Our modern world is confronted with daunting 21st-century challenges that impact billions of people across the globe. Environmental degradation, food insecurity, lack of healthcare and access to clean water are just some of the issues requiring a new way of thinking. To meet these challenges, a new cadre of social entrepreneurs, cutting across generational, ethnic and socioeconomic boundaries, are building solutions in the form of social ventures that seek both sustainable revenue and scalable impact.
Countless individuals and organizations are daring to work around the confines of existing systems, devising creative solutions to some of the world’s greatest problems. Inspiring success stories are validating the important role of these ventures. KIPP is changing the dynamic of public education in lower socio-economic school districts, Sweetgreen is redefining the relationship between farmers, grocers and communities and Not Impossible Labs is using 3-D printers to build prosthetics for limb-loss victims of South Sudan’s civil war. These diverse ventures all represent the potential of a vibrant impact ecosystem.
While each social entrepreneur’s journey is different, most share similar barriers to success. Over the past year, I have been fortunate to help build the Halcyon Incubator, a social innovation incubator located in Washington, D.C., designed to help entrepreneurs launch their social ventures. In creating the program, we met with leaders from both the private and public sectors to fully understand and design around this critical intersection of revenue and impact.
Despite the vast diversity of ventures and ideas in this space, our conversations regularly centered around three similar themes and resources, which we believe are critical for entrepreneurs to consider that will increase their chances of success as they build their social ventures.
Ben Franklin is often attributed with saying, “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” For social entrepreneurs trying to grow ideas into sustainable ventures, gaining first hand knowledge and input from a variety of experts with experience at for-profit, non-profit and government entities cannot be understated.
This type of engagement is a crucial developmental attribute. Discovering how others in their respective fields have succeeded, how they’ve failed and what lessons they’ve learned, actively involves participants in the learning process. This level of engagement in the earliest stages of a social ventures’ formation is what differentiates active learning from passive participation.
Mistakes are a part of an entrepreneur’s journey. Mentoring is real advice, it’s tangible and it speeds up the learning process. The experience individuals can gain through mentoring can assist in mitigating many of the common shortfalls that accompany the early-stage development of a social venture.
Social entrepreneurs launch their ventures to make a difference in the world. However, as with any startup, one of the largest obstacles these individuals face is the financial burden that accompanies this path.
Keeping costs low in the formative months of a venture is the best way to effectively position a startup for success. The bad news? Although major metropolitan areas such as New York City, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. offer a diverse ecosystem of stakeholders and organizational resources, the high costs of living in these cities often prohibit entrepreneurs from dedicating all of their energy to their social ventures. Often, entrepreneurs can be priced out of the very communities they aim to support! The good news? There are novel ways to mitigate the financial burden of starting a social venture. Co-working spaces such as WeWork and Impact Hub are expanding rapidly to reduce the price point of office space and overhead costs. Grants, competitions, and angel groups are cropping up to fund early-stage entrepreneurs. And organizations such as Echoing Green, the Global Good Fund, and my organization, Halcyon Incubator, are creating dedicated programming to reduce the cost of starting a venture.
Patrick Dowd, founder of the Millennial Trains Project, which hosts transcontinental train journeys for young social entrepreneurs to incubate ideas during 10-day long trips, echoed these sentiments.
“It’s critical to eliminate the stress and anxiety of figuring out where you’re going to sleep, eat and work before you have customers or funders,” said Dowd. “Having support and financial freedom is a huge confidence booster, and also gives social entrepreneurs the time to think through their ideas and build their programs.”
It should come as no surprise that there are many competing needs and pressures in the development of a social venture. While entrepreneurs are faced with developing their product, customer base and initial team, they also need to strategically plan for a venture’s legal, accounting, branding, and marketing functions.
Unfortunately, many entrepreneurs choose to try to go it alone and tackle all of these crucial business functions themselves. This route can often distract social entrepreneurs from the essentials of their venture. Partnering with firms that specialize in these technical challenges can save a lot of time, frustration and duplicative work down the road.
Michael McDevitt, CEO of Tandem Legal Group, which provides young, high-growth, entrepreneurial organizations with legal and business advisory services, believes individuals should tap into partners for assistance with these fundamentals.
“While it’s very important to discover what you don’t know, being an entrepreneur is not about being all knowing,” said McDevitt. “Being an entrepreneur is about growing as an individual and building a network of trusted resources to help achieve your goals.”
Ultimately, the Halcyon Incubator believes it is our responsibility to provide these daring individuals with the tools for success that will allow them to build a better future for our world. Whether or not social entrepreneurs take advantage of the resources that organizations like Halcyon offer, or simply seek out the tools, individuals and networks we have outlined above, no one person or organization can tackle these 21st-century challenges alone. It is time to take a collaborative and thoughtful approach to social entrepreneurship to enable real change and solutions for people across the globe.