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Jan 10, 2010

Featured Go-Getter:
Ben Losman | MAKE MAMA PROUD

Ben LosmanBen Losman
›› Communications Manager and Facilitation Trainer
›› Ashoka’s Youth Venture, UnLtd India, and Seeds of Peace
›› BS, Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, Marketing and International Business, 2006
›› Current City: Mumbai, India

BY LEON LINDSTROM | Let’s straighten this out: you went to a business school—as an undergrad—so you could go into the NGO world? You’re not the first person to decide on management education as a tool for public service, but did you really settle on that plan as a high-schooler?

I can’t claim credit for such sage foresightchalk it up to advice from my dad. In high school, I had no idea what I wanted my career path to look like. I found it unfair and constricting that we had to choose so early. My social conscience was strong but vague; I knew I wanted to do “good,” but didn’t know how. Volunteering had always been a big part of my life, and with that, I’d come to see that good intentions aren’t enough to make real impact. My dad is an entrepreneur. His advice: “get a good head for business on your shoulders so you can enter the non-profit sector and actually be competent and effective.” As a suburban high school hippie who, at the time, saw all corporations as part of the evil empire, this made sense to me.

Do you have a sense for what your undergrad background did for you, relative to, say, what the liberal-arts universities of some of the other folks on this site did for their graduates?
My business education was solid, but textbookit didn’t push me to think too far outside of the box. Now that I’ve been working for a few years, I realize that the main focus of instruction should have been on creative problem solving.

Institutionally, there was little attempt to spark a social conscience within the student bodythere were plenty of student clubs that volunteered in the local community, but there was no academic discourse on the role business plays in social change. In my eyes, this was a wasted opportunity.

And here’s where I have to make a disclaimerUMD has made huge strides since I graduated, particularly through a partnership with Ashoka U, a program that seeks to transform the campus into an ecosystem that fosters changemaking.

My business undergrad gave me a prestigious diploma, a textbook understanding of business, and some good connections. But the classes that were the most important to my intellectual development were a) Dissecting Shakespeare’s Use of Language and b) Advanced African Drumming.

The first job out of college: occasionally rewarding, usually frustrating. How was yours?
Mostly frustrating. The organization was divided by annoying internal politics, my work often seemed pointless (I had tight deadlines for deliverables that were of no value to clients), and it dawned on me that much of what we did as an environmental organization was greenwashing. The culture stifled new ideas from junior staff. I shouldn’t have put in eight months there, but someone had told me that it’d look bad on my resume to leave my first full-time job before working the better part of a year. And I had become close with other junior staff. Plus, all my other friends were unhappy with their respective jobs, so it seemed natural to commiserate when we got together to watch The Wire. But that all ended one glorious daythe day I found out I’d been accepted as a counselor at Seeds of Peace.

Tell us about Seeds of Peace and where that’s taken you.
Seeds of Peace brings together young people from across international conflict lines to experience cross-cultural dialogue and coexistence. The flagship program is its summer camp in Maine; teenagers from the Middle East (Israel, Palestine, Egypt, and Jordan) and South Asia (India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan) come together to spend the summer living with the people that, in many cases, they’ve been taught to distrust or hate. They play sports and make art together, sleep in the same cabins, and complain about the food together. Part of every day is dedicated to small-group dialogue focused on their respective conflicts, which is facilitated by experts in mediation.

My first summer with Seeds of Peace shook me to the core. I grew up in a liberal American Jewish household; before camp, I was confident that I understood the conflicts in the Middle East and South Asiaand that I held progressive viewpoints. The intense conversations and interactions I had with the campers quickly made me realize that I had no grasp of the reality on the ground. As the campers began to examine their own identities and develop intimate cross-conflict relationships, my respect for these young people grew into something that continues to guide me in my career and life path.

After my first summer at Seeds, I began working for Ashoka’s Youth Venture, an organization that enables young people to lead their own projects and initiatives for social change, at Ashoka’s headquarters in DC. At the core of this approach is the belief that young people can and will create systemic change when provided the opportunity and support. I saw parallels to Seeds of Peace and began working on a partnership.

In 2008, I returned to Seeds camp and ran “I, Changemaker,” a workshop series with the South Asians based on the concept of youth social entrepreneurship as a means towards peacebuilding. Together, the Indians and Pakistanis examined the social issues they all face in their respective communities and explored ways in which they could unite and make change happen. Throughout the course of the series, the Seeds mapped out their own social ventures, several of which had team members from both sides of the border.

After camp, I moved to Bombay to work with Ashoka’s Youth Venture India. In addition to the Seeds partnership, I took on responsibilities within Youth Venture’s marketing, strategy, and programming. I’ve never learned so much so quicklynot only from the team I worked with, but from the young people we support.

As I began working with Seeds alumni on the ground in Bombay, I realized that few of them actually planned on launching the social ventures they had designed over the summer. They had been too far removed from their home communities when making their detailed plans—they lacked the community groundwork that is critical for developing a social venture.

This was a key learning for me when Seeds of Peace invited me back to lead the program for the returning campers in 2009. Instead of focusing exclusively on planning social ventures, my team and I expanded the concept of changemaking to something much broader. The campers set goals for making change happen at camp (a supportive environment with all resources available), within themselves (to grow into the people they want to become), and in their home communities. They returned home with measurable, achievable goalssomething accessible and personally meaningful to them. Now I’m back in Bombay again working with Ashoka’s Youth Venture India, Seeds of Peace, and another organization called UnLtd India. Youth Venture enables young people to take their first steps into the world of leading social change; UnLtd supports people who have already taken that step and now are ready to scale and sustain. The close relationship between Youth Venture and UnLtd has given birth to a pipeline of Venturers who, in looking to scale their projects, go on to become UnLtd investees.

