Thousands of faithful members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Philippines, Mexico and Brazil have, and will have, more to eat, cleaner water to drink and better educational opportunities for their children now, thanks to an eight-week entrepreneurial program.
The Academy for Creating Enterprise (ACE) takes LDS returned missionaries and teaches them entrepreneurial, mentoring and networking skills so they can provide for their families and be stronger leaders in the church and the community. It was founded 10 years ago by a Provo couple, Stephen W. and Bette Gibson, who wanted to revolutionize a culture of poverty.
"We're involved in providing an entrepreneurial education to permanently change the lifestyle of Latter-day Saint returned missionaries," Stephen Gibson said. "They go from depending on others and not knowing what to do on a daily basis to knowing how to they can change their life, and the lives of generations to come.
"It's an eight-week, life-changing experience that teaches them to go from poverty to prosperity."
A decade of difference
The Academy for Creating Enterprise recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. More than a decade after the Gibsons abandoned a comfortable life in Provo to move to the Philippines and pursue a dream, more than 2,000 returned missionaries in three countries have been taught to operate small businesses and be self-reliant. Roughly 75 percent of ACE graduates have successfully launched businesses that are collectively providing jobs for thousands.
"We've been at this for 10 years, and we know it works. It has had a powerful impact," said Andy Barfuss, ACE's chief operations officer. "Now we are in the process of broadening and strengthening the impact of the academy."
Before the academy arrived, the majority of Filipino missionaries typically returned home to few if any career prospects. Barfuss said more than 70 percent of the population has no steady income and many are forced to leave the country to find work.
"They would serve faithful missions, had testimonies, were hard-working people, then come home and be absolutely destitute," Barfuss said. "The comment was essentially 'Gee, I serve the Lord for two years and my life isn't any better.' Then they would fall away from the church."
Graduates have started a variety of small businesses such as recycling, real estate, advertising, commercial, industrial, agriculture, pharmaceuticals, Internet marketing, souvenir shops, scripture accessories, promotional products, fresh produce and even flavored pancakes, among many others.
In addition to academy expansion in Mexico and Brazil, the curriculum developed by the Gibsons is also moving out in the world — to countries like Peru, Argentina, Indonesia, Ghana and the Republic of the Congo.
"When they leave the academy, their temporal eyes are open," Gibson said. "After the academy, they see many opportunities all around them. They are prepared to stay there and build the church. It affects their generation and generations to come."
A desire to serve, counsel from church leaders, the scriptures and a well-known story inspired the Gibsons to found the academy back in 1999.
Then-Elder Henry B. Eyring encouraged the couple to build something with value that would last and be multiplied. They were moved by Doctrine and Covenants 58:27, which teaches "men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness."
A story called "The Star Thrower," by Loren E. Eiseley, touched a nerve with Gibson. The tale tells of a man who finds a boy walking the beach and throwing starfish that have washed ashore back into the ocean. When the man informs the boy that he will never save all the tens of thousands of starfish washed shore, the boy throws a starfish back and says, "It will make a difference to this one."
Gibson had founded a number of prosperous businesses, including one that reached Inc. 500 status. He is also a business management faculty member at BYU's Center for Entrepreneurship. He wanted to share his knowledge and experience.
After he sold his home health care business in the early 1993, Gibson learned about a non-profit organization called Enterprise Mentors International that provides business training, mentoring and finance services to struggling entrepreneurs in developing nations. He traveled to the Philippines with the organization's founder, Menlo Smith, to investigate and fell in love with the Filipino people and the idea of helping to break a cycle of poverty through entrepreneurial education. The couple packed several suitcases, teaching materials and computers and moved to Cebu, an island in the Philippines. A vacant building was located and the academy was born.
How does an eight-week entrepreneurial program alter lives so drastically?
First, each student accepted into the program must be committed. Each student must sacrifice two months of valuable income. Each student must pay as much as they can toward the $1,050 tuition. They are also responsible for their transportation each day. Each student typically pays around $50, Barfuss said, and the academy covers the balance thanks to donations from around 200 families worldwide.
In return, each student receives entrepreneurial training, develops a business plan and joins a vast alumni network that includes ongoing mentoring. They learn business and gospel principles in a harmonized way, Barfuss said.
In addition to receiving an education, students are connecting on other levels. An average class of 30 is two-thirds male and one-third female. Gibson said 25 couples have married in the temple after meeting at the academy.
Barfuss said the hardest part for students is overcoming a mentality of poverty.
"Filipinos are highly capable people. Just because you are poor doesn't mean you are dumb or stupid, you just have never been exposed to opportunities," Gibson said. "Give a man a fish and he'll be back for more. Teach him how to fish and he will take care of himself for a lifetime. We add another phrase to that — teach him how to sell fish and he will take care of his family's needs and his community's needs."
With the success in the Philippines and new academies opening in Mexico and Brazil, the Gibsons smile with satisfaction knowing they have build something of value that will last and multiply.
"This is more than a school, it's a life-changing experience," Gibson said. "This will go on after we are gone."
For more information, visit www.creatingenterprise.org.