HubWeek Change Maker: Kristin van Busum

Founder and CEO, Project Alianza.

Kristin is founder and CEO of Project Alianza, a woman-led social enterprise that provides education for children living in remote farming communities in Latin America. She is a TEDx and keynote speaker, and was a Gold Winner in the MassChallenge Boston accelerator for high-impact startups where she is currently the Social Impact Entrepreneur in Residence. Prior to founding Project Alianza, she worked at RAND Corporation where she coauthored congressional reports and over 20 academic publications and policy briefs. Having traveled to over 40 countries in the past four years, she landed back in Boston to grow her company because it’s innovative, inspiring, walkable, and most importantly, it feels like home.

Zoe Dobuler: What is your background, and how did you find your way to Project Alianza?

Kristin van Busum: I grew up in a rural, blue-collar Indiana town. Going to college was considered a privilege for a handful of outliers each year, and traveling abroad was a luxury. I’m not sure that many of my neighbors had passports. But my mom earned her doctorate when I was in high school, and that example kept me thinking about the wider world.

My grandparents sold their farm (to Walmart, of all buyers) and earmarked the funds for my education; I used that money to study abroad in college. My travels as a young woman transformed my world view. My grandparents would be proud to see how travel gave my higher education a focus that it wouldn’t have had otherwise.

I went on to study public policy at NYU and moved to Boston to work at RAND Corporation. In 2014, I left my job to pursue a Fulbright fellowship studying sustainable farming practices in the coffee lands of Nicaragua.

During my time as a Fulbright scholar, I lived on coffee farms deep in the campo, the isolated rural area of the country’s central highlands. Every morning I went to the local well to collect water, and that’s where I met Ana, a twelve-year-old who grew up living and working on coffee farms. Like me, she woke early each morning to collect water; unlike me, she brought the water back home to cook for her entire family.

Ana followed me around for a few days before getting bored with my routine (I couldn’t blame her), and then she began showing me around her community. Among other things, she showed me there was a huge unmet demand for formal education in the campo. For two months we took a bit of time each morning to chat, color, or jump rope, and in that time I learned how narrow her prospects were. She attended school for only two years, dropping out in second grade to look after her younger brother.

The most remarkable thing about Ana — and I learned this only after meeting some of her friends — was how unremarkable her story turned out to be. Most of the kids I met in the campo were sharp. They were funny. They had the wits, the resourcefulness, and the drive to make the most of an education, they just lacked the opportunity. One way or another, that reason usually turned around the work their parents did: If they weren’t working alongside adults, they were keeping households going, like Ana was at age 12. Or they were finding ways to help on both fronts.

You asked how I found my way to Project Alianza, but really, it found me first: the kids, their talents, and their parents’ hopes are really what make Alianza work. I just founded a program that helps interested people turn their good intentions into concrete results for children in need.

ZD: Can you tell me a bit about Project Alianza’s mission? How do you put those words into action in communities?

KV: Project Alianza’s vision is to give challenging, comprehensive educations to children in rural Central American farming communities. We help give children a future beyond the fields.

We pursue this vision by improving access to education, mostly by building new schools and supporting literacy and life skills in the classroom. All Project Alianza schools are built to be safe and accessible, with toilets, water, and kitchen facilities. Our alliances with coffee estates and other local partners cut the cost of land and materials pretty drastically, which lets us operate on the scale we feel we need to.

Once a school is safe, staffed, and supplied, we focus on the curriculum. We use an evidence-based model, Teaching at the Right Level, that was pioneered by Pratham, a large Indian educational NGO. Our version is tailored to improve literacy, health and hygiene, environmental awareness, and gender equality.

We’re also investing in scholarship programs to support the ongoing education of children with aspirations to go on to secondary school and college, and to encourage our staff and educators to pursue advanced degrees.

ZD: From reading about Project Alianza, it seems like partnerships are at the core of your work. Can you explain your collaborative approach to education, and why it’s so effective?

KV: Thanks for noticing: That’s a great point. Alianza means “alliance”, and collaboration is central to our whole effort.

