-roots advocacy in Washington, D.C., where she lobbied congressmen and women to support microfinance and tuberculosis aid to foreign countries.
Petre said she was encouraged to join SEP from faculty advisor Rogelio Garcia-Contreras, associate professor of international studies, and he has taught her the importance of giving back.
“He’s Latin American like me,” Petre said. “I can trust that the way he sees the world is similar to the way I see the world. He’s showed me that having a successful career and being smart can go hand in hand with helping people.”
In addition to Spanish and Romanian, Petre is studying French at St. Thomas and wants to study abroad for a semester in France during her junior year. She also plans to pursue an MBA at St. Thomas through the 5-year program.
“I want to work in a career where daily, I know that I am helping someone,” she said.