Creating Effective Social Impact Leaders (or, Leaders!)

Leadership: is "Social" Leadership really that different? I submit it isn't and this guest post is by Robin Pendoley is Founder & CEO of Thinking Beyond Borders, should make you think. See Robin's bio below - after you read this great post!  

The social impact sector does a lot of harm. Often, our victims are those who we set out to support -- the people and communities that are already vulnerable in our society. This is not something we like to talk about. As practitioners, funders, and do-gooders we want to believe our good intentions and good technical skills have prepared us to do good. But, examples from history and the present day show this isn’t the case. While there are many things we can do to reduce harm and increase meaningful impact from our collective work, there is one step we can take that represents our most important leverage point: create more effective social impact leaders.

The Core Competencies of Highly Effective Social Impact Leaders

As this question is core to our mission at Thinking Beyond Borders, we examined some historical examples of exceptional social impact leadership: Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Prof. Muhammad Yunus. By reading about the movements and change efforts they led, and reading their personal writings, we noticed two key areas in which they all excelled: critical consciousness of themselves and the world, and building and leading institutions that were truly mission-centered.

Impact through Critical Consciousness

These leaders each pursued critical consciousness of the world and themselves as a fundamental part of their social impact work. To do this, they each developed key capacities: 1) They rooted their purpose and direction in a constant critical examination of their values and beliefs; 2) They were humble but powerful learners who valued questions over answers; 3) They strived for higher order empathy. While I’ve written about these capacities elsewhere (here and here), it’s important to note that on a daily basis, each of these leaders used these skills in working with stakeholders and in maintaining their own personal and professional focus to create a more just society.

It is these capacities that ensured that the Indian Independence movement did not become a violent revolution against the British. These capacities resulted in Black communities of the US Deep South finding love in their hearts and actions in the face of violent and vicious racism during the Civil Rights Movement. It was leadership of this sort that spurred creative protest and a reordering of society, not simply an inversion of power. None of their respective movements were without flaws, nor were they complete. But, their approaches to social impact resulted in that rare and exceptional impact that brought greater equity and justice to society.

Mission-Centered Institution Building

Generating meaningful social impact and building the institutions that will sustain that process are two related but different practices. Knowing how to build an organization effectively is important. What was exceptional about the great leaders we examined was how they combined business and funding models in a manner that allowed the organization to operate and evolve based on the need of the impact work rather than the organization’s bottom line. They established management and leadership structures that encouraged their teams to be responsive the impact work. They developed communications that inspired stakeholders to engage in creating social change rather than simply build brand loyalty.

It was this type of leadership that led to peer to peer ride-sharing to sustain the Montgomery Bus Boycott, long before Uber gained a multi-billion dollar valuation. This leadership led Grameen to establish lending circles that created spaces of mutual financial and personal empowerment for women in their home communities, long before the banking industry pursued micro-lending profits in large scale. As these movements evolved, and as equity and justice advanced, the institutions these leaders created fell victim to changing politics. But, the impact they created remained because the communities they worked in solidarity with had not been encouraged to become dependent upon them.

Lessons for Developing New Leaders  

While it’s easy to hold Dr. King, President Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, and Prof. Yunus up as superheroes of social impact, it’s important to note that they were (are) mortals like the rest of us. If we focus on developing the skills that made them exceptional, we can generate a uniquely qualified cadre of aspiring social impact leaders.

As educators, we’ve identified a set of principles for developing leaders of this calibre:

  • Focus on Impact - Aspiring leaders need support in thinking critically about how to define equity and justice, how an effective and ethical pathway is shaped, and what the impact leader’s role in the process should be. These are dynamic and challenging topics. Unfortunately, the social impact sector rewards those who pursue large scale, brand recognition, and specific business models. Teach aspiring leaders how to handle these tensions and maintain their focus on the impact that will lead to greater equity and justice.
  • Value Questions Over Answers - Asking good questions that illuminate dynamic topics is a crucial skill. Disappointingly, most education systems generate students who believe they are successful learners when they can present a convincing answer rather than a well refined set of questions. Create learning environments that place value in asking questions and pursuing greater understanding that can be translated into even better questions. Require learning to center around identifying and questioning the core assumptions of arguments and one’s self.
  •  Instill Humility - Great leaders are great listeners who reflect constantly on their potential and limitations. They admit their mistakes, provide space for others to lead, and are the first people to applaud the successes of their peers. However, great leaders are often driven and ambitious, determined to achieve their goal and overcome obstacles. Support aspiring leaders with learning environments that provide opportunities to wrestle with this tension as teams and individuals. Provide mentors who can support them in their highest and lowest moments. Identify heroes whose struggle with the tension between ambition and humility is made plain and relatable.

