Our Graduation Model: A Letter from Our Director of Programs

On June 7th and 14th, we celebrated the first two graduating classes of our full Fellowship Program, with 390 graduates receiving certificates in Coffee Farming and Artisan Training.  Our Fellows have been committed for the past 15 months through the various components of our program- industry training and investment, personal development and mentorship, and finally, the business plan competition, and now stand better equipped and supported to champion a more sustainable livelihood for themselves and their families.  

Graduations are inherently about change,  about looking back and looking forward. These graduations were a time to honor the hard work and experience of the past 15 months, but more importantly, to acknowledge the individual changes that have taken place, and envision only better things to come.  

Over the course of this past year our mission at Kula has been to “eradicate poverty through the development of entrepreneurs”. As we’ve approached these graduations, I have felt more confident in that statement, and our approach to accomplish it, than ever.  But more than that, I believe deeply in the posture and perspective entrenched in those words. While they may have at first felt lofty or overly ambitious, once again I’ve seen the strength and dedication of our Fellows to overcome, to dream for a better future, and to graduate as the entrepreneurs that they are today.     

The graduation model for poverty alleviation has been gaining popularity around the globe since the early 2000s.  Now adapted by hundreds of organizations and governments in more than 45 countries, it has become a proven method of holistic support to empower people from one level to another — to graduate not just from a program, but from one lifestyle or socioeconomic cycle to another. That it has been a proven researched approach to empowering people from one level to another gives us confidence in the graduation model.  

But, while the research is informative and valuable, much of it lacks something of the human spirit.  It speaks in terms of the ‘ultra-poor’, of inputs and outcomes, of assets and interventions, of global numbers and percentages.  And often, about moving poor people from extreme poverty to just above the poverty line. This is vital for the global scope of the challenge, and when our team steps back to theorize and plan, we get elbows deep in these terms.  But in our daily work, we get to work with individuals. Individuals who don’t think about the global class they’re in but about sending their kids to school today and, audaciously, university in the future. Not about support services, market linkages and profit margins, but about how they can make enough for their families today, and what they could do if only they had a little more.  About what they want to build and grow. About the extra coffee trees they want to purchase, the cow they want to raise, the house they want to renovate, the tuition they want to pay. About being here today, but being there tomorrow.  

Last year at the beginning of this Fellowship, we worked with our Fellows in a process to develop household visions and action plans — their personal and familial roadmap for the future.  While it was clear that there was needed support to accomplish these goals, much of which helped influence our support details, the obstacles weren’t the theme — the accomplishments were.    

At the end of the program cycle, we listened to the top 10 finalists of our Business Plan Competition pitch their ideas.  The competition has been the final stage before graduation, the platform through which Fellows present the combination of their vision for the future and the training they’ve received these past months.  We heard impressive business plans, creative ideas, and entertaining performances. Ultimately, we didn’t hear voices of the poor.  We heard entrepreneurs.

Because it speaks to our core belief in the human spirit is ultimately why we have chosen the graduation model.  On a large scale level the theory makes sense and the research backs it up. But on an individual level, it says people are capable, and people overcome, no matter their past.  It speaks of change — looking back, and looking forward.

And so we address needs from this perspective, shaping our program in terms of what can we provide now (material support), how can we strengthen Fellows for their work (industry training), how can we equip them in thinking about their families, their money, their communities, their confidence and their future (personal development and mentorship) and how can we support their dreams (business plan competition and investment).  And once that has been done, we believe that our Fellows are ready to thrive outside of an intensive program.

After graduation our mentors will continue to follow up periodically with our graduates to see how they’re doing and provide relational support, but our staff will now shift the bulk of our focus to our next class of Fellows who may not yet have had the fortune of good education or access to skills training or a strong social network, but are brimming with dreams, desire and capability.  We can’t wait to meet these next entrepreneurs and we cannot wait for their graduation.

– Nic