How I Became A Social Entrepreneur

By Yi Wang, Philosophy, Politics, and Economics major, University of Pennsylvania class of 2014

rebag2.1I’m about to graduate from one of the best schools in the world, with the smartest people I’ve ever met. Along the way, I became a social entrepreneur, something I never expected. This is how that happened.

I always knew that I had a natural calling for doing good for others. Growing up in China, I served as a volunteer teacher of English, did fundraising for a girl with heart problems, and advocated for environmental protection in school. Here in the US, I was exposed to all sorts of thought-provoking ideas and practices of social justice and social innovation.

During my college years my passion to do good in the world never faded, but I got a bit frustrated as I found that conversations always fell into the dichotomy of money v. purpose.  In the work I did for nonprofits and NGOs, I kept running into roadblocks between the mission and the funding needs of the organization. Again and again, as a fundraising intern, an NGO consultant, or a UN NGO youth delegate, I found myself torn between compromising the mission to appeal to funding entities and working with scarce help to persist in the original values.

I couldn’t help but asking myself: why is helping others so hard?

As a Philosophy, Politics and Economics major, I finally realized that we cannot change human nature: both selfishness and altruism will always be present. What we can do is to design and build a system that is based on the selfish part but can generate altruistic impact. I asked myself, can good-making start from here?

My answer is YES.

My mom proved it to me.  The summer before I came to the States to attend Penn, I was sorting my wardrobe for clothes to pack when I found a blue jumper dress neatly folded in the drawer. Suddenly, my memory was refreshed. It was exactly the one I wore in photo with my cousins playing in the countryside, when I was six. ‘Wow, are you keeping these all the time?’ I asked my mother. ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘all those clothes remind me how small you were, and look at you right now, almost ready to study in another country for a new start. ’

At the time, this was just a sweet moment with my mother, but a year ago it came back to me, and I got the idea to help people find a way to preserve their memory-laden clothes and turn them into functional accessories which they could use with fondness and even empowerment. Meanwhile, the redesigning and refashioning process could provide empowerment opportunities for talented and underprivileged people. Everyday apparel can create a magical connection between sustainability, social empowerment, and personal intimacy. I named my company ReBag.

rebag2.2After 12 months of interviewing, researching, drafting and prototyping, I finally launched ReBag (www.myrebag.com), which does creative clothes refashioning, turning used clothes into tote bags, laptop covers and sports backpacks. In the process I’ve learned so much, from fashion design to supply chain management. I used my past experience in consulting, proposal writing and PE, and integrated it all into ReBag. I cooperated with Philly-based small businesses and stay-at-home moms to streamline the sewing process, and now all the bag accessories, like bag bases, are cut and sewn by physically disabled and socially underprivileged people in China, who are more than happy to prove their value with skillful labor. In addition, I’m working with social entrepreneurs in China and Africa who specialize in ethical embroidery and jewelry making; I hope to partner with them to offer decorative accessories.

rebag2.3I always knew that I wanted to do good, but working within existing structures frustrated me. Now I’m a social entrepreneur, working to get my own startup off the ground. Now I know that I’m doing good, because I see the results myself: in the happiness of my mother, with her bag made out of my blue jumper, and the surprised face of my friend whose birthday polo sweater is turned into a laptop cover, the happy smiles of those people in China and Africa who regain confidence through accessories making and will spread the empowerment spirits in their life.

Yi Wang croppedBio: Yi Wang is a currently a senior who studies Philosophy, Politics and Economics. She has various social impact related experiences, including Wharton Social Impact Initiatives, iJoin Social Consulting and SustainUS UN CSocD-52 delegate. As the founder of ReBag, she explores diverse innovative ways to make impact-making practices sustainable.