Social Work Takes on Business

Jan 24, 2012

By Maren Dale, Special to the NEWS

Credit: John Michael Yanson

Social workers need to be business savvy.

Among the 10 imperatives for the next decade of the profession adopted by participants of the Social Work Congress in 2010 is “infusing models of sustainable business and management practice in social work education and practice.”

Fortunately, there are social work entrepreneurs who have blazed the trail of using social work skills with various business models, from social entrepreneurism to corporate sector services to private practice.

Social entrepreneurship

Rebecca Kousky is the founder of NEST, a nonprofit that helps women artisans in developing countries by giving them microloans then selling their products to U.S. consumers.

Kousky received her MSW in 2006 from the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis. After graduation, she began a job search but soon realized the positions available were not the right fit. At this same time, Muhammad Yunus, a Bangladeshi banker and economist, had just won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in promoting microfinance, and it was being discussed by many as the “solution to poverty.”

“It was exciting to see this happen and understand how microloans might help people,” says Kousky.

Soon, Kousky began developing an idea: Create a new model — and a nonprofit to support it — that would offer “microbartering” to women artisans in developing countries, along with needed business training and support. The concept was that women would receive small loans to start small businesses, but instead of paying interest they would repay with their products, which would be marketed and sold in the U.S.

Kousky says she talked to everyone she could about her idea, eventually writing a business plan and winning startup funding through a program at Washington University’s Skandalaris Center for Entrepreneurial Studies. In 2006 — the same year as Kousky’s graduation —NEST opened its doors.

“It was through the lens of social work — and working directly with women — that I created the (NEST) model,” she says. “While I loved — and still love — microfinance, I wanted to be certain that we were helping the women holistically. I saw microfinance as a great first step to business creation, but as a social worker, wanted the model to include business development, education and market access that would truly allow the businesses to thrive.”

In the first year, NEST operated with only a handful of artists. Three years later, the Nest Collaborative was launched. The initiative connects U.S. designers who need help producing, assembling and/or constructing their designs with skilled artisans around the world who need employment and a sustainable living wage. Through this initiative, major retailers like Lord and Taylor, American Eagle and Kate Spade were soon contacting and partnering with NEST.

In September, NEST split into two organizations: one is the ethical sourcing body called The Collaborative Group; the other is NEST, which remains solely focused on artisan training and development. NEST now operates in 12 countries with more than 2,000 artisans.

 “If you are a social worker with a great idea, don’t hold back,” Kousky says. “I didn”t have a business background, but I talked to everyone I knew and was able to get the help and financial support I needed.”

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From the January 2012 NASW News