For years now, I have worked alongside impact economy guru, Jigar Shah. We both believe that our greatest challenge—climate change—is also our greatest economic opportunity. (In fact, this is the focus of Jigar’s forthcoming book, Creating Climate Wealth.)

With this in mind, I recently attended the Growing the Impact Economy summit at Harvard, which focused on accelerating job creation and economic development through “for-benefit” enterprises. For-benefit is a rapidly growing fourth sector of hybrid organizations emerging from the intersection of the three traditional sectors—government, for-profit, and nonprofit.

Attendees included impact investors, funders, social entrepreneurs, government officials, economic development practitioners, and scholars interested in advancing a national economic development strategy to accelerate for-benefit enterprises and spur the growth of the impact economy.

Attending were committed and influential people such as Don Graves, executive director for the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, and Liz Shephard, founder and chief sustainability officer of LifeCity in New Orleans. LifeCity supports and leverages a strong community of organizations and individuals committed to sustainable change.

There were also students. One memorable young woman, Huazhen “Molly” Guan, is a master’s degree candidate in public policy at Harvard Kennedy School and the daughter of farm workers in rural China. Of all the participants at the event, Molly was the person who arguably navigated the most difficult path to be in the room. Her story expanded my thinking about the social implications of the impact economy more than any other person or conversation at the summit.

Huazhen “Molly” Guan

The conference kicked off with an icebreaker exercise to uncover attendees’ interests and passions. Molly said that her life goal is to improve opportunities for migrant farm workers in China. She told us that for most Chinese children in rural areas, formal education ends after the completion of middle school.

According to Teach for China, just 1 out of every 10 children living in rural China finishes middle school. Given the number of children who live there, this means that 6.7 percent of the world’s children live in rural China with little if any access to a quality education.

At age 9, Molly started working in a paper factory; it required hard, repetitive labor to make “funeral paper,” also known as Joss paper, which people burn as a ritual offering at Chinese funerals. It took her an entire week to earn the equivalent of one US dollar.

In fact, Molly is the only person I have ever met with this on her resume: “Started to work in a local factory at age 9 and self-financed primary school education; pitched to business leaders and secured $110,000 for my graduate education.”

She said of her journey, “I was lucky.” In gaining the support of her parents, she was. Her mother appreciated a formal education, but at first could not fully understand what it entailed because she never learned to read and write. Parental support was uncommon in her village where few girls progressed beyond high school.  But gradually, her parents began to support her.

Her progress was more than luck: She took advantage of opportunities and worked hard—harder than most reading this could ever imagine.

In elementary school, she performed well and earned entrance to a very good middle school that had only seven available spots for people from her town. The demand for a middle school spot was so great that families were willing to pay a year’s income to buy Molly’s place.

For 9 years, she toiled 15-18 hours a day, studying or working in the factory. In high school, she had the opportunity to go to college after completing a rigorous entrance exam for which she prepared for more than 3 years.

After graduating from Nanjing University’s School of Foreign Studies, she excelled in jobs in government and business in China, which led her to job opportunities in the United States.

Her work in the government sector led her to Harvard, and to pay for her education, she pitched people in government, personal friends, scholarship organizations, and companies, ultimately raising $110,000.

About attending college in China, she says, “I did not think that my background as a village girl was something that I should be proud of when I was in college. I felt ashamed about this. The students were comparing how powerful their families were.”

But about attending Harvard, she says this: “I recognized the power of my background. I recognized that being here was really because of my personal work. On the other hand, some people arrived at Harvard and had to underplay their identity because they were from a really ‘royal’ family. I felt lucky because I could just be me.”

Her story made it clear that building an impact economy at scale can help ensure that success and opportunity become the norm for children not the exception. While Molly’s ability to overcome countless hurdles was incredible, we need to deploy equal opportunity access at massive scale so that all children have an equal chance.  

For-benefit enterprises can help make access to information easier to obtain. For example, a for-benefit enterprise could be in business to deliver electricity to impoverished, desolate populations of the world by installing clean renewable energy, such as wind and solar.

In doing so, the for-benefit enterprise would create jobs and contribute to the impact economy. Rural areas could gain modern conveniences and Internet/information access. Universal information access is a starting point for improving the lives of the poorest populations of the world—it’s critical to social change and unlocking our human potential.

The greatest impact for me at the summit came courtesy of a young woman who came from nothing, yet leapfrogged impediments with perseverance, grit, and drive to achieve an education. Her story can teach us everything we need to know about solving world problems such as poverty and climate change.

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