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! 
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“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.

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. 
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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.