Joining hands to make a difference in the world

October 7, 2018 | Shaun Teo

Image: Clifford (left) and James (right), co-founder of Chemolex

I first met Clifford, one of BfE’s first clients, during a trip to Tanzania back in 2015. It was the summer after my first year of university, and I was part of a Cambridge Development Initiative (CDI) team running an eight-week-long programme in Tanzania, aimed at empowering social enterprise start-ups in the East African region.

I listened intently as Clifford recounted his life story. A Kenyan national, he had just completed a Bachelor of Science Degree in Industrial Chemistry, and had dreams of running a social enterprise that would provide power to off-grid communities in Africa with clean energy, leading to economic development. He recounted stories about how he grew in a rural community in Kenya where he used kerosene lamps and candles for his night-time study. These experiences made him passionate about wanting to solve the energy problem that existed in his local society. He had just founded Chemolex, a green energy start-up aiming to provide rural Kenyan households and businesses with affordable electricity for lighting and charging.

My interactions with Clifford always left me inspired. I was moved by how he was living for a cause that was bigger than himself. He wanted to make a difference in his community, through solving the energy problems in a sustainable manner through a profitable social enterprise. I loved how he dreamed big and was determined to hold on to his passion despite the many obstacles he knew he would have to face. He talked about the difficulties that faced start-ups in rural Kenya – the lack of capital and resources –  and how he wished there was more support for entrepreneurs like himself. Yet he was determined to persevere and pursue his dreams.

My experience with Clifford and other passionate social entrepreneurs left a deep mark on me. It was my first year at Cambridge, and I was honestly very conflicted – I knew I wanted to do well in a corporate career, but at the same time, I was longing for a deeper sense of meaning and social impact, things I had previously associated only with NGO work. However, as Clifford talked about his dreams and challenges, I realised that skillsets gained from a professional, corporate career can in fact be used to support and empower the dreams of Clifford and other social entrepreneurs around the world to achieve sustainable social impact. It was a paradigm shift moment for me – I resolved to do my best to learn as much as possible in the corporate world, and I was now determined to support Clifford and others in their journey.

I quickly realised that I was not the only one with this vision. Banding together with like-minded and passionate friends, we started Bridges for Enterprise (BfE) together. Clifford was one of our first clients, and we aimed to provide him with a pro-bono incubation programme that involved consulting, finance, and legal advisory services through professionals and students in the industry. We partnered with 180 Degrees Consulting Cambridge, who did a three-month-long consulting project on pricing strategy and investment opportunities for Chemolex. We then provided an in-house financial advisory service for another 3 months, and were fortunate to have Julian, who worked at Blackstone, advising the Cambridge finance team on creating an investment pitch and other capital raising strategies. We still support Clifford through our Alumni Network, which provides our beneficiaries with continued access to resources and networks.

Fast forward 3 years, Clifford’s social enterprise Chemolex has gone from ideation stage to a fully functioning company that serves 400 households and 30 businesses in rural Kenya, and he continues to pursue his dream. Additionally, thanks to the dedication and hard work of everyone in the team, BfE has grown into an international non-profit organisation with chapters in Cambridge, Singapore, New York and Sydney. Through our professional network and student team of over 250 people, we have helped empower over 46 social enterprise start-ups from 19 countries worldwide who, like Clifford, are passionate about making a change in the world. Looking towards the future, we hope we will continue to grow and help many more start-ups achieve sustainable social impact. Here at BfE, we aim to be a community of change-makers, and we warmly welcome people who believe in our vision to join us. And beyond BfE, there are so many other amazing opportunities by other charities that allow one to contribute towards helping others.

It is our hope that through social entrepreneurs, professionals and students joining hands across sectors, languages and countries, together, we can make a difference in the world.