Two Taubman Master's Students Awarded Social Innovation Fellowships

February 5, 2014

Santiago Alban MPP (left) and Jed Greenberg MPA have been awarded Social Innovation Fellowships from the Swearer Center to develop social impact ventures. They will be among sixteen fellows to participate in the program, which provides support and mentoring to students through skill-building workshops that cover everything from creating a business model and building a solid work plan to using storytelling to make an effective pitch. This spring semester work will culminate with concrete plans for each fellow’s ten-week summer project. Both Greenberg and Alban, who are master of public affairs students specializing in social innovation and nonprofit leadership, received a $4,000 grant to pursue their projects.

Santiago Alban
Wiñak Chocolate • Ecuador

Alban plans to research how to guide a cooperative of cacao bean growers in the Ecuadorian Amazon into the realm of gourmet chocolate production. The network of some 200 growers is spread across twenty-nine Kichwa indigenous communities in the foothills of the Andes. The cooperative currently sells high-quality cacao beans to middlemen who profit far more than the farmers themselves. These are some of the finest cacao beans in the world -- cacao de arriba, literally, “beans from upriver” --  and are highly sought after by gourmet chocolate producers, says Alban. Yet, due to market forces, the Kichwa farmers barely subsist, failing to profit from their sought-after commodity.

Alban became acquainted with the cooperative several years ago while studying law at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito and later did pro bono law and administrative work for them. He entered Brown as an MPP student, but his career path shifted quickly when he took Nonprofit Organizations with Taubman professor Bill Allen and discovered the Swearer Center during his first semester. Alban has moved to the MPA/social innovation track and feels he has found his calling.

“I have always been inspired by the concept of social innovation. The best way to overcome poverty is by teaching people how to work for themselves and be innovators in their community. I have always liked business and helping people, specifically in Ecuador. Poverty is a big problem in Ecuador, and I’m really committed to my country. That’s why I think I’ve found the perfect thing to do.”

Alban will meet with cooperative members, local business leaders, and commerce experts in Ecuador this summer to begin crafting a plan for the cooperative to begin producing their own retail chocolate products. He will study successful cooperative models, including El Salinerito, a group of fine cheese producers in Ecuador. He has many ideas to share with the Kichwa, who also grow coffee and medicinal herbs -- crops that could also be developed into branded retail products. Ecotourism could play a role in building the venture, says Alban, with visitors bringing investment capital and technical know-how in exchange for an authentic experience in the Amazon jungle.

Jed Greenberg
Sustainability Course • Rhode Island

Greenberg plans to retool a sustainability course offered by the Sustainable Communities Initiative (SCI). SCI, launched in 2012, is a collaboration between Rhode Island College and the Environmental Council of Rhode Island, a coalition of organizations that develops and advocates for environmental policies. Having taught the course at Rhode Island College, Greenberg felt it could tie back to local sustainability issues more strongly and empower students to take action in their own communities.

In addition to offering the main theories of sustainability, an overview of global sustainable issues, and case studies, the revamped course will equip student teams with an index tool to evaluate their own city or town to form a sustainability action plan. The course will include contributions from nationally recognized thought leaders. He plans to pilot the class during the next academic year with students from five cities and towns in Rhode Island. Ultimately, Greenberg hopes that students will bring sustainability awareness and activism into their own communities to spearhead initiatives like composting, energy audits, and sustainability plans.

“I want people to come out of the class feeling inspired by both the issues we discuss and the people they’re around. That kind of energy can be contagious. I’m not pushing a certain agenda. I want to provide people with quality information on sustainability and let them decide what kind of action to take in their communities, and to find their own passion in the process.”