This is how the tour guide described eating Chocolate’s in Zurich – it is an event in your mouth. After eating 20 Swiss franc’s worth, I agree.
This city is no friend to my wallet, but nonetheless her charm keeps getting me to spend more and more money on her in a courtship that I hope allows us to continue our affair, and maybe someday live together. If there was ever a reason to learn four new languages, Zurich would be it.
I ride the public transportation back from the city center, which is one of the few reasonably priced purchases available to visitors. I am amused watching an indian baby in a stroller, who resembles a young Jason D’Mello, flirt with a blond swiss baby brought into the train and parked opposite to him. The blond girl is in a slightly more upscale ride, or whip, or whatever slang can be referred to baby vehicles.
At first, the Indian baby ignores the blond girl’s advances, and looks elsewhere while the swiss child makes motorboat noises and funny faces. But soon the brown baby initiates a game of peek-a-boo, which get’s both babies in a uncontrollable burst of laughter. The train itself resembles a playland, with what appears to be handcrafted wooden seats and yellow painted hand rails and has no plastic in sight. The ride only lasts a few minutes, since one of the strollers is removed from the train, but the youngsters exhange a genuine goodbye from their new friendship that brings a little joy to the other passengers onboard.
In my two days in Zurich, I have noticed that people here live better. Not because they earn 50% more money than us (they do) or pay less taxes meaning that they earn 80% more money than us (they do this also) but because they they have found a rhythm that does not exist in any other place I have traveled to.
The city is spotless and clean, priding itself on the ability to drink water out of any public fountain structure that most other cities are filled with coins from desperate wishes. Money is not wasted in fountains here, financial privacy is valued immensely. My friends and I brainstorm how this city can run so well with people paying less taxes. We realize the savings they have from not having to fund a military, and other unique situations the Swiss are famous for.
Soon after filling my waterbottle, I enter the weirdest public bathroom I have seen. With an efficient design and impeccible hygiene, The luxurious port-a-potty hosts an additional waste drop off for siringes. This city apparently has acknowledged a drug culture and taken a proactive approach to deal with it to make other people’s lives more enjoyable. (Unless there is another reason why they would have a waste basket for needles in public) I have yet to see a demand for this disposal, as there are very few poor people in public and no one that looks like a drug addict. It is a nice change from the Venice Beach drug parafanalia that you can’t avoid. But I am lead to believe that this subculture must exist, and the city has just found a solution. It’s this attitude of the city that perhaps wins me over the most.
Outside of my fountain and bathroom experiences, I must note that the city puts a lot of trust in visitors. They offer free bike rentals, with pickup and dropoff locations all around the city. Its not rare to see nice, nonrental bikes without locks in public either. On a Tuesday afternoon in May, citizens are lounging by the river and lake in their swimwear, jumping from bridges into the water and soaking in the sun while staring at the snow covered Alps in the landscape. There is a woman’s only pool where ladies can sunbathe topless without insecurities, or so I am told. But a few hundred meters away from this secluded area, woman sunbathe topless next to the lake anyway. I discover that my day pass for public transport includes a free boat ride across the lake. This is almost as cool as the ability to rent a bicycle for free. I am no longer frustrated with paying $30 for a burrito.
My friends and I grab a beer a waterside cafeteria while a band provides a soundtrack for few dozen dancers at 3pm in the afternoon. Not a single couple is under the age of 65, but their dance moves energize the band, with dips, spins, and even lifts while maintianing coordination that I did not know existed. I keep wondering how they would react if a house beat suddenly came on, with the words “Put your hands up in the air, put your hands up in the air” or a “Rah-rah-ah-ah-ah Roma, Roma-ma, GaGa, ool la la Want your bad Romance.” Even though these numbers never get played at this venue, it is refreshing to listen to music in Europe in absence of fro hawks, Jersey Shore look alikes, or simply away from men in tight jeans.
