“Asking for help is never a sign of weakness.” With Penny Bauder & Anya Cherneff

Asking for help is never a sign of weakness: How can it be when your whole purpose as a social entrepreneur is to help? Without the generous support of donors, volunteers, mentors, partners and the communities we serve, we would be nowhere. The more you can collaborate, especially amongst your competitors, the stronger your business […]

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Asking for help is never a sign of weakness: How can it be when your whole purpose as a social entrepreneur is to help? Without the generous support of donors, volunteers, mentors, partners and the communities we serve, we would be nowhere. The more you can collaborate, especially amongst your competitors, the stronger your business will be and the better the industry will be.

As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Anya Cherneff.

Anya is a co-founder of Pollinate Group, which empowers women living in poverty as micro-entrepreneurs to distribute products that improve health, save time and save money in the world’s most neglected communities. Anya has spent her career exploring new ways to address economic and gender inequality, sustainability, human trafficking and forced labor, youth safety and empowerment and diversity and inclusion. She most recently managed corporate social responsibility at the American Auto Association (AAA) and holds a Master of International Human Rights (University of Denver) and BA in Anthropology (Columbia University). Anya is currently working on providing a safe environment and educational development for her two small children.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?

Igrew up loving to travel, read, and use my imagination, in a supportive home in a privileged community just north of New York City. My maternal grandparents were both Dutch Holocaust survivors with incredible stories of resilience, who went on to build a successful business and family. Since a young age, my grandparents and the strangers who helped them escape stood as my inspiration — to never take what I have for granted, to imagine a better world for everyone, and to work hard to realize it.

At school I studied cultural anthropology and became keenly interested in the developing world, especially developing Asia. When I was in my early 20s, I lived in India and Malaysia and studied South Asian arts and culture. After returning to the US I worked in nonprofits that fought human trafficking and forced labor, before getting my graduate degree in International Human Rights.

You are currently leading a social impact organization. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?

Across India and Nepal 288.5 million people still live in extreme poverty, that means they’re living on less than $1.90 a day. Right now, the impacts of COVID-19 are increasing this inequality gap at an alarming rate.

Families are trapped in intergenerational poverty cycles, which is compounded by a lack of opportunities for women, who can be a driving force for change in their family and community.

We know that gender inequality, and a lack of access to electricity, exacerbates the impacts of poverty on women. As the household managers, women retain the full burden of chores — with women in India on average doing 577% more household work than men every day. Women living in the neglected communities we serve spend hours each day preparing meals and using low quality solutions for lighting and cooking, denying them the time or opportunities to earn meaningful income. They are restricted from further education and cannot commit to employment due to societal norms.

In India we serve more than 1,500 slums, where the temporary homes have poor infrastructure, no services like plumbing, and are prone to the effects of climate change. In south and western Nepal, with a lack of infrastructure and challenging terrain, we serve three districts and their hard to reach communities.

Starting a business is a proven model that enables women living in poverty to take their first steps towards independence and future opportunities. Since 2012 we have reached over 650,000 people and built our women-led, last mile distribution network to more than 650 women entrepreneurs.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

It’s a long backstory that starts when I was only two days old! When I was born, I had a condition that required me to have surgery. My parents were told that, as a newborn, I would have less than a 10% chance of survival. Obviously, I survived and grew up unaware of just how lucky I was to be alive, until two decades later in India. While staying in the home of a wonderful family who hosted me on a trip to rural Rajasthan, I met the youngest child in their family — a small baby who was struggling to survive with the same condition I was born with. I tried to save the baby by paying to bring him to a hospital in Udaipur but it was too little too late, the journey was too far and difficult and he passed away a few weeks later.

Acknowledging what I had access to when I was young and he did not, like medical care, solidified my commitment to support people who have been born into situations much less privileged than mine.

My passion for supporting women to be business leaders came about from early jobs working in the feminist anti-trafficking movement. I came to more deeply understand the barriers women everywhere face, especially those in poverty, and why a lack of local income-earning opportunities and the absence of women as leaders and role models was part of the problem.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

My lightbulb moment was meeting my Pollinate Group co-founder Sita Adhikari. We met in a small community library where she was running a microfinance group in rural Nepal.

Sita said, “My real dream is to start my own business employing women in my community, but we don’t have reliable power, can you help me?” I knew that this was our moment, so I reached out my hand and said, “Yes, I can,” and we began writing our business plan together right there and then.

Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?

Before starting anything I took a year off of study and went on what I called a learning tour, which involved travelling throughout south-east Asia. This was an opportunity to link up with organizations doing work in the areas I was interested in: women empowerment and clean energy. It was important to learn what social change initiatives were already out there and learn from other people’s successes and failures. We worked with people including Sita to ensure local input and ownership of the solution. This local-led approach always was, and continues to be, a key part of Pollinate Group’s impact.

To raise funds, we hosted a crowdfunder, and it only took $7,000 to enable us to launch our first pilot entrepreneur. We piloted the approach in Nepal and learned from it, even having a minimum viable product. I think there is a lot that people can learn from books in other sectors, like the Lean Startup for instance, to bring social change initiatives to scale.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

This story is about a woman called Chhaya who we work with in Kailali, a district in far Western Nepal that neighbors India. Chhaya saw how much women suffered without access to energy in the home, and how life-changing a solar light could be for them. In 2016 she joined our network and, through the skills gained through our training and ongoing support, she distributed products as well as empowered other local women to do the same. It was amazing to see how fast she learned how to run a successful business and develop more effective communication skills and confidence. With access to credit through our company she was able to grow her business to a scale where she quickly became self-reliant. Chhaya is now the CEO of her own clean energy business in rural Nepal. Her social standing and reputation grew as the community saw her transition into a trusted and capable leader. To top it all off, in 2018, she ran for public office and was elected Deputy Mayor.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?

