Words: Andre Malerba
Photography Lauren DeCicca
Beams of sunlight and joyous shrieks of laughter fill the courtyard playground of a special needs school in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. 33-year-old Ms. Me – it’s pronounced May – arrives by motorbike to pick up her son Hao, 9. As they drive off, a segment of string is visible on the back of Hao’s neck. It connects a pair of high-end hearing aids, a device that has changed his life.
It’s a change that wouldn’t have been possible without the wages Me earned from Dependable Progress, a social enterprise founded in December 2012 by US citizen Gabriel Meranze Levitt and Vietnamese financier Nguyen Thao Dan.
They’ve trained nearly 100 disadvantaged women in the skills required to gain employment as a cleaner or nanny with wealthy migrant workers from Europe. Their partnership with local training organisation Reach also teaches women English and offers classes in the cultural understanding required to work in this sector.
The social enterprise then hires women out to help with domestic chores or childcare – or both – whilst families are at work. It’s a service that provides a relatively high salary that can break the poverty cycle in powerful ways.
When Ms. Me came to Dependable Progress, she was in a difficult spot. Her son had been born almost completely deaf, and she had to give up working in order to take care of him. She simply couldn’t put in the hours required by factory work while also providing the extra help needed by Hao. “When my son was born I didn’t know what to do, there is a lot of extra work involved with a special needs child.”
Dependable Progress offered Ms. Me three things: a well-paid job, a link to the resources she needed to provide Hao with proper hearing aids, and most importantly, flexibility in her schedule. “In the morning I can bring my child to school and finish work by three in time to pick him up,” she says. She also has Wednesday afternoons off to schedule regular doctors appointments.
At one time Dependable Progress was marketed to a wider client base, and gradually narrowed to focus specifically on the expat market. They found that foreigners more readily accepted the idea of a social enterprise and the training that is provided alongside employment.
“The expat community is always in need of domestic service and, in general, makes for a very loyal yet highly demanding niche market,” says Levitt. Sometimes, says Levitt, their workers need to return to family or take time off to focus on children, but they’re always welcome to come back into the program.
This is the goal of Dependable Progress in a nutshell: to provide jobs for disadvantaged women and, importantly, to create a long-lasting network of support.
For someone like Ms. Me, having a steady job at a competitive salary is very important. The growth and development of her son depends on it. However, it relies even more on her ability to be with him during times that most other jobs would not allow. “I’m happy about the way things are organized because I have the time to pick my son up from school and work with him on homework in the evenings.”