Heller Profiles

The Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University

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Neal Bermas

USA • Founder, Streets International

PhD '81

Putting People to Work: Global Impact

Neal Bermas, PhD '81, provides sustainable hospitality and culinary training programs for homeless and disadvantaged young adults in Southeast Asia

Spring 2011

Eighteen-year-old Phuoc sweats and looks pale. She probably shouldn't work as hard as she does. She has a bad heart. But even when she's offered a break, Phuoc shakes her head and keeps going. She feels so fortunate.

Phuoc is one of the many young people whose lives have been changed by Neal Bermas and his innovative social enterprise, Streets International, which provides sustainable hospitality and culinary training programs for homeless and disadvantaged young adults in Southeast Asia.

It was over a decade ago that Neal Bermas, PhD '81, first traveled to Vietnam and Southeast Asia. The beauty and culture enthralled him, but what made a lasting impression was the poverty, especially the street kids. They inspired him to create Streets International.

"They come from the most dire backgrounds," says Bermas of the trainees in his program. "Most have been out of school since the eighth or ninth grade. They have left school to survive, by themselves or with some semblance of family. Many poor families can afford the small school fees for only one child in their large families, so the other children must drop out."

In Hanoi alone, an estimated 19,000 young people live on the streets. In the Philippines, that number is a staggering 1.5 million. With little hope of finishing school or finding a way to make a living, many rural kids are forced to move to the city to fend for themselves.

"It's clear that in many developing economies tourism is one of the first sectors of the economy to grow and, sometimes, lead the development," says Bermas. "One of the challenges to this development is the need for educated and trained human resources."

Hotels and restaurants were a natural fit for Bermas. Through his consulting group, Bermas Associates, he had managed projects for the Walt Disney Company, Sheraton and Meridien Hotels, the Oneida Nation of New York State and Union Square Hospitality Group in New York City. Combined with his impressive hospitality experience, Bermas knew how to organize people and manage large projects. Before starting his own firm, Bermas was national director of planning and organization services for Ernst and Young and a director with PricewaterhouseCoopers (formerly Coopers & Lybrand). He served as an adviser to the White House Conference on Productivity and taught at New York University, the Institute of Culinary Education and the University of Southern California. When Bermas was a doctoral student at Heller, it offered one of the few programs that integrated micro and macro factors in looking at social problems and policy, he says.

"The rigors of good thought, good questions, good and careful analysis and writing ... to the extent I have even a bit of those," says Bermas, "I owe all to my years at Heller."

At Streets International, the intensive 18-month curriculum includes professional training in cooking and hospitality, English language and life skills. Trainees also get housing, food, basic financial support and medical care. In return, they study six days a week and spend time working at the Streets Restaurant Cafe, which opened in 2009 in Hoi An, Vietnam, a UNESCO world heritage site. Proceeds from the cafe go back into the organization, ultimately making it a self-sustaining operation.

"Social enterprises are at the forefront of a global entrepreneurial trend," he says, "but it's important to distinguish genuine social enterprises -- whose return on capital and other resource investment are measured largely by improvement of or impact on some socio-political-economic challenge -- from other contemporary enterprises or business that correctly maintain good employment or environmental policies, but whose return is still primarily measured on the dollar."

Streets' first class of 16 trainees graduated this past December; they each got two or three job offers from the best hotels and restaurants in the area. A second group of 19 and a third group of 17 are already in training. Bermas is ready to expand Streets' reach, looking to launch programs in Laos and the Philippines.

Thanks to Bermas and Streets, Phuoc's heart is better. She got the medical help she needed. And now she has skills that give her a chance at a career ... and a future. And if she has children, with hope, they'll never have to live on the street.

Knowledge Advancing Social Justice

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