The social impact sector invests countless resources in working toward equity and justice. Our global society and local communities reflect the passion and commitment of so many who have shaped their lives in this pursuit. Yet, our present day and all our days past also reflect efforts wasted, misdirected, and many that inadvertently caused harm. As a sector, we can be more effective. It starts by being more intentional in how we create our leaders.

You can learn more about how Thinking Beyond Borders is working to create highly effective social impact leaders by reviewing our programs. Our high school summer abroad and gap year programs help students begin the pursuit of critical consciousness related to creating social impact. Our college study abroad programs teach the skills to lead mission-centered and mission-effective institutions. 

Robin Pendoley is Founder & CEO of Thinking Beyond Borders, an educational institution helping students develop the skills and capacities to lead highly effective social impact careers. Born and raised through his early childhood in a working class community in the San Francisco Bay Area, Robin learned that equity and justice are complex but worthy pursuits. Through study, travel, and work in urban and suburban public education, he concluded that meaningful social impact is difficult to create and requires a rare combination of skills and capacities. In 2007, Robin co-founded Thinking Beyond Borders with the vision to create an educational institution that develops highly effective social impact leaders. Robin earned a B.A. in International Development Studies from UCLA and an EdM from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His blog posts on education and social change have been featured on Forbes, Ashoka, and Innovation Excellence. 

The Hedgehogs' Dilemma

The Hedgehog’s Dilemma is a metaphor for the problems we have developing relationships. Look around our professional and personal lives; examples are everywhere.  My friend and colleague, Ian Gonsher, uses design thinking to solve the dilemma with applications for humans of all ages.  I bet you can think of ways to make it apply to you – at work and elsewhere.

HedgeHog's Dilemma by Ian Gonsher


Mills-Scofield, LLC

Ian Gonsher does research and teaches at Brown University focused on the design process and creative practice, including Design Studio and Entrepreneurship Engineering Design projects in the School of Engineering and Designing Humanity-Centered Robots in Computer Science with Michael Littman where Legos are prototyping tools.  Ian was instrumental in the development and expansion of Brown Design Workshop and several cross-disciplinary projects spanning the humanities, sciences, Medical School and RISD such as The Creative Scholar’s Project and the Creative Mind Initiative.  Some of his very cool projects have been in Make Magazine, he’s been published in Harvard Business Review and is the co-founder of Critical Designs-Critical Futures on how design thinking and activism can spur social innovation.

A Biologist, Computer Scientist & Historian walk into a....

It is through eclectic, diverse, and seemingly random relationships, interactions and friendships that we learn and then change the world.  Andrew Kaplan eloquently sums this up in his post below he wrote right before graduation.  So much of our learning is from each other and I have learned so much from him over the past 3 years. Thank you, Andrew.

To an old house on Angell Street*

As I sit writing this at my kitchen table, a housemate walks into the room and sits down next to me.

“How do you define religion?” he asks as he combs his unruly left sideburn with bunched fingers.

“What?” I respond.

“Just answer the question.”

I live in an old Rhode Island house on Angell Street with five other seniors. Our floors are sinking and our walls are thin; an open floor plan helps a whisper from the basement be heard in the third-floor attic. The house smelled of fresh paint the day I moved in.

Among my housemates are a neuroscientist, a biologist, a philosopher, a computer scientist and a historian. Or, looking at them another way, they are a dancer, a drummer, a basketball player, a teacher and a founder. And they are the blood pumping through the veins of this house, imbuing it with life.

Because I am about to graduate, people often ask me to describe my time at Brown. They expect tales of hallowed professors pronouncing truths in packed lecture halls. They expect memories of heartfelt conversations about the meaning of life on the quiet greens where foliage helps you spin nascent life philosophies into the early mornings. They expect stories of finding romance in the dining hall and losing it into the wild night. And I’ve had my fair share of those experiences.

But the old house on Angell and the people who live in it symbolize what has made my Brown experience unique. One of the greatest pleasures of the past four years has been discovering things I never thought I would simply by being around people who are so infectiously enthusiastic about topics I never thought I’d learn about.

When I think about my time at Brown, I think about one of my housemates working on a computer science project, describing the mystery of the deep web and the power of torrent — and blowing my mind in the process. Or when another inspired me to take NEUR 0010: “The Brain: An Introduction to Neuroscience” by sketching out an action potential’s effect on the nervous system. Or when yet another sat down next to me and asked me to define religion, prompted by a class project on religious law.

