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Panda: Vincent Ko, Luke Lagera and Michael Mills

How an eco-friendly fashion start-up landed on top retailers’ shelves in six months.

Eric Shapiro




It may sound like a ploy to get shoppers in the door, but the power of ‘green’ and eco-conscious consumers can’t be denied. So Georgetown University buddies Vincent Ko, Luke Lagera and Michael Mills thought:

Why not? And in the fall of 2011, the now 24-year-olds started up Panda, a Washington DC-based sunglasses maker that uses sustainably-harvested bamboo for its frames. To complete the virtuous cycle, they’re devoting a portion of their profits towards funding eye exams and cataract surgery to aid people in the developing world.

Recognising social change

Since launching, the fledgling fashion company founders have managed to land their frames in popular retail outlets across the US. But what separates Panda from the herd of ‘eco-friendly’ products on the market? And what can like-minded start-ups learn from a company that grew from fashion obscurity to prominence in just six months?

“We don’t hide the fact that TOMS Shoes was a huge inspiration. We figured if we could make a fraction of the impact that Blake Mycoskie made with a different item, we’d be doing a good job,” says Vincent Ko. “I want Panda to also be a recognisable brand for social change, so when someone sees Panda, they know that for everything that is purchased through the company, an individual in need or a charitable organisation will benefit.”

Getting funded

Panda’s founders used the crowd-funding website to get their idea off the ground. “Kickstarter not only allowed us to get the funds to start production, but also gave us a lot of publicity,” says Ko. “We got many of our initial retailers and partners through Kickstarter, which completely levels the playing field for young entrepreneurs.

“Unfortunately, there’s starting to be a commodification of Kickstarter. You see established companies using it as just another marketing tool at the expense of smaller, in-development ideas. But I would still recommend it because it does help with fundraising and publicity.”

Stay trendy, but authentic

Ko has a word of advice for product start-ups leveraging off social awareness: Consumers aren’t stupid. “They know when something’s authentic. And if you’re going to try to start up a social venture, you have to do it end-to-end – with everything from messaging to packaging. Of course, this takes time.

There’s no way that a six-month-old sunglasses start-up is going to be perfect on day one. So we send a regular newsletter out to all of our customers, updating them on the steps we’re taking to improve.”

Start-up advice

Ko has this advice to offer fellow social start-ups: Don’t wait. There is no better time than in your early 20s or mid-20s to start a business because at worst you’ll just end up where you started – having learnt from the experience, of course. Ultimately, though, proceed thoughtfully and systematically. It’s really important to grow responsibly and not overstretch.

Eric Shapiro is a freelance writer in New York.

Doing Good

The Female Face of Rural Agriculture

Women across the world bear almost all the responsibility for meeting the basic needs of their family yet, because of social and cultural influence, are systematically denied the resources, information and freedom of action they need to fulfil this responsibility.

Tracy Lee Nicol




As cornerstones of their community, research has consistently shown that empowering and investing in rural women significantly increases productivity, reduces hunger and malnutrition, and improves the infrastructure and living standards in rural communities.

Ripple effect

Helping women generate income through productive assets.

One of the major challenges facing women in agriculture is their lack of access to skills development, improved seeds, fertilisers and equipment. This means their yield is on average 10% to 20% less than that of a male farmer.

As a consequence, rural women typically work longer hours than men, placing pressure on their child-caring and domestic responsibilities.

To help alleviate this problem, Tanzanian social entrepreneur Victoria Kisyombe founded micro-leasing business, Sero Lease and Finance (SELFINA). Pioneered in 2002, the business provides exclusively to women entrepreneurs, has issued credit worth $22 million dollars, has trained 46 000 women in business management skills, and has helped 23 000 women out of poverty.

It’s expected to positively impact 440 000 lives by 2014. Best of all, 100% of its revenue is earned.

How it works

Unlike micro-financing, which provides credit for small business owners to make short-term purchases like raw materials, micro-leasing means the lessee doesn’t need to use scarce working capital to buy equipment upfront.

Rather, women become owners of leased equipment and use it as collateral for further borrowing. SELFINA leases equipment such as small tractors, water pumps, irrigation equipment, milling machines, oil extraction machines, bicycles and motorbikes, livestock and poultry.

