Turning Education Abroad Lessons into Real Global Impact
By Rachel Kois (Global Buff, Entrepreneurship & Empowerment Global Seminar (EESA), Summer 2015)
While studying at CU Boulder, I knew I wanted to find a way to go abroad as part of my college experience. Though as a double major in Theatre Performance and Business Management, I was always really busy with class and thought a semester abroad wouldn’t fit into my four year plan. Luckily, I found the Entrepreneurship & Empowerment Global Seminar (EESA) that allowed me to go to South Africa for six weeks the summer of 2015 between my junior and senior years. Before participating in the program, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do. I only knew two things: I felt I could use business as a force for good, and I wanted a job after college that would allow me to travel far and often. I dreamt of finding or creating my own career to support these ideals. Being both impactful and international, EESA embodied both, and inspired me to start my own company, Simple Switch, and is still driving my work today.
I could talk about this program for hours, but what really stands out is the hands-on experience with local entrepreneurs, cultural education and some unforgettable experiences with my peers. The EESA curriculum is definitely a lot of work, but every minute of the program is worthwhile. The morning classes and the skills we learned there directly impacted the quality of the consulting we could deliver to our clients later in the day. Even now, 5 years later, I often tell people that I feel like I learned more about business in my six weeks in South Africa than the rest of my time at CU combined. Having such motivated entrepreneurs to work with and caring about their success meant higher stakes, because our work was contributing to their livelihoods! Adding professors and teammates who genuinely wanted to see these projects succeed meant I was learning in a more engaged way than I ever had before. It felt very similar to the way I learn new skills in my start up now; fast-paced and important. Beyond the course itself, learning about Nelson Mandela’s leadership style and the history or apartheid changed my own leadership and advocacy forever.
My time abroad influenced my decision to start my current company, Simple Switch and I still talk about my time in South Africa whenever I pitch Simple Switch. When I came home, I wanted to continue making an impact through business, but I wasn’t sure how. I decided I wanted to start using my everyday purchases to support people and the planet, but found that it was really difficult. I would spend hours researching which products to buy, and get confused and frustrated. Since I had been studying Entrepreneurship, my reaction was to solve this problem by starting a company, and that is how the idea for Simple Switch was born. Simple Switch is an online marketplace for what we call ‘positive impact purchasing’. Similar to Amazon, clients can shop online for things they want and need and have their products shipped to their door. The difference is, every product has an additional positive impact all over the world. For instance, we sell toilet paper that helps build toilets in developing communities, jewelry that helps employ women coming out of sexual exploitation, camping gear that contributes to conserving the environment, and more. We have more than 3,000 products on the site now, and that number is growing all the time. My goal is to grow the business to give every consumer the option to spend their money in a way that aligns with their values, while also getting what they want.
Starting the business was tough, especially due to the lack of structure. It’s really true that entrepreneurs wear a lot of hats, and I have especially enjoyed learning about how to be proficient in so many different skills through creating my own start-up, but being without a supervisor, planner, or manager makes knowing what to do day to day a job in itself. Despite the difficulties, it’s so rewarding to be able to take quick and decisive action to make a real global impact. Our company works with impactful suppliers from around the world, and being the owner means I can pivot the company to support them even better without a bunch of push back or paperwork. It's also been extremely rewarding to speak to young women about starting their own companies, hear their ideas, and empower them to make bold choices and get something started. I know my experience with my clients on the Entrepreneurship & Empowerment Global Seminar in South Africa gives me a better perspective on how to serve people around the world with this company, and the business knowledge I learned there allows me to be a much more effective entrepreneur.
Rachel Kois and some of her positive impact products
Featured image by Aubrey Fite/@fitetothefinish