This is for them and for what they represent. And this is to thank the countless Brown students with deep-set passions who have passed in and out of my life, many of whom I consider my friends. Watching a fellow Brunonian’s eyes dance with excitement when discussing a subject they love is a truly special experience, one that makes this place so exceptional.

So here’s to a group of housemates brought together by a university that cultivates passions ranging from the microscopic to the universal to form a microcosm of my Brown experience as a whole. Here’s to falling down an intellectual rabbit hole and emerging hours later with a better understanding of what drives my fellow classmates. And here’s to acknowledging one of the reasons why Brown is so special: Each member of the Brown community has the ability to awaken that same curiosity and passion in you.

Lastly, thank you to the place I associate with that type of enthusiastic learning: an old house on Angell Street with an open floor plan and sinking floors.

Andrew just graduated from Brown University with a Bachelors Degree in Political Science. He was a 2013 C.V. Starr Social Innovation Fellow for Common Sense Action, which he co-founded with Sam Gilman. Andrew is moving back to NYC joining the Urban Fellows Program to pursue his passion for public service, especially for the homeless.

*Originally published in the Brown Daily Herald, May 21, 2015 and republished with permission by the author.

To Move the World, Show, Don't Tell

Rexy Josh Dorado is changing the world by living stories, and then telling them.  Here's his story - with lessons for the C-Suite to the street.  Please read, listen and do - and tell that story.

As a child, all I wanted to do was build things: Lego buildings, clay monsters, web forums, video games.  At the core was a hunger for new possibilities that came alive with each new thing I dreamt up.

In middle school, this drive manifested in writing.  Among the first lessons that stuck with me was the classical literary rule: Show, don’t tell.”

It’s a simple maxim, yet powerful in its consequence.  “Show, don’t tell” means focusing on vivid experience over exposition.  It recognizes a deep power in unspoken things.

It thrills me to see the social sector embrace the importance of storytelling.  And yet: as much as the field has learned to tell its story better, we’re still a long way away from harnessing the principles of storytelling not only to talk about change, but enact it.

What can we - in attempting to change society’s lived stories - learn from the art of telling stories?  What can social change learn from “show, don’t tell”?

1. How to connect the dots.

I’m the founder of Kaya Collaborative, a youth initiative to transform the global Filipino community into a support network for social innovation in the Philippines.  We run a summer fellowship that immerses young diaspora leaders in Manila’s social sector - then launches them back into their global communities to engineer this reconnection at scale.

Our program is part of the service learning field, which is in midway through a quiet but significant shift in identity.  Service learning often translated to communities being the backdrop of privileged volunteers’ savior narratives - marginal benefit at the cost of one’s dignity.  It doesn’t have to be this way.  

When done respectfully - when the goal is listening and partnering - service learning has the power to build empathic relationships and empower both sides.  To give light to communities who have been historically effaced.

Nadinne Cruz, a “recovering angry critic”, describes service learning as a path to a world where “the moral brilliance of communities everywhere... becomes central.”

At Kaya Co, we try to tell a new narrative of the Philippines that’s defined by strength and potential.  Great sentiment - but it never sticks until people see it shown, then learn to tell it to themselves.

Our world has never been so equally divided and interconnected.  Courses and texts that promote “global citizenship” only do so much.  Vivid, sensory, shown experience tells what cannot be told: in the moments between facts, in the textures of hands, and the sights that stick better than text.

2. How to unlock potential.

The Future Project is a movement to eliminate apathy in American schools by recruiting and mobilizing Dream Directors: intrapreneurs working full time to turn the dreams of students into reality - and inspire the entire school to do the same.

According to Andrew Mangino, TFP’s founder: “If we start asking young people (about their dreams and passions) and getting them to answer in the form of action, that’s what’s needed most.”

Andrew Mangino is an Ashoka fellow, part of the world’s oldest and largest network of social entrepreneurs. Over time, we at Ashoka have observed a common element in the lives of these pioneers: at some point in their youth, they realized that they had the power to make change.

This is what Brazilian educator Paulo Freire called conscientização, or critical consciousness: an understanding of the forces that shape the world, and the power that one has to play a role in that shaping.

This only happens through practice.  To build changemakers, let them build and make change.

Today, we’re inundated with messaging that tells us, yes, we can follow our dreams.  That only goes so far. One of the gravest injustices of the world is that too few have the opportunity to show themselves - not just be told - their true power.

3. How to lead the way.

At the start, Ashoka’s goal was to accelerate our fellows’ impact to the largest possible scale.  But the biggest mark we’ve left is more collective.  Over time, our fellows have shown the world so vividly the power of social entrepreneurship that the idea took on a life of its own.  A sector has emerged from so many imaginations sparked.

