MANCHESTER — A group of student entrepreneurs from Southeast Asia visited MACC Charities last week to learn how the non-profit organization uses its social programs to help the community.
The 15 entrepreneurs belong to the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative. The program was launched by the United States Department of State in 2013 and aims to strengthen leadership development in Southeast Asia.
In the exchange program, students identify a social problem in their community or country and develop a business plan for a social enterprise that addresses the problem. Students then travel to the United States of America for the residency portion of the program, where they meet with local leaders to learn about entrepreneurship and social causes.
In the United States, there are two YSEALI institutes that provide training in social entrepreneurship and economic development – one at the University of Connecticut and the other at Texas Global at the University of Texas at Austin. Students who have recently visited MACC are hosted by UConn.
This particular group, from eight different Southeast Asian countries, had to delay their overseas trip for two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. UConn YSEALI academic director Caitie Goddard, who accompanied the students on the tour last week, said the group was “really thrilled” to begin their 18-day expedition, which began with a visit to the MACC.
Patti Thurlow, operations manager at MACC Charities, first led the students to the organization’s thrift store, explaining its vital function in clothing socially vulnerable people. Every item in the store is donated by the community, she said.
People deemed at risk by the organization’s outreach team are given a voucher to use at the thrift store, Thurlow said. As a courtesy, shoppers receive a pair of socks and underwear — and in winter, hats and gloves — with their purchase, a gesture that Thurlow says was done out of respect.
Throughout the tour, the students asked Thurlow questions about different aspects of running a thrift store while revealing more about their Southeast Asian culture.
Grace Rattanadit, 27, a student from Thailand, asked Thurlow how she encourages people to donate to the store. In Thailand, clothing donations are less common because items are usually passed from one family member to another, she said.
“Family is a huge thing in Asian culture,” Rattanadit said. “We want to make sure our family is well fed and has clothes before donating to other people.”
In addition to relying on donations from the church, Thurlow said she uses social media, particularly Facebook, to make clothing requests. She said she recently started a Facebook plea for baby clothes because the store is out of stock.
Before showing students the MACC Pantry, Thurlow explained the business model for this program. The pantry is largely donation-based, and one of its main foods is instant potatoes because they’re easy to make and a healthy source of starch, she said.
Thurlow presented a bag of instant potatoes, confusing the students – many of them had never heard of this food. Thurlow said they look like oatmeal: adding milk quickly turns them into mashed potatoes.
“Our main goal here isn’t necessarily to make money – it’s to keep our people clothed and fed,” Thurlow told the students.
After their visit to MACC, the students went to WORK_SPACE for a discussion with Phil Ly, entrepreneur and CEO of a Manchester-based software company.
Some students said they admire MACC’s commitment to providing social services, as similar programs are not as popular in their home countries. Tisha Evite, 24, who lives in the Philippines, said some Filipino pantries had been “marked red” because they were believed to have communist links.
The students said they also learned valuable lessons that they will use to inform and advance their social enterprises in their home countries.
Evite, who runs a nonprofit organization that provides economics education to Filipinos, said she appreciates seeing how MACC relies on a combination of donations and grants to support its social programs.
“A lot of us are struggling on this (sustainability) aspect,” Evite said, referring to businesses they’ve grown through the YSEALI program. “As a social entrepreneur, it’s really interesting to see – you just have to dig deeper and know who to ask.”
Pirun Chan, from Cambodia, called MACC’s reliance on local sources, such as churches and grocery stores, a “big eye-opener”.
“One key thing I can take away from this place is how you can accomplish so much just by having the right people supporting you,” Chan said.
The social entrepreneurs will also explore New York and Boston as part of their trip, program officials said. Once back home, students can rework their business plans based on the information they have acquired abroad. Additionally, they will have the option to apply for $500 in project funding to invest in their social enterprises.
Goddard said the students are ready to make significant contributions in their respective communities.
“They are the next leaders of Southeast Asia,” she said.