From Obscurity to Reality
Toni Tsvetanova ’11 always knew she wanted to change the world. What she didn’t know was how.
Growing up on the edge of a Gypsy neighborhood in Harmanli, Bulgaria, she was surrounded by the effects of poverty and illiteracy on the underprivileged masses. “I made a promise to myself that I would go back and help,” said Tsvetanova. “I always knew I had to do something to help them out, but I never knew what that would be, and I was always thinking ‘No, it’s not the right time for me to help.’”
But now it is.
Toni Tsvetanova ’11 was surprised Colby didn’t have a way to pursue social entrepreneurship—so she created one.
At Colby Tsvetanova discovered and developed a way to fulfill her promise. In the summer before her junior year, while working with a professor as a research assistant at Colby, she learned about social entrepreneurship—a way to make social change using entrepreneurial principles. She devised a plan to spread awareness on campus through what would become the Colby Social Entrepreneurs (CSE). “[Social entrepreneurship] can be creative and imaginative,” said Tsvetanova. “The thing that appeals to me the most is that you can do this to make some positive social impact while being entrepreneurial.”
The CSE organizes fundraising events, invites guest speakers to share their experiences with social entrepreneurship and raises awareness of social entrepreneurship on campus. Associate Professor of East Asian Studies and CSE faculty advisor Hong Zhang called it “a platform to breed a new generation of business leaders who combine entrepreneurship with social responsibility and explore innovative ways to tackle pressing social problems.”
At the Campus Life Expo in the fall, 90 students signed up to take part in the club. Tsvetanova wanted everybody in the club to have a voice, so she decided to run the meetings as open forums. “For most of our meetings we discuss ideas and make plans. Everyone comes up and tells us about what they think and what they’re interested in,” said Tsvetanova. “Of course I have my agenda, but everyone has such wonderful ideas.”
In the past school year, the CSE fundraised for the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter and the Good Shepherd Food Bank. They also brought Chomba Kaluba, founder of a microfinance foundation in Zambia called Kachlite, to give a speech. Most recently, the CSE has been working on its own microfinance venture. After discussing the project for two months, CSE members wrote internal guidelines, prepared forms, and got approval from Campus Life and the Student Government Association to give out small loans to Colby students in need.
This is their biggest project yet. Students who need a small amount of money to apply to grad schools and travel to job interviews, among other things, will be able to apply online for a loan from the CSE. Based on the student’s needs and his or her plan to repay the money, club members will decide whether or not to grant the loan. “We think this is a really good tool because students learn responsibility—how to borrow and repay on time,” said Tsvetanova.
Making a difference on campus is important, but Tsvetanova has taken her passion far beyond Mayflower Hill. In March Tsvetanova received the Watson Fellowship, a one-year grant awarded to graduating college seniors for independent study and travel outside the United States.
Tsvetanova hopes that, after she graduates, campus interest in the CSE will continue to grow. “We’re trying to teach Colby students how to use their knowledge, how to be responsible, regardless of what their academic background is, and how to use their creativity and entrepreneurial spirit to do something good after graduation,” she said. “We aim to educate our members and the Colby community and, someday, have this knowledge work in the real world.”
Meanwhile Tsvetanova will take her ideas into the world. She will travel to France, South Africa, Brazil, and Bangladesh as a Watson Fellow, doing hands-on research for her project, Redefining Homelessness: A Promise for Change Through Social Enterprise. Tsvetanova hopes that the fellowship, granted to only 40 people annually, will help her figure out exactly what she needs to do to fulfill not only her childhood promise to help her neighbors in Harmanli but her promise to change the world.
“The Watson Fellowship is not a project,” she said. “It’s something personal.”