At Kaya Co, we turn our transnational goal into something that feels tangible by accelerating people, communities, and programs that have made it happen.

The Future Project’s Dream Directors act as role models to their students, and take on a project to change school culture as they guide kids through their own projects.  Collectively, they build a new picture of what American education can be.

Call it modeling, prototyping, “breaking ground.”  In the end, it boils down to showing, not telling, what is possible.  The world will follow.

Rexy Josh Dorado is a 2014 graduate of Brown University and a believer in the power of identity to spark change.  He is a Search Associate at Ashoka, the world's largest and oldest network of social entrepreneurs, and moonlights as the founder and leader of Kaya Collaborative: a social venture that aims to inspire, educate, and activate the young Filipino diaspora as a support network for citizen leadership in the Philippines.

Let Them Fail

This guest post is by fellow mentor/advisor to the Social Innovation Fellowship (formerly C.V. Starr Fellowship) Robin Pendoley, Founder/CEO of Thinking Beyond Borders.  This is a must read for innovators and entrepreneurs of any type.  Please read on! 

“I have failed.”

This phrase opened Natasha Blackadar’s summer blog post about her first social venture. Warning: This is not an inspiring story about how resilience and perseverance created a dramatic recovery.

Nope. Natasha’s venture failed. Spectacularly. And that’s a good thing. Perhaps the most important part of this is that Natasha has recognized, accepted, and courageously made it plain to the world. Fortunately, this young social innovator lives on to fight another day, stronger for the experience.

As a Social Innovation Fellow at Brown, Natasha spent this past school year (her sophomore year of college) building a social venture that would bring college student volunteers to support a local development agency in a small South African community. As part of the fellowship, she received funding, coursework in theory, and mentorship. This process consumed her life, shifting the focus of her learning from theory to practice. Being a social entrepreneur and leader of her venture became her identity.

When she arrived in South Africa, she quickly realized that, despite months of communication and planning, the community partner did not want her or her team of student volunteers there. Within just a few days of the start of a 10-week project, she became concerned for the safety of her team. Natasha came to the conclusion that the relationship with the partner organization could not be salvaged. To try to continue would be disruptive to the community and put undue strain on local relationships.

Natasha pulled the plug.

As any resourceful project manager would, she utilized her network to create new opportunities for her team elsewhere in the country. They completed service, had a cross-cultural experience, and learned about international development. But, Natasha’s vision of a sustainable venture that would provide assistance to the community and learning opportunities for students has died.

Reading her blog posts makes it clear that Natasha was heavily invested in this venture. Yet, she did what so few social entrepreneurs are able to do – recognize a failed project and move on.

There has been a lot said recently about the importance of recognizing and accepting failure in social entrepreneurship (Jonathan Lewis in Huffpo, Failing Fast by Anna Ebbessen, Harvard Business Review). Not only can it result in better ventures, but accepting failure is crucial to ensuring we don’t create negative impact. “Resilience” seems to be the new golden ticket to social entrepreneurship. To succeed, social entrepreneurs must try, fail, and repeat until they succeed.

Outside of college programs, accepting failure is not easy to do. The social innovation sector is filled with perverse incentives. Ventures are rewarded with funding and exposure for visions of delivering grand scale and fundamental system change, all with a business plan achieving sustainability within 18-24 months. These aren’t perverse because they aren’t great aspirations. They are perverse because they reward early stage ventures for taking enormous risks.

There are risks for every stakeholder. The entrepreneur invests not just their time and energy, but often their whole identity in their venture. The funders invest resources in vetting, funding, and supporting the venture. Partners commit their time and energy to collaborative efforts. These stakeholders risk losing both their resources and their clout if the venture fails.

But, it is often the most vulnerable stakeholder group that carries the most risk – the community to be impacted. Social ventures target populations with a fundamental need like nutrition, health care, or education. Ventures that fail to deliver positive and productive impact risk squandering the efforts and resources of the community.

That, however, is not the worst-case scenario. The worst-case scenario is that, despite good intentions, the venture negatively impacts the community. And, because the rest of the stakeholders are not incentivized to recognize and accept failure, the venture continues delivering this damage unabated.  

What no one tells you in this sector is that the venture is not truly failed until the social entrepreneur deems it so. As support dries up, the social entrepreneur can continue to iterate, try new approaches, and keep the venture alive – even if it should be scrapped.

There are two conclusions to draw from this story:

  1. For the sector to be viable and maintain its focus on creating meaningful and positive social impact, the incentive structures must change to support entrepreneurs to recognize and accept failure.
  2. Programs like the Social Innovation Fellowship are crucial to preparing future social entrepreneurs to be effective. While the funding, studies, and mentorship are key components of that learning, providing a safe space to fail is crucial.