We have scheduled two amazing interviews in the upcoming days. On Thursday we will take a train to Bern, the capital, to meet the Swiss Social Entrepreneurs of the year, Paolo Richter. Tomorrow we have a meeting at 9am in Zurich with an entrepreneur who has helped keep kids away from clubs and parties by providing nightime sports events and facilities.
I am already feeling sad to leave this place, The short romantic comedy on my train ride is like a poem carved into my memory with the precision of a Swiss knife and to the timing kept of her watches. I am drinking 200% more clean water here than anywhere else in Europe….and I have yet to take a sip of water and taste the awfulness of sparkling water, something that Europeans constantly try to slip to me to frustrate. I have realized that all my preconceived opinions of this place from stereotypes were naive…..Except for how good the Chocolate is. That is something that I can’t be neutral on.
Usher gets bumped at 10:30 am on a Friday in Munich in a low-key coffee shop in the central part of the city. Meanwhile, I am interviewing Franz over coffee and ice teas. A man a few years older than me with a 5-week-old kid, he inquires about certain issues in the US that a handful of people know about. We are talking about yellow houses in Detroit.
Franz has no idea I am from Michigan, but he is well read and found a common point to start dialogue that would continue for hours. Men cut from the same cloth; Ali, Anthony and I find too many common chords with this Bavarian entrepreneur, who has funded over 400 entrepreneurs in East Germany.
He considers himself a hybrid between a politician and a social entrepreneur. In a country full of red tape, he found a way to bypass the painted town to raise millions of Euros to fund simple yet productive startups in his home state. He convinced each mayor of the regions he works in to collaborate, and founded an incubator that supports local enterprises. Schools even benefit. Kindergarten programs are funded if they are able to find innovative practices. Franz takes half of his money from Brussels, while the rest comes from private equity. Many former entrepreneurs succeed in his system, and give back, with a modest 5% return expected from their investments. This is community building at the most organic level.
This man is the catalyst for progress in the rural parts of Germany. He recommends we talk to his close ally, who has collaborated with him to initiate the same movement in urban areas in Berlin and other cosmopolitan cities. Tag teaming bureaucrats, these guys refuse to be outcomes of their environments. They realized at early ages, through street smarts and enlightenment that they have power to influence the system that others have become complacent in. Systems are designed by humans, and can be bypassed, changed, and even broken. Franz realizes that the next generation has endless potential.
He finds creative ways to incorporate universities with the businesses he funds, to prevent talent from leaving the community but instead staying local. He boasts that these businesses offer opportunities that bigger corporations can’t, and the young people recognize this in his programs. He shows his frustration with facial expressions and a raised tone when my colleague points out how the German Ambassador told us that his countrymen value security and seek safe jobs that last 30 years. Franz quickly says this is a state person’s point of view that is outdated hundreds of years. We find a common interest in Hyderabad, ironically. Arrange a future meeting that may or may not occur. But I am inspired. I hold on to the broken English that I hear this afternoon to get me through a jetlagged day (its been over a week and I still can’t adjust)
Calm and composed, I get home, strategize how I will attack a generous breakfast and bike tour of Munich, and pray that the local football team is victorious. This trip has been incredibly productive, and with two cities left, I am extremely motivated. Usher – OMG – you have no place in Munich during my business meetings damnit.
Prague has hosted my comrades and I for 3 days and too many nights. From my window seat I am looking out at at the exact view that wikipedia has taken for the Prague Castle. Phenomenal.
Crediting jet lag, I have had exposure to this city at her earliest moments and certain times past curfew. Her cab drivers have both disappointed and aided this certain vagabond. But what I have gathered in my limited time is this.
Prague’s tourist attraction shadows its potential. The people here are intelligent. This city is ambitious. Progress is riding through the streets on electrically charged vehicles. We visitors come here for delicious beer, not knowing that the Budweiser shoved down our throats in Superbowl ads and Nascar marketing is actually a name stolen from a legit beer company from the Czech. These people don’t fret. Their other beers are actually better, and they create experiences that are both memorable and forgettable.
