Though among the great minds of development economics the debate on the effectiveness of foreign aid still continues, Soles4Souls (S4S), where I interned this summer, has found a way to create opportunities for many people and communities in emerging markets. S4S combines philanthropy with market forces to provide new and gently used shoes for people in need, thereby turning them into entrepreneurs and helping them to escape the poverty cycle.
I started my internship at Soles4Souls – baed in Nashville, Tennessee – as part of the Executive Team, and I had the chance to engage with different projects throughout the summer. At S4S, I worked on designing instruments to measure the impact of several ongoing and upcoming projects for the Strategic Initiatives and Impact department. I also helped design the sustainability framework of the organization with the Business Development team, where I had the chance to interact with leaders in the apparel and footwear industry. Studying Economic Development I knew something about many of the global initiatives converging to address emerging issues like poverty, hunger, gender inequality, and climate change, but little did I know about the great efforts of many sustainable businesses and enterprises have to make to align with these SDGs. This experience was one of the most fascinating things I learned during my summer with S4S.
Soles4Souls helped me grow and build more confidence both professionally and personally. But what make them such a great place to work are the people, driven by their core values. Transparency was the greatest of these. The communication and interaction system that they have created over the years was what made me feel part of the team since the first week I joined. The mission of the organization was embedded in every member of the team. They were aware of the importance of their work, and they all worked together to make their part in transforming lives for good.
I started my internship in the midst of the pandemic, when the most severe measures were in place, but this did not prevent me from getting the most out of my experience. In turbulent times it may be hard to be optimistic, but if you surround yourself with people that inspire and support you, and dedicate yourself to your work it will pay off in the end.
This experience and this whole journey toward social ventures wouldn’t have been possible if I did not attend an information session of Turner Family Center one year ago when I first joined Vanderbilt’s Graduate Program in Economic Development. Maybe I would not have realized the importance of social enterprises and the work of Soles4Souls if I hadn’t joined TFC as a committee member for the Summit 2020. Maybe it would have taken me much more time to realize how interconnected our fields are if I had not participated in the TFC’s Emerging Impact Leaders program where I met amazing graduate students, sharing and exchanging many ideas, experiences, problems, and solutions.
Social impact has become my new compass and a human-centered approach will always guide my way as an entrepreneur, researcher, policymaker or any other career path that my degree will take me to when I return back home, to the Southeastern European country called Albania.