Robin Pendoley is the Founder & CEO of Thinking Beyond Borders, a nonprofit that designs and leads

 international gap year programs for students to prepare for a lifetime of commitment to creating meaningful social impact. Robin also serves as a mentor for the Social Innovation Fellowship (formerly known as the C.V. Starr Fellowship) with over a decade of experience in international development theory, education, comprehensive internationalization, and nonprofit management.

Will You Leave a Mrk?

I love my iPhone case! Do you? How many cases have you gone through? Me, a few...but this one is it.  My nice blue Mrked case is the brainchild of 3 kids - yup, kids. Just your average college kids yet again deciding it's their right to change the world.  15% of the revenues from Mrked goes to teach young girls in emerging markets how to read.  Beauty & Benificence in one. Shahneel shares their story - read it and go get a case!


Three sets of parents migrated from South Asia in order to provide their future children an opportunity to access better education.  The struggles our parents endured to make it in America motivated us to excel in our academic journeys.  This as well as our want to provide an opportunity for people, like you, to better the world we live in developed into the driving force behind Mrked.

Mrked is a tech accessories company that not only offers quality, fashionable products, but also a chance for you to “Leave a Mrk” on the world.  Fifteen percent of Mrked’s revenue helps support the works of Room to Read’s Girl Education Program.  Educating girls is to most effective and powerful approach to fight global poverty. Educating women will lead to them educating their children, which results in ending the literacy cycle by one generation.  

The idea of creating quality tech accessories came from fellow founder Safin Maknojia after he expressed his frustration with the accessories he saw in the market.  Walking into the Apple store, you may have noticed the vast selection of iPhone snap cases and high-end fashionable cases that barely offered your $500 investment any protection.  On the other end of the spectrum, there are cases on the market that offer great protection, from your waterproof cases to your extreme sports enthusiast cases, but took away from the aesthetics of the iPhone.  Our goal was to create a case that would protect a smartphone from the everyday bumps and dings and allows consumers to express their style through our designs. 

The idea of creating a philanthropic element to Mrked came from my background in international development studies and my desire to create a social enterprise like Warby Parker and Oliberté.  I’ve spent hours and hours throughout my years at Brown University reading about the issues in the developing world – health, education, political, and social issues.  All of which are elements that have led to today’s current state of global poverty.  After researching about the positive impact a proper education can have on a girl’s life in an Asian and African country, we knew this is what we wanted to support.  Finding Room to Read was just the cherry on top in our efforts to Leave a Mrk on the world.  

“But Shahneel, how does combining tech accessories and educating even make sense?”  Yes, Warby Parker’s partnership with Vision Spring does make sense.  And yes, a company like TOMS donating pairs of shoes does make sense.  But, who says everything we do in this world has to make obvious sense.  We wanted to take a product that we use everyday and provide girls in Asian and African countries with a concept that we also use everyday, education.  So is there a direction relationship between tech accessories and education?  Maybe, maybe not, but that debate is what makes our company beautiful and the reason why we wanted to enter this market and cause some disruption. 

After creating the idea of Mrked, we now had to bring it to life.  After sketching out the basic structure of our case, we then started to finalize the materials for the two parts.  We decided the outside layer should be made out of polycarbonate plastic because of its high-impact resistance and durability.  The inner layer would be composed of thermoplastic polyurethane because of its shock absorption, smoothness, and its ability not to attract lint like silicone.  After creating the 3-D rendering of our case, we now moved into designing the cases.  One of our main goals was to offer consumers an array of designs from which they could pick at least one favorite.  This idea led us to create five different categories: one color (Crayon Box), two color (Double Dutch), three color (Honor Roll), trendy designs (CLASSroom), and animal print (Jungle Gym).  Since Safin and I have always been into sneakers and fashion, we started looking through blogs, magazines, and Instagrams to see which color combinations and patterns were popular and trendy.  After creating the designs and getting the approval of our third founder Akil Momin, we finalized the 25 designs that currently comprise the 5 collections.  The final and definitely the most difficult process of this all was finding a manufacturer.  After months of conversations and samples, we were able to finalize our manufacturer.  This was the most draining and scariest process of creating Mrked because we knew our selection would impact the quality of the cases. 

