My Gap Year Inspired Me to Start a Social Enterprise

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Silviano Valdez, a 2010 Global Gap Year alum, is currently at Miami University completing his Master’s degree in Financial Economics. He earned a BA in Economics from Earlham College and attended The Midland School, a rustic boarding school in California. In this interview, he shares his inspiration to start a social enterprise after his gap year, how he managed business and college, and his future plans in international development.  

How did your gap year prepare you for business and college?

TBB’s curriculum gave my college studies purpose and direction. I still remember our heated class discussions on the best ways to implement green energy initiatives, whether to privatize water rights, the real returns for investing in a girl’s education, and what development really means. We also had the chance to meet representatives from multinational governmental organizations. These classroom debates and meetings affirmed my decision to major in economics. My first semester freshman year, I asked my economics professor what I needed to do to become a successful economist. His advice led me to take more math and statistics classes, do research with the McNair Scholars Program, and attend the American Economic Association Summer Training Program. These were all time intensive activities, but knowing that I was doing this to prepare myself for a career in international development made it a lot easier. Gaining purpose and direction allowed me to take full advantage of the opportunities at my college.

Why did you decide to take a gap year?

Chris Stakich spoke at my high school about Thinking Beyond Borders being a program where students would wrestle with complex global issues, and where I could begin to learn how to transform my education into positive social change. TBB’s mission really spoke to me because I grew up in a Mexican-American border town. For as long as I can remember my family and I have been traveling back and forth between Mexico and the United States. So at young age I witnessed poverty, families with limited access to health care, child labor, and huge amounts of income inequality. TBB gave me the confidence that my actions could make a difference in a community.

What inspired you to start your social enterprise, Vuwa Enterprise, based in Kenya?

Vuwa Enterprise is a social business that finances rain water management technologies in dry parts of Kenya. Our customers cannot afford these products up front, so we install them and create long term payment plans. We analyze their payment behavior to build credit scores and finance water storage systems upgrades. We partnered with a few local banks who use our credit scores to increase our customer’s access to credit. I wanted to challenge the idea that the marginalized are too risky to invest in. I started Vuwa at the end of my freshmen year in college and ran it until my senior year. During that time Vuwa installed over 150 rainwater management systems and provided financing for each one of them. Currently, Vuwa is under local leadership and still continues to grow.

What were the important lessons you took away after your gap year?

The most important lesson: every development issue is multi-dimensional and therefore calls for a multi-dimensional solution. The TBB curriculum constantly reminded me that there are no easy solutions, and therefore I had to learn how to think critically about international development issues. When I developed Vuwa Enterprise I made sure that I brought together a diverse group of people including bankers, outsiders, locals, trusted community leaders, nurses, and people who have worked in multiple water projects.  Like TBB, I wanted to bring together a diverse group of passionate people to think critically about potential solutions to development issues.

What do you want to do with the rest of your time in college and after?

I am currently finishing my Master’s Degree in Financial Economics at Miami University, in Oxford, Ohio. In the summer I will be attending the National Bureau of Economic Research’s Summer Institute.  In the fall I will be working for Ernst & Young’s transfer pricing group.  I will be pricing intercompany transactions across borders for multinational corporations. Part of me would like to eventually combine my research experiences and my work in transfer pricing to pursue a PhD in economics. It would be interesting to research topics such as the welfare implications of changes in a country’s tax structure. Another part of me wants to continue the type of work I started with Vuwa Enterprise. There is so much potential for innovative applications of finance to promote positive social change.

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