Creating Transformational Learning Experiences: Lessons From An Accidental Social Entrepreneur

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“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world,”  Nelson Mandela once said.

And that’s something Rumeet Billan passionately believes in as well.

Straddling the various roles of social entrepreneur, educator and PhD candidate, Rumeet has dedicated her life to transforming the field of education in a purposeful way through her business, school building projects abroad and within her own classroom.

What was your first brush with social entrepreneurship?

Rumeet: I didn’t start off as a social entrepreneur. I was operating my for-profit business, Jobs in Education, an employment job board in the education sector focusing on the K-12 levels and, more recently, higher education. We decided to donate a percentage of profits every year toward initiatives that enable education in developing countries. The business and the social aspect has just been such a beautiful marriage.

I guess you can say I’m an accidental social entrepreneur because I didn’t initially set out on this path. After our second year, we built our first school and I realized that this was something that my clients valued and it was something that aligned with our vision as a business.

Why the focus on education?

Rumeet: A couple of reasons. My parents are immigrants from India, and they really instilled that value of education and the opportunities that it could bring. It started there and once I started working with school boards, I understood that we are all working toward the same thing. Whether we’re recruiting teachers or administrative staff, we are all ultimately creating transformational learning experiences that will change their lives.

Tell us more about the educational projects you and your business support abroad.

Rumeet: We choose our projects depending on the needs of the community, what they’re open to, if they are inviting us. and if they find our work applicable or useful to them. In the first year we decided to do this, we supported a school in Kenya. We supported an additional school in Sierra Leone the next year and one in Ecuador in the year following that.

When I was in Ecuador, I did research and had the opportunity to speak with students, teachers, community leaders and various individuals that had influence in the area of primary education. It was on that trip that I learned that even though we were building schools, it didn’t mean education was being enabled for all. There are so many variables involved, including whether or not a child has uniforms or textbooks. If a child didn’t have these things, they weren’t allowed to go to school, which is why the next year, we decided to support funding for uniforms and textbooks.

Then I realized that these things didn’t necessarily result in quality education. There’s a very real lack of teacher training there and this led to the big idea of building a teacher’s college. We have community colleges here so it’s not a terribly innovative idea, but it was something new for the community. The next year we opened up the teacher’s college and this has just led from one project to the next.

Social entrepreneurship is a fairly nascent field. What is it like teaching a class on something so new?

Rumeet: The class is called Social Entrepreneurship: Profit, People and the Planet at the Humber Institute of Technology & Advanced Learning. It’s definitely new territory.

A lot of students sign up not knowing what social entrepreneurship is exactly. There are many variations in its definition and we spend the first class discussing this. And because it’s such a new field, I don’t  have a required textbook at the moment. Instead, we have online readings specific to the unit. In terms of formal, written curriculum, there’s not much out there so it’s been a really interesting experience.

How do you juggle so many priorities at once?

Rumeet: I wish I had an answer for you. I have absolutely no idea how all this gets done, but I always trust that it will.  I’m a very organized person, sometimes to a fault, and I think that is what’s really helped me. Plus, I have an excellent support network and coffee always helps. To be honest, I just love what I do and, for me, if you want to get it done, you’ll get it done.

What have been your top challenges as a social entrepreneur?

Rumeet: In terms of  the educational projects abroad, I’d have to say communication has been a huge challenge.

Sometimes I’m working in communities that don’t have electricity or access to laptops, and with that, communication is compromised.

Another big challenge is that I am often the Other…I look and speak differently; my mannerism and body language is completely different.

Though the intentions might be in the right place, I always need to be aware of how I am being perceived in these local contexts and manage that.

Do you have any advice for budding social entrepreneurs? 

Rumeet: Go for it. Talk to people about your ideas and it’s likely that someone somewhere has done something related to it. You can work with them or build on what currently exists.  There is no expectation to reinvent the wheel here. I always say it’s not about “can we do this?” but “how can we do this?” Re-frame the question and you’ll find the answers.

Stay tuned: Rumeet will share even more insight on social entrepreneurship and other topics in upcoming articles to be published on TalentEgg!

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About the author

Justine Abigail Yu is a communications professional by day and a freelance writer by night. Graduating from the University of Toronto specializing in Political Science and Sociology, her heart lies in the development sector where she has worked with organizations operating in North America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. You can easily lure her in with talk of international development, human rights, emerging technologies, travel, and yes, Mad Men. Or a slice of cheesecake. Read her blog here or follow her on Twitter @justineabigail.