If someone asked me, "Is Mrked worth all the late nights in the library trying to balance school and the company while sacrificing your 'normal' college experience?" I would undoubtedly smile and answer, "YES!"  We were able to create a solution to a problem that your everyday smartphone owner struggles with and accomplish a philanthropic ambition, which will aid young girls in providing a better future for their families and themselves.  My parents migrated to this country to provide me with a better education and give me the chance to do something great.  Attending an Ivy League university was part one. Hopefully, the success of Mrked will help me take steps towards part two: accomplish something worthwhile and Leave a Mrk on the world. 

Planting SEEEDs of Innovation

Last week, my daughter Chana and I attended the SEEED Conference on Social Entrepreneurship at BrownChana Scofield ('22) & Gladys Ndagire ('14) ~ Sayles Hall, Brown University University.  It was an amazing gathering of those doing, funding, supporting, working in and for social businesses.  These are Chana's thoughts on the first day of the conference.  Chana is 13 years old and in 7th grade.  Yes, I am a proud mom and find her insights cut to the chase.


While the entire SEEED Conference (Social Enterprise Ecosystem Economic Development) was interesting and enlightening, by far I found the panel “Core Elements for Building a Social Enterprise Ecosystem” the most intriguing. The varying beliefs and experiences of the panelists were highly educational and made the experience all together enjoyable. Dan MacCombie, co-founder of Runa, in particular, cut down to the basic fundamentals of social entrepreneurship by stating the devotion his company had for their cause. There was also discussion over funding for these enterprises, and finding the balance over providing funding for a company based on their cause or the structure of the company. Overall the points were fairly addressed, even with the occasional run-on answer. The metrics of social enterprises were discussed, the overall topic discussion ending when Dan pointed out that the best way to communicate a social enterprise's success and outcomes are (for now) a good story.

Interestingly enough, I pulled more information from that hour and a half panel then I would have from any given day at school. I now have a good enough idea of social enterprises that I feel comfortable weighing in on a conversation or offering up my thoughts. I do believe that funding social enterprises can be extremely difficult. On one hand, an investor doesn't want to invest in a company whose cause they don't believe in. On the other hand, it can be risky to invest in a social enterprise whose company is doomed to fail or doesn't have a stable enough business plan to succeed. It can be very difficult to find that silver lining, especially when the companies are interested in convincing you to invest, and not providing a complete image of how their enterprise actually runs. There is also the fact that in a social enterprise the focus is on the cause, not on pleasing investors. Those who have invested may not receive dividends since this money will most likely be redistributed into the company. For this reason many investors choose to distribute their money into a regularly functioning enterprise versus a social one.

These reasons are why I believe that Allen Kramer and Gladys Ndagire, plus their team, have created something special. What they have created is a $50 Million investment fund whose focus is solely on social enterprises, the New England Impact Capital. They are set to create a list of criteria to help to help them decide which companies to invest in. Seeing the amount of trouble investors have when it comes to social enterprises, this venture capital will benefit both the investor and the company by choosing social businesses whose causes are just and promises a return on investments similar to the average venture capital firm.

The SEEED Conference had given me an understanding of the importance of social enterprises, as well as the difficulties that come when choosing to invest in them. I think it is important for the investor to have full faith in the company and it's cause, as well as the enterprise's stability and business plan. This is why an investment fund based solely on social enterprises like the one Allen and Gladys are creating is not only an exceptional idea, but would provide support for budding social enterprises as well as a safer way to invest. 

Intrapreneurship in "Social" Business

I'm again privileged to have an incredible "kid" share his wisdom on the role of intrapreneurship in social business. It's becoming more accepted in 'regular' business so let's apply it to social as well.  Allen Kramer, Brown '13, is going to change the world - so listen, learn, apply, iterate. 

Allen Kramer:  Reflection: Work with Assured Labor

I am passionate about giving low-income workers in Latin America access to jobs.  A powerful way to do this, called mobile recruitment uses text messaging (SMS: Short Message Service) to allow workers to find jobs. Having lived in and with off-the-grid communities in Latin America, in Nicaragua and Colombia, I had seen and felt the impact of low Internet and basic telecommunications access, especially when it comes to communicating with potential employers. Mobile recruitment bridges this gap in regions where access to mobile is on average 3 times greater than the Internet.

While working in Manizales, Colombia for Grameen Caldas (an affiliate to Nobel Peace Prize winning Grameen Bank in Bangladesh), the entrepreneur’s bug bit me and I finally decided I wanted to launch my own mobile recruitment service.  Like many “would-love-to-be” young entrepreneurs, I quickly realized just how much I didn’t know.  I did what most entrepreneurs do: I talked about my idea to anyone and everyone who would listen. Fortunately, I stumbled upon several people who took more than just a passing interest in what I was thinking about. I was directed to two companies already working in this market, Baba Jobs in India and Assured Labor in Latin America. Because of the regional interest, I contacted the CEO of Assured Labor, David Reich, to pitch my ideas.

