Emerging Innovators Alumni: Planting New Seeds for the Next Generation of Social Entrepreneurs

Written by Guest Blogger and 2013 Emerging Innovator Curt Bowen

When I was 18, my best friend Joseph and I planned to design an innovative way for Central American communities to make their own biofuels in order to become fuel independent and fight poverty. We were going to teach this technology to universities, citizen sector organizations, and farming associations—and, we were going to do it all by driving and living in a biodiesel powered bus through Central America.

We applied for some big grants—I think we were crazy enough to apply to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. But in the end, our first major international project was made possible by an event at the Ashland Oregon Synagogue, smoothie sales, our on-campus jobs, and most importantly, a grant from Ashoka’s Youth Venture that enabled us to make it a reality.

To prepare for our interview with Youth Venture, Joseph and I spent three hours giving each other mock questions. And then the big moment: the phone rang, we told our story, explained our ideas, and talked about our hopes for our futures.

The acceptance letter is still burned into my mind. It made me feel like we weren’t crazy, like we really could build our dreams for social change into reality.

After the biodiesel project succeeded, we channeled the momentum from that project into an international development organization at Whitman College, ran some more projects, found a sustainable way to keep our organization going, and graduated.

Then I moved to Guatemala to make this lifestyle into my life. I founded New Seed, or Semilla Nueva in Spanish, and began working to bring small farmers out of poverty.

New Seed works with Guatemalan farmers to train them to use new farming techniques that rebuild their soils and increase their incomes. More importantly, we help farmers build their own village programs in order to investigate these technologies and teach them to their neighbors.

Other organizations are beginning to take note as hundreds of farmers begin to change how they grow their livelihoods, and we are working with local and national governments to begin to institutionalize these programs. We’ve been growing at 80 percent annually for four years and are beginning to be seen as leaders within Guatemala’s agricultural development community.

In May of 2013, recognition of our work led to my selection as a participant in the Ashoka Changemakers 2013 American Express Emerging Innovators Leadership Boot Camp. As I listened to other changemakers posing questions to our amazing speakers—many of whom were Ashoka Fellows—I realized that I was a part of something, shaped by something.

And now, a new batch of young social innovators has been selected for the 2014 American Express Emerging Innovators Boot Camps. 45 young social innovators from across the U.S., Canada, and Mexico will meet throughout June to discuss ways to solve some of the world’s biggest problems.

I reflect on where this all began for me. I recall writing the Youth Venture application when I was 18, being forced to think about sustainability, budgets, and local community buy-in. I think back to the interview questions that pushed us to think critically about how our work could grow and to realistically assess our chances for success.

My first project, at age 18, didn’t bring about the world-changing results I had hoped for, but it did put me on a path. And eight years later, I am still on it, trying to find a new and innovative solution to a hard problem that can lead the world in a new direction.

For that chance to try an idea, to awaken a passion, and to be guided, I owe so much of my current life to Youth Venture, to Ashoka.

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