Throwing a rope


This Brazilian company is tackling education, environment, microfinance, rural development and trade all in one by making rope. And it’s making millions of dollars a year.

Run by Ismael Ferreira, APAEB is a Brazilian co-operative of smallholding sisal farmers – sisal is used to make rope, rugs and brushes.

Founded in the ’80s to remove intermediaries and assist farmers to collectively market their sisal crop, it has since gained export rights, forged links with foreign markets, and built processing plants and a factory to export millions of dollars’ worth of quality, finished products.

A social business at its core, it has an annual budget of $7,5 million (2010) and 96% of its revenue is earned.

Impressive on its own, but this business has directly benefited over 12 000 people in an area where most farmers have 11 hectares or less of dry, infertile soil with limited water resources.

How it works

As an exporter, APAEB links international markets with small agricultural producers by developing lasting relationships, encouraging mutual respect, and producing quality workmanship.

It trains and organises local farmers to manage the growing and manufacturing processes, and has increased financing from banks and donor agencies.

In 1997, it constructed a multimillion dollar carpet factory which increased the co-op’s revenue by 400% and raised the industry price of raw sisal. The operation employs over 800 people and has brought a powerful multiplier effect to a region where about
500 000 people derive their livelihood from sisal.

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Doing Good

The Business of Creating Jobs

South Africa has a massive unemployment problem.

Tracy Lee Nicol



Creating-Jobs-Social-Entrepreneurship-Doing Good

Presently 25,2% of potential employees are seeking work, and it grows to 36,7% if you include those who’ve given up completely. Between 2003 and 2010, demonstrations by poor, unemployed youth increased eight-fold, to 111 per annum. It’s reaching crisis point for the economy and individuals, but these businesses offer a guiding light. By Tracy-Lee Nicol


Find a need, then train workers

India has a rapidly growing economy and a large youthful population. But like South Africa, the country is plagued by a significant shortage of skilled labour, widening the gap between rich and poor and hamstringing economic growth.

Jajendra Joshi-Empower Pragati

Social entrepreneur Rajendra Joshi, founder of for-profit Empower Pragati Vocational & Staffing (EPVS), is changing this by providing disadvantaged youths with livelihood skills development and meeting demand for quality and reliable employees in the private sector. Market mapping by EPVS determines which skills are needed in the market, then develops a curriculum for training youth conducted both in-house and with industry specific bodies.

Placement executives then ensure each trainee is provided with placement opportunities with participating organisations in retail, hospitality, logistics, finance, supply chain and healthcare sectors.  EPVS has over 22 training centres across India that have directly benefitted more than 2 500 youth. It has an annual budget of $750 000 and has 100% earned revenue.

Hybrid model

Financing self-employment

One way to improve unemployment is to create businesses and encourage self-employment. In 1987, Nigerian entrepreneur Godwin Ehigiamusoe created micro-finance Life Above Poverty Organisation (LAPO) to empower Nigeria’s poor and vulnerable people.

Godwin Ehigiamusoe-Lapo

As part of its for-profit microfinance, LAPO offers loans, savings products, and credit-for-shares investments to micro- and medium-scale enterprises such as craftwork, food processing, merchandising, fabrication and farming operations.

As part of the non-profit, LAPO then engages with poor and vulnerable communities by providing social and health empowerment programmes addressing esteem, nutrition, discrimination, and social inequalities, as well as providing training, technical assistance and HR development to other micro-finance institutions, NGOs and banks.

Over 486 000 individuals have benefitted from LAPO which has 100% earned revenue and an annual budget of $285 million (2011).

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Doing Good

(Slideshow) Society’s Change Agents

Entrepreneurs who are building promising businesses to tackle social ills.

Alison Job



Social-Entrepreneurs-Doing-Good-Cool Business

Anne-Githuku-Shongwe-Social Entrepreneur-Doing GoodAnne Githuku-Shongwe

Anne Githuku-Shongwe, founder of interactive mobile learning tool Afroes, was honoured with social entrepreneur of the year awards at the World Economic Forum on Africa in Cape Town in May

Afroes uses interactive mobile learning strategies to teach Africa’s youth about entrepreneurship, leadership and empowerment. Contact:

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