By teaching self-reliance based on key principles of business and community development, the nonprofit Interweave Solutions is combating poverty around the world.
Family dinner. Some people dread it and mentally set a timer to see how long it takes Uncle Larry to pass his unsolicited political opinion along with the peas. By dessert, many are warming up the car to leave.
But not at the Curtis home. Brothers Lynn and Dean Curtis look forward to their family time together. They enjoy discussing world problems such as poverty and how to overcome it.
Lynn approaches poverty from a community development background.
“Business is about profit,” he says. “A profit motive causes exploitation. If we can’t teach people to read and solve their local problems, then poverty will never be solved.”
As a former college business professor and owner of a multi-million-dollar company, Dean approaches poverty from a business perspective.
“It doesn’t matter how well a person reads if they have no money for food,” he says. “Someone must create the jobs or there will still be poverty.”
Organizing to Fighting Poverty
After many disagreements and discussions, the Curtis brothers agreed to interweave the positive aspects of business and community development into a nonprofit organization to fight poverty. In 2008, they created Interweave Solutions, which specializes in teaching self-reliance to people all over the world.
“Our organization helps people who are trying to help themselves with some basics of how to start and grow your own business, and how to be self-reliant,” says Dean.
When the Curtis brothers first started, they were unsure of how to begin.
“What do you do? We knew we wanted to put people into small groups so they could learn, work together to set goals, and hold each other accountable,” says Dean.
Helping People to Help Each Other
They called the groups “Self-Reliance Groups.” They hired someone in Quito, Ecuador, to enroll people into the first group. Together, this group discussed and developed three plans for each member: a business plan, a home plan, and a community service plan.
“By mixing all three then you are shooting for self-reliance,” says Dean.
Dean recalls going on an excursion to a developing country to help with poverty before the creation of their NGO.
“I remember the local people standing around and watching me dig a well. I thought, ‘You know, the one thing they could do is dig their own well. They don’t need me to be digging here.’ We paid four thousand dollars to fly around the world to dig a well. Why don’t we teach people to take care of themselves? That has been the philosophy, and it has been a unique approach in the NGO world to helping people become self-reliant. We are excited about it.”
Interweave Solutions self-reliance groups worked so well that six years later, in 2014, representatives from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints approached Dean and asked for his help. He joined a team of other NGO representatives and business experts that collaborated to develop self-reliant courses for the church.
Dean helped create the “How to Grow Your Own Business” and the “How to Find a Job” courses for an international audience. On the church’s behalf, Dean traveled to Santo Domingo, Ecuador, to train members to use the new programs.
“We organized these self-reliance groups inside the church, and we decided it was best to not have an expert. A volunteer from the church would be the facilitator, but they would only ask questions to get a discussion going. As a group, they would counsel together to resolve their problems. It went very well, so the church has adapted that process worldwide,” Dean says.
After this tremendous effort to collaborate on new programs, Dean felt Interweave Solutions’s programs could be revamped. He loved the idea of a facilitator but felt they couldn’t keep hiring people directly if they were going to expand. He pondered on how everyone could have this learning experience.
“I prayed and felt a strong impression come to me that everyone is God’s child, and they should know self-reliance,” says Dean.
Dean’s inspired answer helped him create the Success Ambassadors model. A Success Ambassador works as a facilitator to create their own self-reliance training business to help others become more self-reliant. To become a Success Ambassador, a person must first take the Master of Business in the Street (MBS) course and earn a certificate.
“The MBS program teaches students that they need three plans: 1) to earn some income, 2) to set your personal quality of life [to pick eight areas and set a series of goals—like to quit smoking as an example], and 3) to serve the community. To earn their MBS certificate, students must create a community service project,” says Dean.
A person who received an MBS certificate from Interweave Solutions is Olga Treve. She was born and raised in the Netherlands but has lived and worked in Switzerland, Portugal, the United States, Brazil, and currently lives in Turkey with her family. Olga first heard about the MBS program from a friend when she was living in Portugal.
“I was deeply impressed by the methodology of approaching poverty,” she says. “I felt instantly connected with the concept and was able to identify myself not only with the project but also saw opportunities of how my skills of teaching languages and sensitivity toward other cultures could benefit the program.”
