Giving Social Entrepreneurs Wings To Fly with Teju Ravilochan of the Unreasonable Institute
The Trailblazers for Good Q&A Series sits down with the most world shaking individuals leading the movement to align impact, profit and purpose. Here we pick the brains of top social entrepreneurs to learn first hand from their stunning accomplishments, utter failures, and stiff challenges in leading the revolution of doing well by doing good. Join us as we explore the collective consciousness that drives and inspires these individuals.
From a young age, Teju wondered what we could to tackle problems like global poverty. Frustrated that this BA in International Affairs wasn’t preparing him to do so, he obtained a grant from the University of Colorado at Boulder to conduct research about the effectiveness of non-profits in India. Through this research, he learned that traditional charity-based models are not effectively combating poverty. So, he began working as assistant to Paul Polak, whose entrepreneurial approach has enabled over 19 million farmers out of poverty, eventually leaving to co-found the Unreasonable Institute, a mentor-driven accelerator for entrepreneurs tackling social and environmental problems.
What is Unreasonable Institute and what inspired you and your co-founders to start it?
The Unreasonable Institute accelerates entrepreneurs tackling the world’s greatest social and environmental with mentorship, capital, and a global network. Each year, we unite 25 entrepreneurs from every corner of the globe to live under the same roof for six weeks in Boulder, Colorado. These entrepreneurs receive training from 50 mentors ranging from a Time Magazine Hero of the Planet, to the CTO of HP, to an entrepreneur who’s enabled over 19 million farmers to move out of poverty. In the process, they form relationships with 20 investment funds, receive legal advice & design consulting, and pitch to hundreds of investors and partners.
The inspiration for starting the Unreasonable Institute culminated for us in college. We were hungry to do something to tackle problems like poverty, the oppression of women, and climate change. But we grew frustrated as our education did little to prepare us to face these challenges, instead focusing on theory and problems themselves, and never the practical steps we could take to solve them.
Determined to create a place young people could go to learn systematically how to change the world, Daniel started something called the Global Leadership Institute, which brought 17 young leaders representing 14 nationalities together in Boulder for 5 weeks. All of them worked on projects while taking 2 courses and attending lectures from over 60 speakers. Daniel learned from the experience that all the participants were building entrepreneurial solutions so their efforts could scale financially. He also learned they wanted to more active guidance from the 60 speakers and access to funding to get their projects off the ground. At the same time, research I was doing in India on the effectiveness of non-profit approaches to poverty led me to believe that charity-based solutions were perpetuating dependency and financially unsustainable. I saw entrepreneurial solutions providing people in poverty greater agency to deal with their own problems. They were more financially sustainable. They just worked better! Our third co-founder Tyler Hartung had come to similar conclusions learning about and working with microfinance institutions in Uganda. So when Daniel told us about wanting to create a place for young entrepreneurs to receive mentorship from people who had actually made progress in solving the world’s biggest problems and access to capital, we were in.
What do you look for in an unreasonable venture? What qualities define a promising social enterprise?
In an unreasonable venture, we look for four things: an effective solution to a social or environmental problem, a strong financial model, and an ability to scale to at least 1 million people. We know that it’s very difficult to scale to a million, but we want entrepreneurs who are up to that challenge, who are designing scalability into their models from the get-go.
Even more important than the venture’s model, however, is the entrepreneur (and the team) behind it. As many investors say, we’d take a great entrepreneur with a mediocre idea over a mediocre entrepreneur with a great idea 100% of the time. To us, a great entrepreneur has a deep intimacy with the market he or she is serving, has past entrepreneurial experience (which we consider to be anything that shows us they take problems into their own hands, not just starting companies), and a strong team with the relevant skills to execute on the vision.
Because, for us, the number one red flag in an entrepreneur is ego, we weed out candidates that seem defensive, unreceptive to criticism, or who don’t admit when they don’t know something. We instead look for entrepreneurs who are humble, coachable, work unbelievably hard, do their homework, and have a heck of a lot of integrity.
So in summary: we look for market intimacy, entrepreneurial ability, a strong team, a financially-viable business model, and a humble, integral, diligent entrepreneur.
You guys have put together an impressive list of mentors and advisers. How were you guys able to do that?
The simplest answer is that we focused on building relationships and then we just asked! We knew we could attract great entrepreneurs without having great mentors. So we followed the following steps:
- We figured out how to communicate what we wanted to do as simply as possible. We started with a 30-page plan of what we were doing. We figured out how to eliminate the jargon, focus relentlessly on what was most important, and boil it down. In fact, we boiled it down to the stick figure below. This really helped people to “get” what we were trying to do. I can’t put enough emphasis on how important this was!
