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Fostering The Next Generation Of Social Entrepreneurs Through Service

Want to get the smartest people excited about starting companies that help people? Give them a taste of it through service projects first.

Robert Fogarty was a hotshot when he graduated from college. Full of talent and energy he headed across the country to New York where he landed a Wall Street job at high pay. Though Fogarty was doing well and his wallet was full, he wasn’t finding the kind of engagement and satisfaction he wanted.

This post is part of a series on the future of service in America, in conjunction with Catchafire.

Moved by the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and intrigued by the innovative rebuilding going on in its aftermath, Fogarty quit his job, packed his bags and struck out for New Orleans in 2007. He signed on to become an AmeriCorps VISTA member, trading his $80,000 paycheck for $10,000, an education award, and housing.

But Fogarty didn’t abandon his drive or ambition or his desire to be in the fast lane. He just changed lanes.

As a full-time VISTA serving through the New Orleans Mayor’s office, Fogarty recruited and placed hundreds of volunteers to help meet an array of community needs. One of his assignments was to assist in the evacuation of 18,000 residents before Hurricane Gustav, the largest hurricane evacuation in U.S. history.

Through lessons learned from that experience, Fogarty envisioned a new approach for city-assisted evacuation plans. The entrepreneurial spirit that had originally taken Robert to New York and a high flying corporate life took over. He saw a need and a solution and he jumped into action.

Fogarty created Evacuteer, a nonprofit that recruits, trains, and manages people who volunteer to help in evacuations (evacuteers). Evacuteer assists with city’s public evacuation plan, and is designed to move 25,000 to 30,000 New Orleanians without cars in the case of a mandatory evacuation, an innovation that has the potential to save thousands of lives.

Fogarty’s story is powerful but not unique in a rejuvenated, vibrant New Orleans. Thousands of AmeriCorps members served in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina. They were on the frontlines of the response and recovery. Moved by the need and inspired by the opportunity, many stayed in the Gulf Region—bringing energy, entrepreneurial spirit, idealism, and new talent to the rebuilding effort.

Or take the story of a refugee from Afghanistan named Awista Ayub. Ayub flourished in her new country of the United States due in part to athletic opportunities. After serving in AmeriCorps NCCC, her year of service influenced Ayub to start Afghan Youth Sports Exchange, an organization dedicated to nurturing Afghan girls through soccer. Beginning with just eight young women, the program has flourished into something of a phenomenon. Fifteen teams now compete in an organized league, with hundreds of girls participating through the Afghanistan Football Federation.

As the director of AmeriCorps, I hear many stories like Fogarty’s and Ayub’s. I frequently meet people who have decided to forgo large paychecks to work on service projects, as a pathway to a different type of opportunity. Service can be a powerful pipeline and launching pad for public servants, civic leaders, and social entrepreneurs, all fields in which the best and the brightest to be interested in. As an example, a 2008 AmeriCorps study found that 60 percent of AmeriCorps alumni choose to work with a nonprofit organization or public agency after their service.

At a time of increasing social need and tight fiscal restraints across the country, we need more opportunities for service—through programs like AmeriCorps or others—to continue to foster the social entrepreneurs of tomorrow.