When we met in January 2012, my idealist entrepreneurial dreams hit pavement as David shared their years of market experience in mobile recruitment while managing a large and rapidly growing team in over four countries. I knew little about developing mobile interface software or, when I admitted it to myself, how to build a business from the ground up. So I temporarily swallowed my entrepreneurial dreams and offered to work for the company to help them expand in key areas.

Over the course of the past year, there have been three distinct lessons that have stuck with me: 1) consumer insights can truly shape and determine a business’ success; 2) intrapreneurs play a vital role in (social) enterprise; and 3) being mission-driven is critical in deciding your own path.

First, some thoughts on consumer insights
The number of times I’ve heard people in social entrepreneurship communities off-handedly state ‘you have to know your beneficiaries’ is astounding. On the surface, this is a good thing – in fact, the point I am about to make is that you do have to have a profound knowledge of your target users in order to be successful.  But many of these people rarely dig deeper into understanding the real needs, circumstances and constraints.  Calling these people ‘beneficiaries’ instead of users or customers sums it up.

For instance, there is a company sells SMS to employers only to schedule interviews, not recruit. Less than 10% of the workers show up to interviews and many have dropped the service. Why? Employers send a SMS with little information about where and when the interview is to the workers’ cell phones with no tracking of receipt.  Why would a worker spend their scarce cash on a bus, with doubtful success of employment, to an unfamiliar area in a dangerous city like Bogotá from an unknown employer?

At Assured Labor, I tested the adoption of new products into new markets to understand product-market fit. My first step, a lá Four Steps to the Epiphany, was understanding workers’ pain points in trying to find a job. This customer discovery process let me identify the forces acting on a worker. What do they see when they wake up in the morning and walk out of their home? Where do the unemployed go to look for work? How do they learn where to go to find work? How do they pay for the bus to get there? What are the consequences of not finding a job? Who do they trust as reliable sources of information on employment opportunities?

This understanding lets me predict, sometimes simply better than asking directly, what a workers’ behavioral responses will be when they receive an SMS with a job opportunity, given a range of message content. Our investment in understanding answers to these questions has allowed Assured Labor to build viable solutions to the difficulties workers face while searching for jobs.

Intrapreneurship can drive organizational growth
I broadly define intrapreneurship as any role within an existing company that is largely self-directed and risky, forging out ahead of the status quo. Intrapreneurship has interesting power both to create opportunities for young people, such as myself, that are launching themselves into the social enterprise sector, as well as to spur significant innovation and growth within startups and existing larger companies. This power has gotten intrapreneurship featured recently in publications like Forbes.

My first experience with intrapreneurship was at Assured Labor.  I took responsibility, as well as the risk of my time and effort, to lay the groundwork for expansion to a new market. While the country had been on Assured Labor’s longer-term radar, I brought the bandwidth to actually take the first steps and identify its potential for short and medium-term company growth.

What does being an intrapreneur mean to the university student doing an internship or recent graduate? No more coffee runs or busy-work paper filing but the opportunity to flex your innovative muscles; the chance for independent learning-by-doing, while also taking advantage of the accumulated institutional knowledge and (hopefully) top-notch team of an existing company.

Intrapreneurship is a great way to prove your worth to the company when you do not have the credentials of years of work experience under your belt. This is especially true if you take on the financial risk of ‘bootstrapping’ your own intrapreneurial experience: take the personal and financial risk to do something new, get it done or have some good lessons from failure. You then have a better chance at creating a more permanent place for yourself within the team. Think of the job offer at the end as the ‘up-side’ to the initial investment. Obviously, most university students have scant savings to actually do this bootstrapping. Instead of using savings, there are a couple of alternatives. The first – which is the route that I took – is to apply to fellowships or grants that can provide some financial cushion. The second is to take a traditional paid or stipend internship and carve out an intrapreneurial role within it.

From the company’s perspective, fostering a culture of intrapreneurship brings significant advantages. First is the bandwidth to test out new ideas and to maintain a constant stream of innovation. As young companies move towards establishing their business models, rarely does a lack of ideas keep them from innovating.  It’s usually the limited capacity to test and iterate to find the best ideas and the best implementations. Recruiting motivated intrapreneurs can move this innovation forward. Second is the ability to create a recruiting pipeline of top talent and a team always thinking five steps out – especially when these intrapreneurs are students or young professionals where no long-term commitment is assumed at the outset. This just requires the management team’s dedication to cultivate internal leaders and to invest in them professionally.