But the Hyderabadass did not come to Prague to drink beer. He did not come to judge her people, or engage in city walking tours that promote churches that are a strange mixture between Jesuit history and Monarchial devience. He came here to study Social Entrepreneurship.
Social entrepreneurship is not Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Spacebook, or any of that. It is entrepreneurship at its finest, using innovation, ingenuity, creativity, and brilliance to solve social problems through sustainable business models. Seldom are these entrepreneurs businessmen(women). Like Daja Kabativa, founder and president of http://www.letohradekvendula.cz/, these ventures achieve success from the tenacity and endurance of ordinary people committed at progress. People who want to leave the world better. They identify opportunities in area’s that have multiple bottom lines for profit. And they find unconventional ways to prosper.
Our interview with Daja was a once in a lifetime opportunity. A woman who lost a child from a mental disability, she has dedicated her life to create an environment where similar people (that she calls her clients) can live, learn, work, and teach. Her facility has been constantly expanding over 10 years to the point where they now house state of the art appliances for healthcare, physicaly therapy, retail store, bakery and even an elevator. Her philosophy is to treat clients as equals, as they are often diagnosed and limited to certain roles appointed to them by others. By creating a family where all are expected to work to their capacity, people are empowered to reach their potential. She had 65 clients, 15 employees, and generates income from quality products produced in both her workshops and bakery.
Although I read her background and Ashoka’s report of how great her business is, nothing impacted me as much as actually meeting Daja, her clients, and touring her facility. She was a powerful woman who projected confidence in her native tongue while I anxiously awaited my mediocre translator to communicate back to me her words in English. Her instincts were so powerful, that when she invited us to come back next year, she made a point to tell us that she would learn our language, or provide a professional interpretter for the meeting. Nothing against our translator, who was doing his best, but it was obvious that there was a better form of communication with this entrepreneur.
2 weeks before taking our meeting, she was invited to Brussels, with all expenses paid, to meet with the World Economic Forum. Her little project in the Czech had caught the attention of world leaders, and she was asked to present how and why her business has been working. On a macro level, the EU is facing challenges of a shrinking workforce and growing population of people alienated from the workforce. Instead of inviting city officials of Prague, or national politicians, they invited Daja in a group of 15 people to help start the dialogue on how to make a change. This social entrepreneur has dedicated 10 years to a very small location and specific cause, but now has understood that her actions and passion serves value to a worldwide need that could benefit millions. Watching her express this in her language was one of the most beautiful things I have seen in a city that lacks none. No translator was needed to see the pride she shared with us.
In a city that escaped communism, she credits her country’s history for the founding of her company. If not for the end of communism, she would not have been able to obtain the resources needed to start this venture. Her credit to luck, ideas and friends for her success is something entrepreneurs often say but rarely think about. Humbly she admitted that her venture was close to failure several times before someone stepped in and saved them. Her advice is simply to never give up.
And as I waive goodbye to the city of Prague from my fancy hotel window seat, I offer the same advice. In a city where it seems the people are confused about the political future, with an election 2 weeks away and much doubt about the decision to join the EU, I wish them the courage and resilience to find their place in our world’s future. Not to be exploited by cheap labor and inexpensive products and services, this place has the potential to be an entrepreneur’s dream and a place for true progress that can benefit our global community for centuries to come, while quenching our thirst.
I will be spending the next month researching social entrepreneurship in Europe. The goal is to meet and talk to as many business leaders as possible and learn about what they are doing in community development through entrepreneurial ventures. Below are the dates and places I will be traveling. I will try to update frequently.
Prague (current city) – May 16 – 20 Munich – May 20 – 24 Zurich – May 24 – 28 Milan – May 28 – June 2 UK (Scotland and England ) June 2 – 10.