UIX: Rudy Carrasco and Partners Worldwide are ending poverty

Partners Worldwide is taking down poverty. That being a tremendous project requiring vast resources, the non-profit must lean heavily on its strongest asset—its people.
Partners Worldwide is taking down poverty. That being a tremendous project requiring vast resources, the non-profit must lean heavily on its strongest asset—its people.
One of those people, PW’s Regional Facilitator for the United States, Rudy Carrasco, is responsible for identifying local community institutions in need of help, orienting new volunteers as Business Affiliate Teams, and stabilizing emerging partnerships in the community he serves here in West Michigan and throughout the country.

A Good Start

Previous to coming to Grand Rapids in 2009, Carrasco and his wife, Kafi, had spent 19 years working in an urban ministry in Los Angeles. They were responsible for a school, a youth employment program, and managing year-round educational opportunities in a high-gang area, but that wasn't even the hardest part of the job. Carrasco says, what was tougher than inciting gang truces and rescuing young people, "was creating jobs that were sustainable because they were created through businesses." Forged in the furnace of Southern California, Carrasco is applying knowledge gleaned from those years to the Great Lakes State.
Carrasco's passion for the work he does at Partners Worldwide comes from the respect he has for the organization. He says the non-profit is not only better equipped to empower small businesses than the grant process is, but assistance from PW doesn't come with an expiration date.
"We could get opportunities through grants or the generosity of businesses where a job would be provided for a set amount of time through a gift, but those jobs expire when the gifted funds run out, he says. "Those jobs are helpful, certainly as stepping stones, but the types of jobs that parents and emerging adults need – and desire - are the types of job that we all want: Full time work with benefits, including health care, and reasonable working hours so that a significant part of one’s life can be spent with one’s family."

Growing Futures

As Regional Facilitator for the United States, Carrasco says he meets "absolutely inspiring emerging businesses." Near the top of his list is a Creole-Korean fusion restaurant in New Orleans' Eighth Ward, Koreole, run by a Creole and Louisiana native and his Korean wife.
"The food is delicious and this couple live with purpose: They intentionally live in the community and are members of a local church there, St. Roch Community Church, that is all about loving their neighbors in tangible ways like helping them start businesses," Carrasco says.
Another bright star in the Partners Worldwide network is Sunshine Enterprises, in Chicago. Carrasco says the organization has trained more than 200 residents of the Woodlawn community to start and grow their own businesses. There are now 80 businesses running as a result of the program, one of them being Greenline Coffee, a high-end coffee shop that employs 12, and has even recently opened a second location with a catering kitchen in the University of Chicago.
In Grand Rapids, Spring GR, led by former banker Attah Obande and a tam of business coaches and curriculum facilitators spread across four locations, aims to help entrepreneurs start small businesses with low start-up costs, and get them acquainted with the earning potential to help them achieve their goals. The program has graduated more than 120 workers in West Michigan. Restorers, of which Kafi has been executive director of since 2012, is structured on the partnership model of Partners Worldwide. Restorers is an affiliate of PW, and the curriculum of Spring GR is based on that of another affiliate, LAUNCH, in Chattanooga, Tenn.
“Spring GR is for people who just have an idea. We’re going to take them through a process, shape their idea and get their business started,” Kafi said in a 2014 UIX feature. “We’re going off the idea that you can start your business without a whole bunch of money. The best way to get your business going is to get it going.”
Carrasco spends most of his time with business volunteers, who work as mentors for small business affiliates like Koreole and Sunshine Enterprises. He says his work involves "a lot of trust-building and communication in the context of making goal-oriented plans for something pretty amazing: Ending poverty by helping businesses grow in high-unemployment areas."

According to PW's Global Indicators & Annual Impacts 2014-15, the organization helped create more than 100,000 jobs, disburse more than $11 million in loans, and train several hundred mentors in that time.

Origin Story

Just over two decades ago, Partners for Christian Development was formed when Kenyan and American business people met to establish a loan fund for small to medium enterprises, a business savings and loan cooperative, and partnerships between entrepreneurs. Fostered within the Christian Reformed Church, the project grew to connect business people and professionals with institutions in need across the world, eventually becoming Partners Worldwide. Today, PW serves small businesses and organizations in 28 different countries, concentrating on four different areas: business training, mentoring, access to capital, and advocacy.
"Early on there was a perception that Partners Worldwide was something that was best suited for successful retirees and former CEOs,” Carrasco says. "It was those people who seemed to have the available time and resources to volunteer as business mentors across the globe."

Team Building

As PW grew, it became evident that professionals from all levels of business were useful as volunteers. Carrasco says he found many mid-level professionals and younger business people with less experience asking if they could play a role in ending poverty. The solution was to combine clusters of professionals into effective teams.
"Teams are helpful for the longevity of a partnership, for if one team member is not able to continue with a mentoring relationship, another team member can take his or her place,” Carrasco says.
A Business Affiliate Team assigned to Haiti exemplifies this approach through an agile communication setup and getting its message to the right people quickly. One of the team members visits Haiti five to six times a year, often spending four days at a time visiting 20 or more businesses. After documenting the successes and resource needs of the businesses at each visit, he is able to immediately share the report with his teammates through the cloud.
"After the Haiti earthquake, he used this communication system to identify needed resources for Haitian businesses," Carrasco says. "He shared the needs of the businesses, then his entire team rallied to identify necessary items--one manufacturer needed a certain piece of equipment cost more than $30,000 in the general market, and a volunteer happened to have a spare in his chemistry lab!"
Of course, not every immediate need can be found stagnating in a lab, which is why Partners Worldwide counts on Carrasco to connect these teams with the resources they need to help. 
"Through Partners Worldwide I’m part of a global network of people who not only agree with the vision of job creation to end poverty, but also work together to create the businesses as well as the conditions by which those businesses may flourish," Carrasco says. "I do not feel alone in this necessary work."
For more information on Partners Worldwide, visit http://www.partnersworldwide.org/
Urban Innovation Exchange highlights the people and projects transforming West Michigan through sustainable efforts. Matthew Russell is the editor for UIX Grand Rapids. Contact him at [email protected].
Photography by Steph Harding
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