Setting The Course: An Interview With William Huster of Compass Partners
The Compass Fellowship (now officially The Compass Fellowship with The Kenneth Cole Foundation) is our primary program and has seen the most growth and success so far. It’s a unique program for freshmen in college that focuses on the development of the students as entrepreneurs, with a heavy emphasis on personal development in addition to business development. I’d say our fellowship program is the focus of 95% of our day-to-day efforts and funding, so when we talk about what Compass Partners does, the conversation usually centers around that.
Through our consultancy, we participate proactively with other organizations in the community to realize our shared goals. For example, we’ve partnered with the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program (IYLEP) to run a day-long “mini-conference” at the end of this month centered around social initiatives and entrepreneurship. The young Iraqi leaders will have a chance to meet some of the Compass Fellows in DC and hear about social entrepreneurship from us and members of our community.
Finally, our Shift Series National Conference is a new project that took place on April 1-2 of this year. The next conference is tentatively set for February. At Shift Series, we brought together the most brilliant minds from our community, CEOs, entrepreneurs, authors, academics, and political leaders, to discuss “New Approaches to Social Issues.” We also used the conference as a rally point for our Fellowship program, bringing together more than 150 students from across the country.
That’s where we’re at now, but we’re always kicking around ideas for new projects and, true to our entrepreneurial spirit, we rarely say “no” to new opportunities.
What inspired you guys to start Compass Partners?
As freshmen in college, we dreamed of being social entrepreneurs, so we started our own social ventures. Neil Shah, our Executive Director, and I worked on a fair trade tea delivery service, and Arthur Woods, our President, a local, organic produce delivery service. The services were in direct competition with one-another, though we shared the same motivation to change the world for the better.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t long until both of the ventures collapsed. We didn’t lack passion or confidence, but we simply didn’t have the support, knowledge or skills that we needed to succeed. Recognizing our shared visions for change and our shared frustrations with the lack of support for student entrepreneurs, we joined up, and Compass, especially our idea for the fellowship program, grew organically out of our failures and our pursuit of the root causes of those failures.
We came to the conclusion that student entrepreneurs at universities really lacked a few critical things: the support of a community of like-minded people, access to professionals and resources, and a flexible, differentiated, and practical curriculum for entrepreneurship. At some point in our discussions with educators and leaders of similar initiatives, we realized that as students ourselves, we might be in the best position to fill this gap through a program built on peer mentorship. That’s where the idea for the Compass Fellowship came from.
How do you guys choose which ideas to support? Why did you guys decide to accelerate college-aged ventures?
Where other organizations focus on the development and refinement of venture ideas, using venture success or failure as their metric, we realize that ideas are a dime-a-dozen and more often than not, as with our freshmen experiments, doomed to fail. What really makes a difference in a start-up — especially a social start-up — is not the idea itself, but the people behind it. It’s also about how those people respond to failure and learn from it. That’s why we select the brightest and most passionate individuals we can find, and we have built a program that focuses on people, emphasizing entrepreneurial traits such as resilience, reflection, personal development, and community leadership.
So, we support our people first. We connect them to opportunities, provide them with mentorship, and trust that if their idea is good, it will succeed.
Compass Partners received a great endorsement and support from Kenneth Cole, can you tell us about the partnership and how it came about.
It was a cold call. Our Executive Director, Neil Shah, read an article that Kenneth Cole was starting a civic engagement program at Columbia University. To get that program going, Kenneth had promised the school $1 million. So, we approached Kenneth with a proposal to bring a similar program — the program we were already running at five schools — to fifteen schools at half the cost. Kenneth really resonated with the idea, so we worked out a partnership. You have probably read that Kenneth’s foundation will be contributing $500,000 to us. This amount will be paid out quarterly over the next three years. Kenneth has since also joined our Board of Directors, and we have expanded our staff and our ambitions for the coming years.
What’s the vision for Compass Partners?
We’re dedicated to advancing socially conscious business, and we fundamentally believe that every business should do its utmost to evaluate the impact of its activities on the world and adjust its behavior to minimize the negative effects and maximize the positive ones, accordingly. We admire storied institutions like Ashoka, who have really made a difference through their projects, initiatives, and programs, and whose name has become synonymous with social entrepreneurship and change-making. We share many of Ashoka’s goals, and aspire to someday bring Compass to a similar degree of prominence.
How can our readers help Compass Partners push forward its mission?
If you’re interested in our mission of creating an empowered global community of young innovators, the best way to help out is to simply become a participant in our community! We are always on the look-out for professionals and entrepreneurs to provide mentorship and advice to our students. If you happen to know of any rising college freshmen, you might also point them our way! There are other opportunities abound, so please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.