[Executive Edge] A school for Filipino social entrepreneurs
Most aspiring youth entrepreneurs in the Philippines take up business at a local university and some may get an MBA later on. Two-month accelerator program Watson Institute Philippines, which is now in session at coworking space 47 East, presents students with a different experience.
Founded in 2014 by youth leaders Andy Rapista, Raya Buensuceso, and Carbs Bayombong, Watson Institute Philippines tries to teach students the skills they need to succeed as entrepreneurs. This curriculum is rooted, in part, in Rapista’s observations of people in her social circle.
“When I was in college, I saw that even my friends who had degrees from Ivy League universities and other top universities in the US were struggling to find jobs,” she said. “The skills demand in our generation compared to our parents’ is simply different.”
Teaching soft skills
The 2-month program is thus built around a student’s venture, each of which addresses one of 13 different issue areas, such as climate change, youth empowerment, sustainable agriculture and farming, indigenous peoples’ rights, and youth empowerment.
For a student who has only an idea of what their venture will be, the goal will be to launch it. For a student who already has a working enterprise, the goal will be to scale it. In a testament to the strength of this program, one of last year’s students, Paulo Oscuro, returns for the second incarnation of Watson Institute Philippines as one of its leaders.
To help them achieve these goals, the program teaches students soft skills like empathy. Some values are unique to Watson Institute. One is called “treat everyone like the Messiah,” which is taken from a parable of a failing monastery.
A rabbi visited it and told the 3 leaders of the monastery that one of them was the Messiah. As a result, the 3 leaders began to treat one another as though they were the Messiah, and the monastery began to thrive once again. “We strive to do the same at Watson,” Rapista said.
The Watson Institute also teaches hard skills like fundraising, pitching, and business development.
“We also have the Watson Lab where scholars get to work on their venture full-time and an entrepreneur in residence, essentially a ‘business coach’ that examines their work and validates its customer and market viability,” Rapista said.
The exercises that the Watson Institute team uses to instill these skills are sometimes unique, if not a little unusual. In one activity called “daring greatly,” students are asked to go out into the community and ask complete strangers for a bizarre favor.
One student might ask, “Will you give me a back massage?” Another student, upon entering a restaurant, might ask, “Can I have a free meal?” The goal of these outlandish requests is to get as many “no’s” as possible.
“This helps address people’s inherent fear of rejection and shame in looking stupid or silly – when we realize that getting a ‘no’ isn’t so bad after all,” Rapista said, adding that scholars were actually surprised that more people said “yes” than they would have anticipated.
Serving deserving students
Rapista said one of the things she struggled with the most growing up was not having a lot of "powerful women leaders to look up to – I had to find them on my own and cultivate these values on my own,” Rapista shared.
Thus, the most difficult part of teaching entrepreneurship is not instilling business-specific skills, but helping students develop this entrepreneurial mindset, Rapista said.
The challenge is compounded by the fact that Watson Institute aims to largely serve students from the provinces, who do not have as many resources available to them as their urban counterparts. Most students from the provinces require a full scholarship, so funding them can be a challenge.
“We don’t want to turn down anyone with high potential just because they can’t afford it,” Rapista said. As a result, they accept the students and then hustle to find them money, believing that investing in one person’s education creates a ripple effect when they return to their respective communities.
Changing their mindsets, once enrolled, can also be tough. Rapista said that many provincial students have the can’t-afford-to-fail mentality. Over the course of the program, she tries to get them to accept and even celebrate failure.
Overall, Rapista said that the Philippines suffers from not only a poverty of wealth, but a poverty of dreams.
“Growing up, we as a people are not taught to think that we can become CEOs, leaders, influencers, or founders of companies. We are taught to be managers and employees – not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it limits our perception and creates limiting beliefs for what we could become,” she said. – Rappler.com