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How Sparkseed Founder Mike Del Ponte Found His True Calling

Mike Del Ponte

Mike Del Ponte is the founder of Sparkseed, a non-profit that invests in young social entrepreneurs. Del Ponte was an activist en route to priesthood when it occurred to him that the best way to create social change was through entrepreneurship, not volunteerism. Now in its third year, Sparkseed incubates promising college students and turns their ideas into real businesses. This weekend, it's hosting an unusual event in Silicon Valley called Dangerously Ambitious. We asked Del Ponte about the challenges facing young entrepreneurs, how high-tech tools are helping him realize his higher calling, and why entrepreneurs and investors skydiving together will jump-start collaboration.

You created Sparkseed so that young entrepreneurs don't have to go through the difficulties you experienced as a startup. What were some of these difficulties?

First, there are time wasters—tasks that aren't difficult but are a total time suck if you've never done them before, like incorporating a company. Then there are slightly harder things like figuring out a business model and articulating a vision. Finally, there are things that should simply be outsourced. Entrepreneurs are visionaries and good sales people, but they need to find someone else to do things like design, web work, even management.

You were inspired to create Sparkseed while you were an activist and a divinity school student. Why?

It was the summer of 2007, and I was volunteering as a microfinance consultant in a rural Nepali village. Our truck broke down, and the driver was trying to fix it with a pocketknife and some Scotch tape. These guys had the worst tools—they were ill equipped to solve this problem. I realized then and there that the tools I needed to make a difference were my MacBook, my iPhone, and my social network. What I really do well is connect people. And that's exactly what Sparkseed does.

Who are some of your most interesting fundees?

EcoScraps takes food that Costco has disposed of—say, a box of strawberries that didn't sell—composts it, and sells the compost to nurseries. The founders have been so successful that they dropped out of college and are expanding their business to five states. Another one I love is Elecar. Who says the young guy going against competitors like GE shouldn't be the one to crack the code on building the best infrastructure for electric car charging stations? Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg dreamt up world-changing ideas in their dorm rooms. That's dangerously ambitious.

You're a non-profit. How do you make money?

We make all our income from grants and donations. This year, we're also taking active equity investments—if one of our companies becomes really successful, that investment income can fund all our programming.

We don't apply for a lot of grants, host fundraising events, or send millions of letters. Instead, we sit down for lunch with entrepreneurs and corporations and tell them how they can make a difference. For example, what if we built a pipeline of "green" companies that Home Depot could sponsor, use in their stores, and promote as part of their cause marketing?

Our budget this year is $200,000. We're looking to raise $300,000 next year and $500,000 the year after that.

For this weekend's event, Dangerously Ambitious, you've invited 60 people—entrepreneurs, investors, White House reps—to go skydiving and do shotgun presentations. Why?

We challenge people to go big and take on leadership roles. Instead of passing out business cards, we jump out of planes together—it's such a different bond than chatting at a conference. Instead of leaving inspired, we leave with a commitment to collaborate. Educational programming should be action-oriented. Sparkseed is a small company, but we are always five steps ahead of our comfort zone.

How has spirituality shaped your leadership style?

In two ways: 1. I'm not attached to outcomes, and I take a long-term view of things. Although I spend 90% of my waking hours on Sparkseed right now, I know that it's not my ultimate purpose. 2. I have a very forgiving leadership style. If my team members make a mistake, I never make them feel bad.

I always ask myself, what is my responsibility to the world? Sparkseed is totally secular, but I believe this is what I'm being called to do in order to make a difference.