- We went to where the action was. We asked ourselves where the kinds of people we wanted to talk to were gathering. It was places like SoCap in San Francisco, The Feast Conference in New York, and even online on Twitter and the SocialEdge blog.
- We had hundreds of one-on-one conversations. Che Guevera was once asked how he built a movement that swept across a continent. He said something to the effect of you meet one person. And then another. And then another. And then another.¯ We would talk to everyone we could in-person and on the phone one-on-one to learn from them, to learn about their work, and to share what we were doing. And in every one of these conversations, we asked who are 5 other people we should talk to?¯
- We tried to be of service. As we began to meet all of these people, we wanted to help them advance the work they were doing. So we started connecting them to other people we had met who could help them. This was huge! Suddenly all the people in our network gained something from their relationships with us and got a sense of the other people we were meeting. This was the most valuable thing that we did.
- We made the ask. Ultimately, we presented the opportunity to people and asked them to join us! We explained to them: we don’t believe we can afford to send this generation of young people into the world without preparing them to tackle its greatest challenges. And we need mentors with the experience and practical wisdom to guide them. We believe you are one of these people. It would be a privilege to have you join us a mentor this summer.¯
- We made it easy to say yes. We told them we’d cover their airfare, pay for their food, put them up, and personally pick them up at the airport. We outlined this all in an email and told them all they had to do to make it official was send us their photo and a bio to put on our website. Over the past 2.5 years of doing this, we’ve had 90% of the people we’ve asked say yes and when they said no, it was usually because they were expecting a baby.
Can you tell us a success story of one of the ventures incubated at the institute?
In 2010, we were fortunate to have an entrepreneur named Ben Lyon come to the Institute. He’d be running a non-profit organization called FrontlineSMS:Credit, enabling small-scale entrepreneurs in Africa to obtain loans from Microfinance Institutions via mobile phone. While at the Unreasonable Institute, he realized there was an even larger opportunity in providing people the ability to send money via mobile phone, beyond simply microfinance. So he handed over leadership of FrontlineSMS:Credit and started the for-profit Kopo. Kopo. He raised approximately $120,000 in seed capital at the Institute, secured 2 Unreasonable mentors as long-term advisors, and moved to Nairobi to kick it off. Since then, in the past year, he launched a pilot, hired a team of 4 people, and just closed nearly $1 million in funding from VCs in Silicon Valley and Geneva.
Are you guys working on anything exciting to scale and grow the institute?
Wow, where do I get started with this? We’re working on 4 different things to scale and grow the Unreasonable Institute. The first is a Virgin-like strategy to invest with our brand in companies we believe can create a huge impact. The second is a massive digital outreach strategy consisting of a video library of mentor and funder interviews and documentary series about the entrepreneurs at the Unreasonable Institute. The third is a two-week hyper-accelerator focused on accelerating more advanced entrepreneurs with quick injections of capital and partnerships with relevant global corporations who can help them scale by orders of magnitude. And the fourth is a strategy to replicate the Unreasonable Institute all over the world, enabling us to grow from working with 25 entrepreneurs a year in Boulder, to 2500 entrepreneurs in 100 countries. For this fourth piece, we’re planning on running an Institute for Institutes, in which we’ll likely identify 10 teams from 10 countries capable of starting Unreasonable Institutes in other parts of the world. We’ll invite them to Boulder for 2-4 weeks, where we’ll guide them as to how we got started and share the values we believe are core to the Unreasonable Institute, as well as give them mentorship opportunities from those who have run successful accelerators around the world and provide them funding opportunities. For those teams we believe can best start Institutes, we’ll send them home with our brand, our systems, our network, and everything else we can to support them. We’ll continue running these Institute of Institutes, growing from having 1 Unreasonable Institute in the United States, to having 10 in 10 different countries, and then 25, and then 50, and eventually 100. What gets us most excited is because the founders of the Unreasonable Institute will be part of the Unreasonable Family and built strong relationships at the “Institute of Institute”, this will not be isolated support for entrepreneurs in different parts of the world. Instead, it will be a global movement of entrepreneurs working to tackle its greatest challenges.
How can our readership help move your mission forward?
Right now, we’re looking for world-class entrepreneurs to attend our 2012 Institute! Our applications are open this very moment, so anyone reading this article can let one potential applicant know that they have until November 10 to apply to the Unreasonable Institute at http://unreasonableinstitute.org/apply.