Building Markets’ mission is to reduce poverty in conflict-affected countries by creating jobs and encouraging sustainable economic growth.
Jennifer Holt grew up in Alabama, a place she says, “has a dark history of racial terrorism.” This history drove Jennifer’s sense of purpose. “I can be an idealist to a fault sometimes, but I’m also a realist,” she explains. Her early work was in direct service, working with adolescents. But it was when she worked in Kosovo with Andrew W. Mellon Foundation‘s Forced Migration Program that her focus began to shift. Jennifer began to see how the economic ecosystem can impact the population. “I decided that I wanted to look at some of the bigger issues that I had been seeing across our work.”
While working at the UN in the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, she met Scott Gilmore, the founder of Building Markets. Scott convinced Jennifer to go to Afghanistan. At the time, $2.1 Billion in aid was flowing into Afghanistan. And yet, very little of the goods and services were being sourced through local businesses. She describes her work this way: “We were measuring how much money was being spent by the international community in Afghanistan, versus outside of Afghanistan.” Over the next four or five months, Jennifer met with leaders and business owners. “Seeing these Afghan businesses so capable, so ready to work, yet being completely overlooked, I was infuriated, and I was really inspired.”
Jennifer returned to the United States to launch the U.S. operations of Building Markets. Today, she is the Chief Executive Officer. Building Markets is disrupting how international aid is used in countries affected by issues such as war or natural disasters. Jennifer states that “there were massive amounts of money being spent by the international donors and aid community, but most of that money was being spent offshore.” She says, “in these markets, local entrepreneurs, particularly ones that run SMEs, make up 90% of the businesses in these countries. They create up to 86% of the jobs. But because resources are scarce and there is competition, for them to be able to compete with larger companies is extremely difficult.”
Procurement officers don’t always bypass local markets on purpose. “Even though local entrepreneurs and SMEs make up the majority of businesses, the ability to access them is difficult. There are informational asymmetries. In other words, if you are a procurement officer or even an investor, you don’t know what businesses actually exist.”
Building Markets bridges the gap between local businesses and investors. “Building Markets has a very, very local approach. We literally go door to door. We collect around 150-200 data points on every business that we work with.” Using those data points, Building Markets can see the growth constraints that these businesses have and the capabilities of the businesses. Building Markets’ data-driven approach allows them to understand the real issues and create solutions to those issues.
Building Markets uses a “bricks and clicks” approach. Since trust levels are low, relationships need to be built as much as possible offline. On the other hand, technology can provide a lot for the businesses that Building Markets helps. They can use technology to showcase the strengths of these businesses.
Jennifer believes that, if you want to succeed as a social entrepreneur, you have to be a good listener. Foreigners dominate many of the conversations, strategies, and programs happening in these countries. Jennifer reminds us that “The experts are actually the people that we are working to support.”
Social Entrepreneurship Quotes from Jennifer Holt
“The kinds of resources provided to these businesses is not always aligned with their needs.”
“Do more listening and less talking.”
“The experts are actually the people that we are working to support.”
“I wanted to look at some of the bigger issues that I had been seeing across our work.”
Social Entrepreneurship Resources:
- Building Markets: http://buildingmarkets.org/
- Building Markets on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/BuildingMarkets
- Building Markets on Twitter: https://twitter.com/BuildingMrkets
- Building Markets on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/buildingmarkets/
- Equal Justice Initiative: https://www.eji.org
- Book: Crazy Good Advice: 10 Lessons Learned from 150 Leading Social Entrepreneurs: https://tonyloyd.com/book