Apr 042011

by Sara Herald

One of the sessions at the Social Enterprise Symposium held at the University of Maryland last Thursday featured tales and advice from four social entrepreneurs: Janessa Goldbeck from STANDnow, Steve Ma from Live Green Inc., Josh Nesbit from Medic Mobile, and Robyn Nietert from the Women’s Microfinance Initiative.  What do these individuals working on the front lines to solve a variety of social problems have to say about the future of social entrepreneurship? That the world needs fewer generalists and more specialists who can tackle specific ills.  What does that mean for the group of eager college and graduate students in attendance? Pick an area of interest to study and then focus on how the skills learned can address social problems.

That theme echoed throughout the Net Impact National Conference back in October, and it was really interesting to hear it repeated by people who have started successful businesses, both non- and for-profit. Echoing Green fellow Nesbit was pre-med at Stanford and became fascinated with mobile health and its implications in rural Africa while studying in Malawi.  What kind of people is he looking to hire for Medic Mobile? Those with technical skills in software development and healthcare.  It’s important to be passionate about the organization’s mission and a proven commitment to rural healthcare, but bottom line is that passion alone isn’t going to get you a job.

Nietert emphasized the need for more “boots on the ground.” The Women’s Microfinance Initiative makes loans as small as $50 to women in Uganda.  While the organization counts on several experienced women in leadership posts, it also makes extensive use of willing interns in both its Bethesda, MD office and in the field in Uganda.  But the skills that have proved most valuable to the viability of the organization are technology and microfinance related.  Web development and media work have been crucial stepping stones, as has knowledge of how the microfinance field has evolved since the starting days of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh.

So if someone has a specific idea and wants to start a business, what must they know? All four entrepreneurs had a positive impression of the funding environment right now, even though traditional venture capitalists are often uninterested in social returns.  Angel investors are key to the success of social ventures, and then there are several organizations that are specifically geared towards funding social enterprises.  Echoing Green is one, as is Kapor Capital, Good Capital, and Underdog Ventures.  Those who find that non-profit status makes the most sense for them should look at government appropriations and foundations focused on the same social problem as them.  Just as important as financial funding is building a good team.  Goldbeck noted that “audacity is great, and a bold goal is necessary to separate your organization from the fray, but you won’t go anywhere without a talented team.”  It’s easy to get lost in a push to get the organization off the ground, but an organization is ultimately not sustainable in the traditional sense until the founders become part of a successful group that can operate even when they’re not present.

Sara Herald is a second-year MBA student at the University of Maryland’s Smith School of Business.  She is the Vice President of Social Impact for the student government association and serves on the board of the Net Impact chapter.  Sara graduated magna cum laude from Georgetown University with a B.A. in Spanish and English.

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