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Launching an Entrepreneurial Venture

There is little doubt that the 21st century has seen the rise of an “online learning revolution” as various technologies and internet programs have increasingly become a part of classroom learning and skill building. But what about the 65 percent of the world that cannot take advantage of this revolution? What about the individuals in rural communities in underdeveloped countries for whom online access is not a reality? According to doctoral student Vanessa Beary, Ed.M.’11, founder and CEO of Entrepreneurial Lab, there is another revolution taking place in remote parts of low-income countries — an offline revolution that is working to make education accessible to the world.

At last week’s presentation, “Launching an Entrepreneurial Venture: From Cambridge to Tajikistan Using Raspberry Pis and the Sneakernet,” Beary shared her experiences with Entrepreneurial Lab (eLab) — an entrepreneurship education program for high-potential, disadvantaged young women between the ages of 12 and 15 around the world — both in an effort to capture the early stages of a startup and to share how the organization has used low-cost technology to reach young women living in remote parts of low-income countries. As codirector of BRIDGE, the entrepreneurship group at HGSE, Beary said she received requests from students on the leadership council for the “entrepreneurial process” to be demystified by actual student entrepreneurs. Having recently gone through the process herself, Beary talked about her own experiences with problem identification, and the way in which she developed a solution through eLab.

“I came up with the idea for Entrepreneurial Lab two years ago when I was conducting my dissertation research in northern Tajikistan, where I oversaw the implementation and evaluation of an entrepreneurship education program for youths and young adults,” Beary said. “Through this experience, I observed firsthand the ways in which an entrepreneurship education program empowered the young women who had enrolled in the program. Over the four weeks, they became more confident with public speaking, more confident in their own leadership abilities, and, most importantly, more confident in their own ideas. It was exciting to observe this transformation over a short period of time.”

Inspired by this experience, Beary began working on ideas to make education more accessible to women around the globe. “I originally started the project under the name 10^X, but I changed the name to Entrepreneurial Lab in May 2013,” Beary said, admitting that “part of the start-up process has been about learning about how to ‘name’ an organization.” She was awarded an Education Entrepreneurship Summer Fellowship from HGSE this past May — including space at the Harvard Innovation Lab — to help accelerate the development of her project. Two pilot programs officially launched in September: one in Cambridge and the other in Isfara, Tajikistan.

Along with discussing the initial stages of a start-up, Beary said the event was also intended for people who are interested in learning more about the power of Raspberry Pis and the sneakernet, and the potential application to their own work.

So what are Raspberry Pis and the sneakernet?  As described by Beary, Raspberry Pis are essentially mini-computers about the size of a credit card, which are convenient because they are small enough to mail to different countries and transport to remote locations. However, even with these computers, individuals in remote locations still do not have access to the internet. Thus, the sneakernet is the process of “walking” — or physically transporting via flashdrive — electronic files to these remote locations.

“We join the ‘offline learning revolution’ and use technology to make our content available to students who do not currently have access to the internet,” Beary said. “We use eReaders, Raspberry Pis, and the sneakernet to create learning environments that support the development of 21st-century skills and multimedia production skills in young women around the world.”

In the pilot program in Tajikistan, for example, every other week the program director, Anora Rahim, takes new materials from Khujand — the second largest city in the country — to Isfara, a small town roughly 120 kilometers away, or 2.5 hours by bus. The materials, which are downloaded on a flash drive, are then distributed and taught to the students using Raspberry pis, wireless routers, and low-cost electronic readers, giving them new material to use for the next two weeks.

“I view this process of information sharing as a work around until affordable internet connects every part of our world,” Beary said. “In the end, this effort is important and we believe that the skills one acquires through a design-based entrepreneurship education program, such as opportunity recognition, problem solving, creativity, collaboration, [and] storytelling, are transferable and applicable to other areas of these young women’s lives. I hope that Entrepreneurial Lab will play an important role in developing future female entrepreneurial leaders around the world.”


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