Duke I&E

Periods Don’t Stop for Pandemics: Duke-UNICEF Innovators Gather Virtually for Training, Support, Community

Published: 2 months ago | 0 comments

In early 2020, Duke and UNICEF announced the inaugural cohort of social enterprises selected for the Duke-UNICEF Innovation Accelerator, with all six enterprises focused on menstrual health and hygiene in East Africa and beyond.

The aim of the Accelerator is to support social enterprises tackling the most pressing challenges facing children and youth around the world—challenges which only recently grew to include the deadliest global pandemic in modern history with the rise of COVID-19.

Now, along with the rest of the world, the innovators are working to adapt.

An In-Person Residency Goes Virtual

They had planned to convene at Duke this week for an in-person residency where they would participate in focused workshops and sessions, as well as build their community through peer learning and exchange. The culmination of the week would have been a global summit bringing together changemakers, academics, philanthropists, business leaders, activists, and students in conversation about social innovation and gender equality. In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, the residency was moved online and the summit postponed indefinitely, with hopes of rescheduling in Fall 2020. UNICEF’s Menstrual Health and Hygiene conference, originally scheduled for April 2, has been moved to May 21 and will take place virtually.

Duke-UNICEF Innovation Accelerator

Image courtesy of UNICEF USA

Yet this program, unlike many other accelerators, had already been constructed to run in a largely virtual format, with experts at Duke delivering education and mentoring remotely to the innovators on the other side of the world. “I think the switch to virtual delivery may be less disruptive to our enterprises than to other groups,” said Matt Nash, Duke I&E’s Managing Director for Social Entrepreneurship. “We were already set up for this.”

So this week, the innovators moved ahead with webinars originally planned for their in-person residency, focusing on core elements of their business models, how to scale for impact, and how to measure their outcomes and impact on the lives of women and girls.

Social Entrepreneurs Find Inspiration in Community

The innovators also spoke together about how they’ve been impacted by COVID-19. “Like most of us, they’re struggling,” said Nash.

Many are worried about funding and being able to keep their core businesses running, and many live in communities where social distancing is difficult to practice and healthcare systems are under-resourced. Many lack the infrastructure to work from home or struggle to shift their community-facing work, and many are dealing with the challenges of poor WiFi and unreliable electricity.

The Accelerator staff said the innovators seemed to benefit from talking about these personal experiences in the midst of the crisis. “Having colleagues who are going through this together, and having a peer network, allows the innovators to share thoughts and lean on each other a little more,” said Nash.

“Building a sense of community would have been an important component of the in-person residency, so we’re definitely still emphasizing that—facilitating conversations and driving people to Slack to take their discussions into a more informal forum,” said Taylor Conger, Program Manager for the Accelerator.

The Accelerator Plans for the Future


Image courtesy of UNICEF USA

Other innovators are exploring how to pivot or serve their communities in different ways in the midst of the crisis. Grace Françoise Nibizi, Executive Director of SaCoDé (short for Santé Communauté Développement), heads a Burundi-based startup that makes a washable and reusable sanitary pad designed to be worn with or without underwear. She shared that she had been approached by her community’s healthcare system about making protective masks and gowns for workers and patients.

In the coming months the Accelerator will share more tailored resources and opportunities for innovators specific to the challenges they’re facing in this unprecedented time.

“This Accelerator is in a unique position to help the enterprises with what they need, whether how to pivot or how to get funding. With Duke’s expertise, we have a lot of the information they might need, and now it’s a matter of diving deeper into what will help them most with their response to COVID-19,” said Nash.

Also in the coming months, the Accelerator will be enlisting the help of mentors with business and technical skills, primarily Duke alumni practitioners and faculty members. Mentors will help innovators diagnose their challenges, develop action plans, scale their businesses, provide consistent and candid advice, and foster meaningful connections to facilitate and enable scaling. Expertise in global health, East or Southern Africa, particular business models, and financing are preferred. For more information on serving as a mentor, contact Taylor Conger.

The Accelerator will be soliciting applications for a second cohort during Summer 2020, again in the area of Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH), with a specific theme to be announced.

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