I didn’t set out to found a new NGO, but when I first got the idea to support education in the campo, I was frustrated by existing nonprofits working in the area. Right down the line, they struck me as heavy-handed with their agendas and not focused enough on the handful of things that truly needed doing. Some required participants to attend specific churches, and most promoted ideas that weren’t relevant to campesinos’ current way of life or to their aspirations.

Mostly I saw coffee companies cobbling together “social projects” that only focused on training more farmers for the benefit of their supply chain. No one was doing much of practical value to support the most vulnerable — the children — or addressing the root causes of cyclic poverty: lack of education and economic opportunity.

I don’t want to say that those other organizations didn’t take education seriously, but they didn’t have the impact they could have. There was room for a more focused organization, an industry-agnostic, faith-agnostic organization, to focus intently on improving educational access and outcomes. So I created one.

At first, we were worried that we’d be stepping on toes. Just because we saw an opening didn’t mean that everyone did, but we’ve gotten tremendous support from large-scale farmers. I’ve already mentioned how they’ve helped us acquire land and materials, but their support goes beyond that. They’ve got a huge interest in stabilizing rural communities and slowing the movement of laborers to cities and towns, and they know that good schools are critically important to keeping the children of their workers safe. Our model is community-based, and getting large employers to buy in and participate is crucial to its success.

But this is my favorite part: we connect the entire supply chain. Most of Central America’s coffee reaches wealthier northern markets, and those markets are increasingly interested in corporate responsibility (e.g. Clover and George Howell). We help coffee estates in Central America identify their product as socially responsible, and we work with coffee companies in the US to support children and education where they source coffee.

We don’t have an ideology or a brand to promote, but we also recognized the danger of importing a bunch of well-intentioned ideas into an environment where they wouldn’t translate well. A terrific education in the Nicaraguan campo looks much the same as a terrific education in the States, but it’s different in some important ways. Our team is comprised of Central Americans working closely with the Ministry of Education on curriculum and programming that is culturally relevant.

That’s a long answer, I know. But we’ve got a lot of partners.

ZD: You also went through the MassChallenge program. How did being in that entrepreneurial/startup atmosphere impact the development of your company?

KV: MassChallenge gave me access to some amazing resources here in Greater Boston and helped me build a network of mentors and allies to support our mission. I believe in our work too deeply to think that I wouldn’t have reached some of those contacts in time, but MassChallenge made the process quick and comprehensive, and let us move forward with confidence. I met incredible mentors who helped build our business model, taught me how to think more broadly and strategically, and pushed me as a leader. Starting a company, especially a nonprofit, is difficult and finding the right support is critical.

As one of the 2018 winners, I also got a shot of confidence. We were competing for funding with profit-driven companies, and I don’t mind admitting that I really needed some wind in my sails by then. I saw that our business model was competitive with other companies — even for-profit ones — in tech and science.

I’d been living in the mountains of Nicaragua for a few years, and to be honest, I’d started to wonder if good faith and hard work were enough. It’s easy to lose perspective when you’re working so intently, especially when you’re thousands of miles from home, and I began to feel isolated. MassChallenge showed me that our work mattered to people back in the States, and that it had a place in the conversation even in a hugely competitive environment like Boston’s.

ZD: What advice do you have for someone interested in breaking into the social innovation ecosystem in Boston?

KV: Don’t be afraid of failure or rejection! We’ve all heard it, but it’s true: If you’re not failing once in a while, you’re not trying hard enough. Boston is full of bright, motivated people, and not every one of them can succeed at every turn. So embrace failure as part of the learning process and take advantage of the city’s social and intellectual capital. If you truly believe in your company’s mission, people will listen to you, and if your mission is sound, they’ll want to help. Knock on doors, ask for help, find a group of mentors, and put yourself out there as much as possible.

This Change Maker interview was originally published July 2019 on the HubWeek blog.

The HubWeek Change Maker series showcases the most innovative minds in art, science, and technology making an impact in Boston and around the world. Know a change maker you think should be interviewed for this series? Nominate them here.

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