As part of an energy access project we provided solar power to ranger stations within Chitwan National Park in southern Nepal. The park has animals including one-horned rhinos and Bengal tigers.

One day, a team member joined us on a scouting trip to install the tech, which was nothing unusual except the local project contact picked him up from his hotel on an elephant! From then on, he assumed that was the only way to get around Chitwan, so he planned everything with elephants in mind just in case.

I guess a takeaway from that is the journey as a founder, or for anyone working in social impact, is full of surprises and you will always have your assumptions challenged — so get outside your comfort zone and be comfortable with being challenged.

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

I have been surrounded by wonderful mentors and cheerleaders, including the women in Nepal and India who bring so much inspiration to me. Without their courage and faith, Pollinate Group would not have been able to grow into what it is today. Closer to home, my husband, Bennet was so supportive. He was the one who told me about the incredible market opportunity that energy access posed for women. He also spent most of his class time and vacation time writing business plans, pitching and traveling to countries including Nepal and Myanmar.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

One of my favorite stories is about Lakshmi, a woman living in a slum in Bangalore, India.

When our team met Lakshmi, she was simply surviving and doing all she could to keep her children in school. Lakshmi was actually one of Pollinate Group’s first customers and she bought a solar light, a product she had never heard of before. She was able to afford the product on one of our payment plans and now, compared to the money she was spending on kerosene, she saves $80 every year.

Two years ago, Lakshmi decided to join our women-led distribution network as a micro-entrepreneur, to sell products that improve quality of life. She has become a leader in her community and a role model for other women and girls and is saving up to move into an apartment.

In the last two months, with serious lockdowns in India due to COVID-19, Lakshmi has helped protect her community, sharing life-saving information that our team shares via phone and even working with a local NGO to distribute rations safely to her community.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Three things that can help address the root of the problem we’re trying to solve are:

1) Introducing a policy for cashless transactions that protects people living in poverty. We are seeing cashless transactions exploding in many countries due to COVID-19, but we also need to ensure the most vulnerable communities are protected to use this technology securely.

2) Long-term unrestricted funding, which supports the transformative women leadership work we’re doing. Many grants or philanthropic support is geared toward a one-off project, but organizations like Pollinate Group need core funding to ensure long-term, social change.

3) If you’re involved in social impact, if you’re reading about social impact, or you want to make purchase decisions based on social impact — go beyond the numbers. It is too easy for organizations to hide behind quantitative impacts, when the qualitative impacts and benefits can be just as powerful. For instance, measuring women’s confidence levels or how their reputation has changed in their community.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

Social impact takes time and there is never a final point: Pollinate Group is the first step out of darkness, and out of poverty. We enable a woman to be the first income-earner in her family, and eventually to become a boss. These are just the beginnings — we are laying the groundwork for the next generation of dreamers to take it further after seeing their mothers, sisters and aunts fight to be recognized and respected for their contributions.

Avoid locking yourself into one business model: To make lasting social impact you’ll need to be ready, and excited, to change how you’re solving the problem. For instance, we’ve tried a range of business models, even when we had proof they may not work, and were always surprised at the ideas and outcomes which came from a simple willingness to explore.

Seek to collaborate rather than compete: You will achieve much greater social impact by working with others. A few years back we were feeling pressure to keep up with the competition by moving into larger solar home systems or mini-grids. That didn’t work for our customers, and more importantly it didn’t create the same platform to empower women to become leaders as micro-entrepreneurship. We ended up merging with a like-minded organization to further scale our impact.

As a founder, know yourself enough to know when it’s time to exit a company: For me this was the merger. In 2018 Pollinate Group was born from two social impact organizations (Pollinate Energy in India and Empower Generation in Nepal). In Nepal we realized that we could not reach scale on our own, yet our women empowerment model could be exported. As a new mom who had just moved to California, I found it increasingly challenging to manage the company with a 12+ hour time difference and the need for long travel periods. With my young daughter in tow I set off on a two-year process to understand my competitors and find a perfect match for a merger. We undertook a bold, industry-first merger and the organization has never looked back.

Asking for help is never a sign of weakness: How can it be when your whole purpose as a social entrepreneur is to help? Without the generous support of donors, volunteers, mentors, partners and the communities we serve, we would be nowhere. The more you can collaborate, especially amongst your competitors, the stronger your business will be and the better the industry will be.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

Don’t waste time and energy trying to change the hearts and minds of those who are not open to change. There are billions of people around the world who want social change, and it will mean different things to different people. Align your efforts with the people who want to change, or are seeking opportunities to help drive change, and use that as momentum for your business. You will never regret it because you will spend time with the most wonderful, talented and passionate people on the planet. When you start a new social enterprise, or step into a social impact role, you are prioritizing the creation of the future world you want to live in.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I would love to have a private breakfast with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern because she is a most inspiring leader and role model, as well as a successful working parent who does not hide the fact that she is a full-time mom.

How can our readers follow you online?

I am less active online than Pollinate Group, and they share the best stories from across our work. You can follow via FacebookLinkedIn or Twitter or YouTube.

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