Trojan Scholar Society hosts social entrepreneur Elizabeth Scharpf
The founder of Sustainable Health Enterprises, an organization dedicated to creating business solutions for problems in the developing world, visited the USC Brittingham Social Enterprise Lab Wednesday afternoon to discuss her work in business with social impact.
Elizabeth Scharpf worked for the Clinton Foundation and the World Bank before traveling to Rwanda with two students where she discovered an urgent problem. SHE’s first initiative, SHE28, focuses on developing a sustainable supply of menstrual pads for women in developing countries without relying on donations and charity.
Without access to menstrual pads, Scharpf says women in developing countries are at a significant disadvantage in school and work. On average, 18 percent of women and girls in Rwanda miss 50 days of school or work per year because of a lack of menstrual protection.
“I was shocked,” Scharpf said. “I worked at the crosshairs of international business for years, and I had never heard of this problem. The surprise and shock turned to outrage. The problem was being overlooked because of a taboo.”
The issue was covered up in developing countries, Scharpf said, because of the sensitivity of the issue of menstruation. She said access to menstrual products will help develop women’s understanding of their own bodies. SHE developed the branding for the pads in collaboration with its customers. The logo says “go!” and is meant for working women and girls.
“We talked to 500 girls and women in Rwanda,” Scharpf said. “I was fascinated. What people really wanted was information about their bodies and themselves. There was a need for advocacy. There is something like a 20 percent tax on menstrual products in Rwanda.”
SHE is planning to roll out a franchise model in Rwanda that utilizes local and renewable raw materials, like banana fibers, to manufacture and distribute affordable menstrual pads through existing female social networks. Scharpf says this sustainable business model is of more use to women and the community as a whole in developing countries than a charitable approach.
“We built a production site, and we’re there,” Scharpf said. “It’s been such a journey. We had to build a supply chain for banana fiber. We work with over a thousand farmers. This is the largest source of income for those farmers today.”
Kyle Pham, a sophomore majoring in cognitive science and philosophy, politics and law, found Scharpf’s interactive community approach to business fascinating.
“I thought it was really cool how the business model was structured to incorporate the community and ultimately impact the community. It’s really bidirectional,” Pham said. “I’m really interested in entrepreneurship and recently launched one of my own startups. Once I have more resources I would love to dive into social entrepreneurship.”
The supply chain and production site make about 1,000 pads per day, and SHE is hoping to expand the program in the near future. The Harvard Business School, The New York Times and Bill Clinton, among others, have recognized SHE’s work for shaking up the status quo in the field of international development and aid. Student attendees were similarly inspired.
“I think the company’s impact is really meaningful, particularly with the communities SHE has reached in Africa,” said Spencer Wix, a sophomore majoring in business administration. “It’s really exciting that SHE is planning to go global.”
The event was co-sponsored by Global Brigades at Marshall, SoGal and the Trojan Scholar Society. It was moderated by Abby Fifer Mandell, the executive director of the USC Brittingham Social Enterprise Lab.
“We are a center within the Marshall School of Business, but we serve students from all across the university,” Fifer Mandell said. “We give students opportunities to use what they learn in the classroom for good. We train our students to tackle the world’s biggest problems.”
The lab will be hosting another forum in their Lunch and Learn series on Nov. 17th with the founder of Not Impossible, a company that creates tech-based solutions for vulnerable populations around the world.