While living in Brazil, Olga visited favelas (slums or shantytowns) in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo.
“Something that struck me intensely was the contrast between the ongoing despair of people on the wealthier side to the unexpected joy, happiness, and zest on the poverty side,” she says. “They made the best out of life with no noteworthy possessions or opportunities.”
Olga felt a solution to poverty was to provide financial support. “But I soon realized this would not relieve the structural issues existent behind the poverty. I believed with the MBS program, we could reach out to a large group of people in different countries and enable them to have a better life and become self-reliant and successful.”
In 2017, Olga went with Dean Curtis to Colombia and Ecuador to visit MBS graduates and tour their businesses. “I could see how well-structured and organized they were managing their businesses by implementing our concepts,” she says.
Learning and Teaching Self-Reliance
More than 34,000 people have taken the MBS course in 44 countries. After a person receives their MBS certificate, then they can take another course to become a Success Ambassador. With successful completion, ambassadors can teach other Interweave Solutions courses to others.
“Success Ambassadors are training people all over the world to become self-reliant,” says Dean. “What is exciting about the model is that other than our overhead (which is paid by an endowment), this is all self-sustaining because we do not pay these folks. They pay themselves. They teach the MBS and other courses for free, or they do it for their expenses, and then they have their students or sponsoring organization pay for it. It is an exciting, fun, unique model to help people to become self-reliant.”
There are more than 1,700 Success Ambassadors worldwide with 700 in Nigeria and 56 in the Benin Republic in West Africa. One of the Success Ambassadors in the Benin Republic is Briac Afangnon. He is 32 years old and married with one child. He was born in the Benin Republic but grew up between three French-speaking countries in West Africa (Benin, Burkina Faso, and Togo). Briac studied mathematics and physics at the University of Ouagadougou (Burkina) for two years. Then Briac was sad to learn his father had lost his sight and could no longer work to support his family.
“I had to return to Benin, along with my three junior brothers to help my mother,” says Briac. “The situation led me to become a self-made man. My mother tried to help for a while, but I noticed it was hard to manage the needs of four boys with her little shop.”
Briac studied entrepreneurship and tried his hand at several businesses, settling on a cosmetic business.
“Even though I was suffering financially, it built my personality, my English, and developed my entrepreneurial and leadership skills. I’m grateful for the hardship and the wisdom I received from God at that moment,” he says.
Briac was introduced to the MBS program by a member of his church. He took the course, then offered to translate the program into French. Later, he became the first Success Ambassador in the Benin Republic and taught the MBS program to a group of Evangelical youth.
“The participants loved it. It was my first trial, but I made money and people liked the program. It made me notice as an entrepreneur the opportunity to be self-reliant while helping other people to do the same,” he says.
Over time, Briac became the French Director at Interweave Solutions and trains Success Ambassadors in French-speaking countries.
“I can’t train the whole world myself, but our Success Ambassadors can,” he says.
Courses to Address Different Needs
Besides the MBS program, Success Ambassadors can also teach the ABCs of Business, and English for Business course.
“This course teaches about business, self-reliance, and literacy principles at the same time,” Dean explains. “What we have found is that some people need the MBS program, but they don’t know how to read and write. We wrote this material so instead of A is for Apple we use A is for Asset, B is for Budget, etc.”
Success Ambassadors can also teach an emotional resiliency course called Counseling in the Street. Participants learn how to listen, have empathy, ask questions, and how to support each other. The idea for this course came from when Lynn Curtis taught a literacy class to a group of women who had been captured and used as sex slaves for the Ugandan army.
“There were hundreds of these women. There was a huge unmet demand for therapy. Other NGOs sent out professional counselors, but they could only see 5 to 10 clients a day and were only there for a few weeks,” says Dean.
Lynn created the class with his three daughters, who are professional counselors. They spent almost a year writing and testing the program. They hope to help millions of people all over the world with this program and to eventually have 100,000 Success Ambassadors training people to become self-reliant.
“Over the years, I’ve watched all kinds of people trying to help one another and be more self-reliant,” says Dean. “It has been a personal confirmation to me that humanity is good. People really do want to love and serve one another.”
To donate or learn more, visit interweavesolutions.org.
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