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Photograph by Ryan Pfluger

The United Nations of Entrepreneurs

Dragged into the 21st century, the UN is using entrepreneurs to rebrand itself as nimble and tech-savvy with a startup sensibility. So what happens after the makeover?

Sadly, most of us would probably associate the United Nations less with innovation than with waste, inefficiency, and sclerotic procedures. How surprising, then, to see that the UN has turned to the scrappiest and nimblest group you could imagine to change the way it promotes its agenda and engages with the world: entrepreneurs.

The Global Entrepreneurs Council is a league of business leaders from around the world, all of whom are under 45 and have a record of philanthropy and advocacy on global issues. Created in 2011 by the United Nations Foundation--a not-for-profit arm of the peacekeeping organization, funded by a $1 billion donation from Ted Turner--the council aims to infuse the UN with a new way of thinking, its members sharing their know-how, contacts, and technologies. A new group of entrepreneurs comes on board March 1, when the two-year term of the initial cohort expires. "Already," says Elizabeth McKee Gore, the UN Foundation's first resident entrepreneur and manager of the council, "they've left a legacy for how we go about dissecting a problem, bring resources to it, and bring it to scale."

The original council had a palpable lack of star power for a group representing the world's premiere global institution. Randi Zuckerberg (Mark's sister) was its most famous member. The group also included movers in publishing and advertising, such as Brian Gott, the former publisher of entertainment magazine Variety; Sergio Fernandez de Cordova, founder of Fuel Outdoor, a billboard company; and Ryan Allis, founder of email marketing firm iContact. Not exactly the International Who's Who of Entrepreneurs.

But a closer look at the work of the inaugural class reveals what their selection was about: spreading the UN's message. Shervin Pishevar, serial web entrepreneur and managing director at VC firm Menlo Ventures, helped build the UN's first mobile news app. Zuckerberg organized the first Facebook Town Hall for secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, letting people communicate directly with him. De Cordova brought in $4.6 million worth of in-kind outdoor and digital advertising in cultural epicenters such as Times Square. And last year, the council unveiled the Global Good Challenge, an online platform that gives users who, say, follow the UN on Twitter a chance to win prizes, like VIP passes to a Lady Gaga concert. "The communication and marketing know-how of the UN went from 1.0 to 3.0 in two years," says Gore.

The council also cultivated a new constituency within the private sector's elite. Angela Mwanza, an adviser at UBS Wealth Management, helped establish the Donors Advisors Fund, which courts and consults with the ultra-wealthy on the funding of the UN Foundation. Brian Gott's connections with Hollywood heavy hitters like American Idol producer Nigel Lithgoe helped the council raise $1.7 million within 60 days for Nothing but Nets, its campaign to provide bed nets to combat malaria in Africa. He also recruited actress and singer Victoria Justice to advocate for Girl Up, a campaign that helps young girls in developing countries get better educations. According to Gore, the council has made the UN cooler, tech-savvier, and more connected.

Gore came to the UN Foundation in 2006 from the Peace Corps, for which she was a grant writer based in Bolivia. Since then, she has managed global partnerships and marketing campaigns that bolster support for issues of concern to the United Nations. "The juxtaposition between the UN's world and the entrepreneurial world is tough," she says. "Things move very slowly at the UN, and entrepreneurs move very fast. We try to be the folks in the middle who can take an investment or idea and move it along."

The next class, with its wider diversity of industry and expertise, already shows promise. Among the new members is Barbara Bush--yes, daughter of George W.--whose not-for-profit, Global Health Corps, pairs young professionals with health organizations in struggling countries. "I'm excited about fixing this leadership gap, so that we can make a dent in bigger problems," she says. Also in the cohort are Troy Carter, founder and CEO of Atom Factory, Lady Gaga's management company (and a Fast Company GenFluxer); Narry Singh, "chief business guru" of Outfit7, maker of Talking Friends, an app that lets kids talk through toy animals; Haroon Mokhtarzada, cofounder of website builder Webs; and Ingrid Vanderveldt, entrepreneur-in-residence at Dell. (Other inductees are pictured below.)

The challenge for the group will be to move beyond pure marketing and spread the entrepreneurial spirit to the people that the UN is actually trying to help. Entrepreneurship is increasingly viewed as a catalyst for economic growth in poverty-stricken countries. Israel, which teems with startup talent, sponsored a UN resolution calling for the organization to encourage entrepreneurship in the developing world; it passed in December.

The council's new members aren't waiting for March. Neil Blumenthal, co-CEO of game-changing eyewear maker Warby Parker, has helped forge a relationship between the UN and Community Enterprise Solutions, a not-for-profit that trains women in low-income areas to start their own businesses. Now he's interested in using the UN's clout to push policies that are friendlier to entrepreneurs. "There are bureaucracies in business, government, and at the UN," Blumenthal says. "But entrepreneurs don't see that obstacle as insurmountable. It's something we have to work through to create change." And to pass on to others what they know.

Brian Ach/Getty Images (Blumenthal)

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1 Comments

  • KidA123

    It's crazy when you think about all of the new social media startups that are popping up and they will truly be able to compete with one another to catch on like networking giants (FB, Twitter, Pinterest, etc.) I think more and more we will see smaller companies take on more "traditional" ad tactics like advertising on billboards and trying to make their way into commercials. My friend actually just launched his awesome location-based social media app, Locist (www.loci.st) and bought 15min worth of ad space in Times Square among BIG names like Victoria Secret, Vitamin Water, etc...

    It will be interesting to see how small media companies will be able to compete for users in new ways. We're already seeing sticker and stencil tags try to encourage word-of-mouth marketing in places like Brooklyn and downtown NYC. Will big ads still be able to appeal to "users" to usher in app downloads?