The Transformational Tech series highlights Cisco’s nonprofit grant recipients that use technology to help transform the lives of individuals and communities. NESsT has worked for decades to support social enterprises with grant funding, training, mentorship, and other resources that help to create quality jobs for underserved communities.

Women working in a pantry.
The Being Together Foundation is one of the NESsT Poland portfolio enterprises that is providing support to refugees from Ukraine.

NESsT supports social enterprises that provide employment and career development opportunities for underserved communities—a vital, often missing component to humanitarian aid work. NESsT uses an engaged approach, providing tailored financing, a variety of tech-enabled assessment tools and action plans across all stages of development, one-on-one advisory services, and networking support to social entrepreneurs in emerging markets.

NESsT has benefited from Cisco’s funding support for multiple initiatives, and now Cisco will provide seed funding for NESsT to establish a NESsT Refugee Employment Initiative, so they can better support and strengthen local social enterprises that create dignified jobs and wraparound services for refugees from Ukraine and other countries.

In 25 years, NESsT has built a strong foundation of supporting social entrepreneurs in emerging markets, especially in Central and Eastern Europe and Latin America. When the conflict in Ukraine began, NESsT was already in position to help the more than 4.9 million refugees that have left Ukraine. Many have sought refuge in Poland and Romania, and all of them will need displacement support. Both temporary and permanent employment will help them regain a sense of security.

Growing from seed (funding)

Back in 1997, Nicole Etchart started NESsT out of a need to help nonprofit organizations work in more sustainable ways. The founders felt that traditional companies alone couldn’t create enough job opportunities to lift people out of poverty. They also knew that nonprofits were too dependent on short-term grant funding preventing them from achieving long-term impact. So they created NESsT to provide social enterprises, whether for-profit on not-for-profit, with the tools and capital needed to launch financially sustainable businesses while addressing poverty and exclusion.

A group of people working together
Future Collars Team preparing SIM cards for refugees. Photo Credit: Future Collars CEO, Joanna Pruszyńska-Witkowska

Nicole shared, “Although we have gone through several iterations, NESsT has always been committed to supporting social entrepreneurs to launch and grow companies committed to social impact.”

NESsT’s incubation program offers customized support and flexible financing for social enterprises. But that’s not all. NESsT also provides supporting resources for these entrepreneurs, like trainings and mentorship, so they can help as many people gain secure and dignified employment as possible.

NESsT Refugee Employment Initiative

For decades, NESsT has operated in the Central European region (including Hungary, Poland, and Romania). So when the current conflict in Ukraine began, NESsT responded by establishing the NESsT Refugee Employment Initiative to expand opportunities for dignified employment and income generation opportunities for people displaced from their homes.

Nicole stated, “It became very evident that we had an important role to play, because although the immediate needs were humanitarian–to help refugees access shelter and food—every refugee will also need access to a job, and that’s what NESsT does. Companies in the NESsT portfolio in Poland and Romania have begun to react and expand their networks so that they could begin working with refugees.”

Through the Refugee Employment Initiative, NESsT has initially committed to donating $3 million to provide financing and capacity-building support to 15 enterprises in Poland and Romania. They estimate that their support will help in the creation of 2,000 jobs for refugees, impacting as many as 5,000 people.

Volunteering activities organized by Future Collars at the intervention center in the central railway station in Warsaw. Photo Credit: Future Collars CEO, Joanna Pruszyńska-Witkowska

In the months since, NESsT has been hard at work, selecting and investing in local social enterprises and cooperatives that are committed to integrating refugees into jobs and/or workforce training. NESsT’s portfolio businesses have committed to helping Ukrainian refugees gain their livelihoods back—one example is Future Collars.

Future Collars teaches IT skills to at-risk and low-income women. When the Ukrainian conflict began, Future Collars organized and launched a “Welcome Home” campaign, including outreach, to provide refugee women with job training and placement to fill skills gaps in Poland. The enterprise also plans to set up a scholarship fund to help refugees from Ukraine access career training.

Providing a foundation for long term recovery

Beyond providing food, shelter, and other basic needs to displaced people, the need to help them build the skills and resiliency they will need for long term recovery is often overlooked.

NESsT’s work is a testament to the importance of empowering people with the skills to help rebuild their communities. In 25 years, NESsT has invested in over 223 companies. They have helped to create close to 77,000 quality jobs, impacting close to a million people. In their most recent employment survey, they found that 85 percent of people polled feel stable and secure in their jobs. And the income of those impacted by their portfolio was, on average, 144 percent over minimum wage.

To date, NESsT has assessed 489 social enterprises in Romania, and granted funds and business training to a selection of them. In return, these 26 businesses have influenced over 2,600 at-risk individuals through new economic opportunities.


Charu Adesnik

Executive Director, Cisco Foundation; Director, Social Innovation Investments