By Julian Fishman
I had the pleasure of hearing some of the Bay Area’s most innovative social entrepreneurs share their stories and peer into the future at the recent Idea People: Thinking for Good event held at the SFJazz Center in San Francisco.
The event was curated by Five Thot, a forward thinking design and event organization that encourages people to imagine the world as it could be, rather than as it is today. As a shout-out to Five Thot, here are five themes that will help big thinkers and dreamers get their ideas off the ground:
1. Problem + Passion = Opportunity
The vast majority of the entrepreneurs on show took an unconventional path to arrive at the helm of their social enterprise. IndoSole’s founder, Kyle Parsons, spent his teens working in a recycling center with the occasional surfing trip to Bali. Kiva’s founder Matt Flannery was inspired by Mohamed Yunus to search for a more impactful job and found himself giving up the corporate world for microfinance in Uganda. Lauren Walters (pictured), founder of 2 Degrees Food, witnessed first-hand the extreme malnourishment of Rwandan children at a time when Tom’s Shoes’ ‘one for one’ business model was starting to gain traction.
While the paths these entrepreneurs traveled are seemingly incongruous, they all got to where they are today by feeling a deep connection to a problem that provided the courage to find solutions to the seemingly insoluble. Ideas at the confluence of problem and passion provide fertile ground for making an impact.
2. Bring it to the masses
In the words of Ideo.org’s Patrice Martin, good design starts with the human element first. While everyone enjoys the safety of preaching to the converted, the most meaningful impact can be achieved by generating interest in demographics not typically concerned with the issue at heart. This perspective was echoed by award-winning film maker Jacob Kornbluth whose movie Inequality For All (pictured) was crafted to resonate with people who do not necessarily feel passionate about income inequality like he does.
It’s important to understand that serious problems don’t necessarily require serious solutions. Who would have thought that the creation of cartoon characters and nail salons in Africa could be the vehicle to educate young African women about the importance of safe sex? By meeting people where they are, you will exponentially enhance your chances of making the desired impact that brought you into the world of social enterprise.
Solving complex problems is not for the faint hearted and requires a thick skin to surmount the obstacles that are put in your path. As many social entrepreneurs are pushing boundaries and taking the road less travelled (or not travelled at all), a strong will to succeed is imperative. As Robyn Goldberg, CEO of the Minerva Institute highlighted, the challenge of building a radically different educational curriculum from scratch fills her with doubt on a frequent basis. It is critical to positively channel this fear of failure to allow the realization of big and bold dreams.
4. Partner with like-minded people
Closely related to resilience, is the need to partner with like-minded people and organizations. Greatness does not happen in a vacuum and partnerships are a creative way to build scale, support and credibility for an idea. IndoSole moved from a figment of Parsons’ imagination into a serious business idea when he partnered with an Indonesian manufacturer that provided the technical manufacturing competence to transform old tires into dope kicks. Similarly, Back to the Roots was founded by two grads from UC Berkeley, Nikhil Arora and Alejandro Velez (pictured), who were united in their curiosity that spent coffee grounds could be used to grow edible mushrooms. While both were destined for the corporate world post-graduation, the strength and enthusiasm they found in each other was instrumental in their transformation from would-be investment bankers to urban farmers. Partnering with like-minded people creates power in numbers that provides the fortitude necessary to tackle the impossible.
5. Emotional dividends
While most social enterprises hope to make money with their ventures, there is clearly a higher cause in focus. It was impressive to hear the myriad of ‘a ha’ moments that drove these entrepreneurs to dream big. Kiva’s founder Matt Flannery could not have imagined that funding a freezer out of his own pocket to help a Ugandan entrepreneur could have provided such emotional warmth. Soma’s founder Mike Del Ponte knew he had found his calling when he saw the expression on a 76 year old Ethiopian man’s face as he drank clean water for the very first time in his life. Products and services that generate emotional dividends and deeper connections provide the authenticity to tell your story in a manner that compels people to join you for the ride.
Do you think you have what it takes to build an impactful social enterprise? Hopefully these tips will put you in good stead to go out into the world and make an impact. Dream big, make connections and tell your story. Go on!