IS members represent nonprofits, foundations, and corporations engaged in every kind of charitable endeavor, with missions that reflect the nearly infinite ways of working for the common good.
New member Caravanserai Project strives to provide structure, accountability, supply specialized skills, and bring together networks of people to help ideas grow and flourish on their own.
We talked with Mihai Patru, Co-Founder and Principal, about how Caravanserai Project’s desire to help create sustainable change is evolving through their work with social entrepreneurs and changemakers.
IS: Tell us a little bit about your career path and how you arrived at your present position.
MP: I began my career as a diplomat, working with the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Growing up in a former communist country where grassroots entrepreneurship used to be less about social impact and more about providing for your family, my interest in this sector has been shaped by my travels around the world. One episode that I vividly remember is a meeting with a group of young Libyans in the city of Benghazi during the early days of the Arab Spring. It was inspiring to witness first-hand the energy of these aspiring changemakers and their determination to find innovative solutions to multigenerational problems and generate change in their own communities. Through continued work with changemakers in the human rights sector, as well as my own experiences as a social entrepreneur, I learned a lot about the challenges of social change and wanted to get more involved.
IS: What is the Caravanserai Project? How did it start?
MP: Caravanserai Project started in 2016 with a mission to provide a support platform for social innovators and changemakers early on in their journeys. The word “caravanserai” has its origin in the Persian and Turkish languages and designated a meeting place along trade routes. It was a safe space where travelers could rest and trade goods, but also learn valuable information about the routes and the situation in the regions they were about to cross. Essentially, that is the idea for the Caravanserai Project: we wanted to provide a crucible where ideas and experiences are brought together, exchanged, and developed to promote social innovation and encourage progress. Our work is unique though, because of our focus on people working at the grassroots level in underserved and marginalized communities and the mechanism of support we developed.
IS: Describe some of the programs or services your organization runs.
MP: Currently, our main initiative is SEED Lab – Social Entrepreneurship, Engagement and Development Lab, a 10-month pre-accelerator program for early stage social entrepreneurs developed in collaboration with the Center for Social Innovation at the University of California, Riverside, and Independent Sector. The 10-person cohort attends six three-day customized trainings. They work with mentors, consult with experts, and access networks. We support them by focusing on their work’s financial sustainability and impact, building their skills around public speaking, sharing their narrative, and developing their vision, mission, and business planning. This group of early stage social entrepreneurs is very diverse, and the majority are women. Everyone is part of the dynamic being created through the program; we provide guidance and the venue, but they are encouraged to support each other and often are guiding the conversations in the room.
There’s a lot of talk that if you don’t scale then you don’t exist. We strongly believe in scalable solutions, but scalability should not be a condition. Some of these communities cannot wait for an outsider to come in with a model to be scaled. Nor do they need to wait — they have the energy and tools to identify smart solutions themselves. There is so much untapped potential in grassroots social innovators. The SEED Lab cohort is the best example.
IS: Can you highlight one of the special projects in SEED Lab?
MP: The SEED Lab projects are covering a wide range of sectors from foster care, mentorship, health, workforce training to teaching entrepreneurship in school and building green roofs. It is hard to single out one since all have a lot of potential. To give an example, the Aztec Dance & Talking Circles Citlaltonac. Gabby and Claudia Armenta are two sisters of Mexican origin based in Eastern Coachella Valley and about ten years ago started a dancing and talking circle for their community. Their dancing and talking circles have become a safe space for the entire community and they represent an important tool to educate people about their traditions and learn about their identity. At SEED Lab they explore and design their next steps, but also connect with networks and likeminded individuals.
IS: Tell us something you’re excited about in your work coming up.
MP: We will host a workshop session at Upswell LA on Thursday, November 15, Incubating Grassroots Social Entrepreneurship: Challenges and Rewards. We’re expecting the entire SEED Lab cohort to be there and discuss the challenges of being a grassroots social changemaker. We’re looking forward to having them pitch their ideas and get feedback from a new audience.
Learn more about Caravanserai Project at https://caravanseraiproject.org/.
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