Be mission-driven
Social entrepreneurship is facing a serious problem of ego. Too frequently, I have seen friends launch new nonprofits or social enterprises that largely duplicate the work of existing organizations and never scale, creating limited social impact. Two principal motivations seem to drive this duplication: 1) the desire to have complete ownership of the organization that is founded, with the sexiness that ownership confers; and 2) a genuine frustration with current existing solutions. Then, of course, there are just some bad ideas and stale social enterprise models.

Good social entrepreneurship should be driven by passion for achieving the social mission – everything else is just a vehicle to do so. So, if you are passionate about a social or economic issue – unemployment, to take a salient example – the best first step is to explore the structural causes of the issue and next examine what solutions have been developed. Learn from the past success and failures.

For sure, I have fallen trap to the ‘solution excitement’ on numerous occasions. Ultimately, what I have found is that there is a significant amount of existing momentum in ‘social enterprises’ that can be guided towards greater social gains. Assured Labor is growing close to 500,000 workers registered. One of the questions I have been helping answer at Assured Labor is how we can always make and keep the SMS jobs platform relevant for the lowest income brackets so the next 500,000 workers and the million after that; how can we disrupt hiring in Latin America and make it more equitable? Had I gone on to found my own company, the chances are slim I could have grown it to a user base of that size in so little time. Now, I’ve had the opportunity to inject ideas and growth opportunities that do positively affect a huge market of job seekers. So, part of being mission driven is also being intrapreneurial.

Sometimes it really is too hard to alter existing institutions and change needs to be driven from the outside. We need to be more analytical about founding of nonprofits and social enterprises. If you are thinking about doing so, first look at what organizations, companies, and other forms of innovations already exist in order to find opportunities to create changes from within. Lastly, if you want an opportunity to build an organization or company from the ground up because of the excitement, go for it – just steer clear of marketing yourself as the bleeding heart type, because you can muddle what is going to create impact in this world. 

How to Have an Impact without Electricity and the Internet

This is a guest post by Kona Shen, Founder of GOALS Haiti, mentioned here.  What she has done for youth and their families in Haiti demonstrates courage, compassion, purpose and leadership savvy few CEO’s of any age possess.  Kona shares the starkly different definitions of ‘basic needs’ between the USA and Haiti and how it affects her productivity and impact…a lesson for us all!

Sometimes, when I get accused of being a workaholic, I laugh. I do work hard, but I don’t think I qualify. My schedule typically consists of a nine-hour workday, Monday through Friday. I don’t have internet on my phone, don’t work on projects late at night or on weekends, and almost always take a real lunch hour.

Mostly this has to do with living in Haiti. I began traveling to Haiti as a volunteer in 2007 and moved here in 2010 to launch an organization called GOALS. GOALS uses soccer to engage youth in public service and education that improve quality of life and develop new leadership. We’re up to 600 kids per month with a staff of 18 local leaders focused on long-term, community-driven development.

There are times when full-time electricity, internet, and air-conditioning would be nice. Most days, communications and logistics take more forethought and I can’t always be reached.  It took me a while to figure out what a meme was, and I can barely name any movie, song, or YouTube clip that’s been famous in the last two years.

Of course, I don’t want to minimize Haiti’s long-term infrastructure needs, including electricity and internet. But personally, I don’t miss the 24/7 access to power much. In Haiti, I read more books, do more yoga, write more essays, and cook more meals. I actually studied French instead of putting it off. Without the temptation of the internet and fewer gadgets, there seems to be more hours in the day.

In the U.S., electricity at night and streaming internet is usually enough to derail me. I find myself hammering out emails at 11PM on Sunday with the TV on and my phone lighting up with messages. Clearly, I don’t have the discipline to pretend that turning electronics on isn’t an option.

Why does it matter? Because, for me, more work doesn’t produce better work. It turns out, my light bulb moments come to me when I step back. I get so many new ideas out on walks or runs that I carry a pen to make notes. When I make an effort After Isaac: Cleaning out a kitchento do less, the truly important work gets done first, the biggest breakthroughs happen and GOALS is better for it. Best of all, I find myself looking forward to Monday morning instead of burning out before the week even begins. 


GOALS Haiti just won Beyond Sport’s award for Best New Project.

2 Degrees of Separation? Last month, Kona was in San Francisco meeting Arnold Ambiel, Director of Operations for One World Futbol.  He suggested she get in touch with Deb Mills-Scofield. Not letting on, Kona asked how he knew me.  He replied that he followed me on Twitter but didn’t know me personally.  Little did he know we were already connected – through bonds of purpose, passion and our alma mater.