You seem to have worked for Seeds of Peace in a few capacities—and taken advantage of some opportunities to connect to work with other organizations as well. Was there a master plan here, or did it just happen?
As the last weeks of my first summer at Seeds drew to a close, I began to panic. Camp had made me realize that I could—and needed to—love my work, create impact, and be a part of something bigger than myself. I had no idea how I could find another job that excited and fulfilled me year-round. So I sat down with one of my friends, a former Seeds counselor who had been at the same point a few years ahead of me. She helped me broadly identify my interest areaswhich were (and still are) youth empowerment, conflict resolution, environmental sustainability, and social entrepreneurship (which, though I didn’t know what it meant, sounded cool).

The next step was to explore, connect to, and contact as many organizations and companies working in these areas as possible. I started asking other Seeds staff for guidance; it was amazing to be surrounded by so many brilliant, passionate people with similar interests—having access to their networks opened my eyes to amazing work around the world that I might not otherwise have known about. Ultimately, I found Youth Venture when I moved back to the DC area. That led to the partnership with Seeds, which led to the opening at Youth Venture India, which led to the position at UnLtd India.

The short answer to the question is that I had no master plan, just a gut drive to explore and learn from inspirational people and situations. Because I was embedded in networks of perpetual idea-generators and I stayed flexible, I was able to find opportunities to dive head-first into things that piqued my passion.

In your various escapades, what have you come across that has impressed you?
The central belief of Ashoka is that everyone can be a changemaker; you simply have to give yourself permission to make change happen and then act upon it. I’ve had the privilege of meeting people who arrived at and acted upon this self-belief years ago; these are the social entrepreneurs who are now creating systemic social change across the world, whether by making Tanzania safe from mines using sniffer rats (Bart Weejens of Apopo) or revolutionizing care for the patients in Calcutta’s state-run mental institutions (Ratna Ray of Anjali).

But for me, it’s sometimes more impressive to witness the birth of the self-belief that enables people to lead change. That’s one of the main reasons I work with young people.

Bombay is a city deeply divided along class, communalist, and political lines. Youth Venture reaches out to young people from all over the city and has created a community of changemakers—young people who are taking action within their own spheres of influence. So at any given YV workshop, you’ll see a cross-section of the city—young leaders from the slums working alongside students from prestigious universities and people who never finished grade school because they had to bring in money to feed their family. The fact that each Venturer is making change happen within his/her own community acts as a social equalizer. This is the only venue I’ve seen for people to come together across this city’s divisions and connect to each other as equals.

Equally as amazing are the Youth Venturers we support in Songadh, a rural tribal area in Gujurat. Their Ventures are focused on fulfilling the basic needs of their villages, and what they’ve accomplished is incredible. Many of them have mobilized their community members and negotiated with the government to electrify their villages, build dams to harvest rainwater, and create roads where there were none before—often creating jobs for their fellow villagers in the process. Youth Venture offered resources and knowledge, but more than anything, these young people just needed to know that someone believed in their capacity to lead change—that was the spark that enabled them to take action.

What have you become good at?
Challenging the work we do by asking uncomfortable questions—are we imposing change on the groups we work with, or are we enabling them to unlock their own agency for making change? Are we treating the people we work with as beneficiaries, or are we setting up sustainable systems so that, eventually, these people can take the reins?

I’ve also become fascinated by groups and group dynamics. I’m developing my skills as a facilitator.

Looking down the road, what are you working toward?
I feel like I’ve found my path. Within Bombay, I want to create more spaces for people to come together across social divisions through dialogue, music, and sports.

Ultimately, I think an MBA will give me the foundation I need to support young changemakers—much of it comes from common sense and networks, but I want to have the technical knowledge to help people scale and sustain their initiatives at my fingertips.

Do you have any lessons for folks that getting out of school and either thinking about what to do or trying to do it?
When recruiting new Youth Venturers, we ask young people two major questions: (1) What burns you about society? and (2) Do you have the courage to stand up and do something about it?

Start with the first question. Identify your passions and interests (it helps to do this with someone who knows you well); create a broad list of topics and issues that you can read and say to yourself, “I’d be excited to dedicate myself to at least one of these things.” Then start exploring the work that’s being done to address those issues. Using your issues as anchor points, cast a wide net—ask friends, family, professors, etc. for leads, ideas, and connections. Search for organizations and companies doing interesting work (idealist.org is my go-to starting point). Don’t filter the results by geography; you might find amazing work in a place to which you’d never move—use this as a stepping stone to discover new ideas and connections.

That’s the hard part. Once you start finding people doing work that excites you, reach out to them and strike up a conversation, even if they’re not offering any immediate job openings. Stay flexible, curious, and eager to get in over your head.

Once you choose to dedicate yourself to something, there will inevitably be days you question your choice. If you experience too many of these days in a row (if your work is making you compromise yourself and what you value), find something better, pack up, and leave—don’t rationalize away your gut instinct. At the same time, though, genuine challenges are often potential opportunities for you to grow. Clear your head, talk to someone you respect, and decide whether you’re facing a compromise of self or a challenge to be tackled.

Are you makin’ mama proud?
Just asked her over gChat, her response: “smiley face heart exclamation point.” I think that’s a yes.



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