I have just returned from a month long working trip to Chiang Mai, Thailand where I was volunteering my expertise to a women’s refuge and education centre.
Even though the experience itself was incredible, I actually found it incredibly difficult.
Here’s my story.
A few years ago, after my ex-husband and I split, I was face to face with the very scary realisation I was starting over completely – having left with nothing (except the items I had managed to fit in my car when I left).
Being an entrepreneur with massive ambition didn’t help either.
However, I quickly began to see my situation as a blessing – a blessing that meant I could redesign a whole new life. A couple of years later, Lewis was born, and last year Elisha – and with it the realisation I could make just as much impact with my own beautiful children as I could with the inspiring Social Entrepreneurs I work with day to day.
It was that which fuelled my drive to want to make impact around the world.
Thus, a few years later, my introduction to Venture With Impact was made, and I suddenly found myself on a plane to Bangkok along with my two children Lewis and Elisha, and a very tired mum.
Having removed myself from two abusive relationships and knowing just how difficult it can be to get your life back on track, being matched with Wildflower was emotional. I was immediately taken back to 2004 when I was punched in the eye. What was to follow was 8 more years of emotional abuse, mistrust and control before I would have the strength to leave. Seeing women at Wildflower with the physical scars of abuse made me realise I was lucky – my scars aren’t visible and my life is very different now.
Wildflower is a flourishing women’s refuge and education centre in the heart of the Chiang Mai jungle, the kids and I were instantly met with a warm welcome.
I knew why…
…to these ladies and the organisation, I was a beacon of hope.
Over the next month, I’d be working to measure the impact and outcomes Wildflower achieves for these women who’d been so tragically affected by abusive partners and families. I’d be helping them with their finances, and setting targets for income generation, as well as looking at how they could improve their funding applications and develop more social enterprises. Plus, just being an ear for them to talk to (albeit in Thai, but hey ho, I have a very convincing understanding face).
Wildflower supports 30 women and 60 children, and, to my amazement, only costs £60k a year to run – if you put that into perspective, the average refuge in the UK that supports half that number requires £300k.
I was amazed to see that they’re really self-sufficient too, raising their own chickens, pigs and fish, as well as fruit and veg which are sold at the market – as well as providing food for the refuge.
The women there seemed content – happy almost – I was brought to tears nearly every day I went there.
But There Was A Darker Force At Play
And this is where it got very difficult for me.
See, the culture in Thailand is very different to ours in the UK (I don’t mean to patronise, I’m sure you’re fully aware of that).
Culturally, domestic violence is seen as acceptable (Thailand has one of the highest rates of domestic violence in the world) and something that should be dealt with by the family. Although there are laws against domestic violence, prosecutions are usually only in double digits and incidents that get reported aren’t much higher, and it’s a societal norm that the man has the upper hand.
Let’s put that into context for a second.
Here lies a women’s refuge seeking to give affected women the chance to develop some critical life and educational skills to enable them to survive away from the abuse.
But, for many of the women when they leave Wildflower (or at least 40% of those who do) they actually return back to their families, usually straight back into the playground of their abuser, to be left right back where they started.
Now, I don’t know about you, but that really, really upset me.
When I realised just how often this was happening, I was forced to speak out about it to the co-ordinators of the home, however, although they understood my point, there was simply nothing they could do, as they provide a supportive, educational sanctuary and that’s it.
Bad Social Enterprise Models
I’m going to make no pretence on how I feel about this.
This type of social enterprise model abhors me.
This model basically waits for the problem to exist and then does nothing to prevent the problem from happening in the first place.
It may not come as much of a shock to you to know this, but one of my BIGGEST BELIEFS as a social entrepreneur is that social enterprises need to have a goal of closing because they have solved the problem they were set up to help with in the first place.
I guess my frustration was that many organisations don’t have the power, resources or support to do this, and Wildflower, although amazing in what is does, doesn’t have the support to do anything wider because of the culture in Thailand and because their approach is to be philanthropic to the women rather than pursue legal/criminal action against the men. Or even educate the men – to me education really is the key to greater impact and solving problems permanently.
Now, don’t get me wrong, my experience wasn’t all doom and gloom, as for the short time I was there, other than being able to be around, support and help the wonderful women at Wildflower, I was able to appreciate a lot about my own business, plus get a deeper understanding of foreign enterprises too…
1. Remote working really is incredible and possible from anywhere in the world – providing you have good internet connection. If you have a business that doesn’t require you to be in a certain place every day, then grab your laptop, go out and explore the wonders of the world whilst working remote!
2. The Thais are very hard grafters – where agriculture, hospitality and tourism are the biggest industries for the Thai people, the physicality of their work literally requires them to trade time for money. It makes you appreciate the fantastic business models that have become second nature to us entrepreneurs, namely the models that allow you to make residual income without having to always trade time. (Quite honestly, that wasn’t entirely applicable to me, as I still had to work many mornings and late evenings and around my volunteer work!)
To any Social Entrepreneur wishing to spread their impact across the globe, I would wholeheartedly encourage you to consider either volunteering or looking for overseas opportunities – the impact you can have simply by being English speaking is a lot!
For me, although I was deeply saddened by the cultural state of Thailand, especially in their legal domestic rights system, I don’t regret a minute of my time there, and would happily commit to helping other organisations around the world.
Also, quite honestly (and this is definitely something I’ve chosen to underplay in writing this to you) although it was incredibly hard work doing this trip with my 4 year old and 7 month old, (the paths made it impossible to push a push chair and the pair of them caught a stomach bug!) it was a true pleasure for me to see what an amazing experience this was for them – visiting temples, bathing elephants, enjoying lunch on a bamboo house in the water, meditating with monks (ok, that one was just me) and just really immersing ourselves in the Thai culture.
Yes, that was truly magical.
A Very Honest Revelation…
As you can imagine, I did a lot of soul searching whilst in Thailand – the place just lends itself to inner-tuition – and I really started to think about what the next steps are for me, personally.
Day to day I love what I do but when I look at the big picture I’m not really having an impact or changing anything.
My CIC is called Make an Impact and the question I have now is how do I make more impact? Where do I need to focus my attention going forward?
I’ve directed my energy to helping organisations to develop their sustainability and to help people setting up social enterprises – but is it time to do something more practical on the ground so to speak?
I’m still keen to develop the Enterprise Foundation further and right now I’m looking at how that can be done.
So, all I can say is, watch this space :)
I truly hope reading my ‘memoir’ of my working trip to Thailand has sparked some fire in you to do something similar, as after all, we Social Entrepreneurs have the gift of purpose, and that purpose knows no borders, no border control and no bounds.
Thank you for being with me on this journey.
PS. If you have any questions, or would like to talk to me 1-1 about how my trip/organising something for yourself, do email me – I’ll be happy to speak with you.
Heidi has a passion for enterprise, having set up and run several charities, social enterprises and businesses over the past 15 years. Heidi is a Specialist in Social Enterprise and Social Impact and currently owns her own consultancy, Make an Impact CIC (https://makeanimpactcic.co.uk/).
Heidi joined Venture with Impact’s Thailand program in June 2018 with her six-month old daughter, Elisha, three-year old son, Lewis, and mother.