FreedomLab campus resident Emer Beamer on Social Entrepreneurship

Emer Beamer is one of the entrepreneurs who resides on the FreedomLab campus. A true social entrepreneur, she has built a flourishing social enterprise –Designathon Works– aiming to help children be the change makers of tomorrow, shapers of a better world. Emer developed an educational method teaching children to be creative, critical, technologically literate and empathetic. In her method children think of ways to address complex problems and use design methods and tech tools to prototype their ideas.  Emer has been working on social change for more than 20 years, acting from a deep conviction that “you are in this world to make things better and use your talents to do so”, as she puts it. Social entrepreneurship comes with great satisfaction but also great challenges. In this interview Emer shares her challenges, motivations and rewards.

Whenever you see Emer on the FreedomLab campus, there’s always at least one of these three things around her: small, fun electric stuff like cute leds and mini-robots or happy kids or happy adults. The Amsterdam based ‘Robot Teacher’ –as she was called by newspaper Het Parool- has an irresistible aura of optimism around her. Soft spoken, with a distinct Irish accent, she seems almost shy. But don’t be fooled by her modest demeanour, this lady has started several international (education) projects that have since scaled and prospered. The first one was ‘Nairobits’, a Kenyan college, teaching vulnerable youth ICT and design skills. Started 15 years ago, it’s been running to this day, branching out 6 other countries worldwide.  Why does she do it It all started when Emer graduated from the Gerrit Rietveld Academie as a webdesigner. Having tech-skills -she saw early on- would become a valuable asset worldwide. A skill she could teach others, helping them to better their lives.  As to why she would emerge herself in post-conflict areas, dealing with broken systems, right out of school, she answers, almost still puzzled by it herself: “Since I was young I’ve always had the idea that you are in this world to make things better and use your talents to do so. I worried so much about the poor from a very young age. Organising plays in de backyard to earn money to help the homeless. I guess that’s just in me. After graduating, the inequality in the world literally kept me up at night. I just had to do something. That’s when I got the idea of sharing my skills. To this day, that’s my motivation. Sometimes it’s been hard, quite stressful even, never earning a decent living or pension. And I probably could, because I can honestly say that I have a talent to make any way of learning an effective and fun experience. I could have turned to the corporate world, making workshops, you name it. But making my one-person contribution as much as I can to help others, also helps me enormously. I can now deal with my worries when I read about worldwide suffering in the papers.”

A powerful tool
The contemplating look in Emer’s eyes immediately turns into a huge smile when she shifts to speaking about her interaction with the children she teaches. “You know what it is, children are really fierce optimists. They’re amazing. With Designathon Works we hand them a powerful instrument to express their optimism: technological knowledge combined with creative tools. But what’s just as powerful, is what also happens during our designathons: I have witnessed that if you support children in their budding idealism, they realise they can actually work on making change happen. I never thought that up as a goal in itself, but since starting Nairobits I see it happening every time. Many of the Nairobits-alumni have since started their own initiatives to help others. Now, with Designathon Works, fuelling budding idealism is one of the cornerstones.”  On Social Entrepreneurship Emer has been steadily building the  foundation Designathon Works as a social entrepreneur with a hybrid business model for three years now. Last year she was granted the highly esteemed Ashoka fellowship for social changemakers. Her educational program, tailor made Designathons and the annual Global Designathon are slowly but surely growing in numbers and reach. Being a pure social enterprise, business growth for Designathon Works means not ‘more profit’ but ‘reaching more children’. “When I have the opportunity to teach my method in –for instance- China, I can begin calculating the amount of children we can possibly reach and the teachers we can train. And only after that, comes the issue of financing it.” To reach as many children as possible her Designathon Works Method has been designed purposely to be super replicable. It’s one of the – sometimes contradictory- realities of running a social enterprise. Making it super replicable, not serving clients with protective contracts, doesn’t mean the product is less valuable and up for interpretation freely. Emer: “Sure,what I see is that –because we are a social enterprise- people tend to have a little less concern for the business side of it. At least within the social sector there is a shift in people’s awareness to hybrid business models such as ours. Still people are more inclined to take parts of the product and use it as they please. They have a hard time assessing what kind party they’re dealing with. That’s why you need people around you to help figuring out the business side of things. And I have found great partners on this journey in Ina Conkic and Neil Simmons. That’s the other side of working with a true social mission. When people recognize that your mission is built around the same core values that they have, and there is really no financial incentive, it is really amazing how they will commit themselves selflessly.”  Having more fun Being named an Ashoka fellow this year, meant Emer now has new funds and means to move forward. Hopefully doing more designathons in underdeveloped countries too. Although she consciously took the decision to work in the ‘well-off environment’ of the Netherlands some years ago. She needed that context to be able to design the method for creativity development. ”But I always expected the method to be of universal application. I have since done designathons in Bangladesh and Uganda” Another big motivation to leave the post-war countries was one many social entrepreneurs come to deal with at some time. Emer: “My own motor was run down from the confrontation with so many devastated contexts, even though the courage and tenacity of the people there inspired me no-end. I think that’s a risk for social entrepreneurs in general, that you are so busy giving and building, that you forget to nourish your own inputs. For me good inputs are being creative, making things and exchanging ideas with curious minds. So, in this project I get to do that more often. I have more fun!”

Interested in the Designathon and social entrepreneurship? Contact Emer Beamer at emer@designathon.nl

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