Women Helping Women in Entrepreneurship

PROVO, Utah – Jul 10, 2019 – BYU student Olivia Berhan was seventeen years old when she first visited Ethiopia with her father, Mussie, a refugee from the Northeastern African country. While visiting Ethiopia, Berhan noticed crowds of disenfranchised women begging in the streets, and she vowed to help.

Fast forward to today and Berhan, a native of Mount Vernon, Washington, has founded a company that aims to give women in Ethiopia a way to provide for themselves. The company, Kelali, is one of nine student-run ventures that pitched to Social Venture Academy, a resource provided by BYU Marriott’s Ballard Center for Economic Self-Reliance, at a recent judging event. Student entrepreneurs in the academy work to solve social issues across the globe, and recent participants seem to be setting a new trend in social entrepreneurship—women helping women. Eight of the nine ventures in the academy include at least one woman team member, and three of the ventures—including Berhan’s Kelali—were founded exclusively by women.

Aaron Miller, an associate teaching professor of public service and ethics at BYU Marriott, believes that women in social entrepreneurship appears to be a trend that won’t be slowing down anytime soon. “More and more women are moving into social entrepreneurship and are doing it in a way that’s reaching and improving problems that have been around for a long time,” he says. Miller, who also serves as associate director for the Ballard Center, has been involved with the Social Venture Academy for over a decade and is thrilled to see women in the academy working to solve issues that are impacting other women across the globe.

“Social entrepreneurship can be a powerful force in addressing issues that affect women,” Miller says. “What’s exciting is that these problems aren’t just being solved by students—the students solving them are women.”

Now a nineteen-year-old BYU sophomore studying computer science, Berhan works to solve the problems she discovered while visiting Ethiopia by empowering women to use their skills to support themselves. Berhan partnered with the United Nations in Ethiopia to employ women at a U.N. safehouse to make baby swaddles to be sold in the United States. “A lot of the women already knew how to sew and weave, so I thought this would be a cool thing to start,” Berhan says. “You have to bridge the gap between our culture and theirs—that’s what I’m trying to do through Kelali.”

Another venture currently participating in the Social Venture Academy includes BYU students Kathryn Ivancovich, a senior from Porterville, California, studying elementary education, and Sam Duzett, a senior studying statistics from Hillsboro, Oregon, along with Spencer Ford, who graduated from BYU in 2015 with a degree in psychology and lives in Provo. The three-person team is working to develop a software system to help combat sexual assault at college campuses across the nation. The company, RepowerU, offers educational videos, a cellphone application, and an administrative database to help students and faculty address sexual assault on campus.

“Students can be too embarrassed to go into an office and report sexual assault,” Ivancovich says. “RepowerU allows Title IX administrators to receive anonymous messages from students who ask questions like, ‘Hey, this happened to me last night, what should I do about it?’ This way students don’t have to have their names or faces known to receive help.”

Both Ivancovich and Berhan, along with the other participants in the Social Venture Academy, are grateful for the help they’ve received from BYU Marriott. “The Ballard Center has definitely opened many doors in many different ways,” Ivancovich says. “It has given us so many opportunities with competitions, counseling, mentoring, and connecting us to other entrepreneurs who have already gone down this path.”

Ivancovich is proud to be both a woman and an entrepreneur. “Now is the best time in the history of the world to be a woman,” she says. “This is the time to step forward, do what you want to do, and make a difference.”

BYU sophomore Olivia Berhan working with an Ethiopian woman as part of her entrepreneurial venture
BYU sophomore Olivia Berhan working with an Ethiopian woman as part of her entrepreneurial venture. Photo courtesy of Olivia Berhan.

Media Contact: Chad Little (801) 422-1512
Writer: Paul Swenson