What You Should Know Before Starting a Social Enterprise

When I agreed to volunteer as a marketing consultant for the Archimedes Project, I did so not knowing what to expect. Beginning with a November 2013 kickoff event designed to create a social enterprise that provided a solution to the cholera problem in Haiti, the Archimedes Project remained largely a mystery to me as I started doing my small part.

The Project seemed to be motivated by a sincere desire to do good collaboratively, but lofty goals aren’t enough. How would the Project develop? Who were the people who would create the social enterprise? What would that even look like? I had heard the style of the kickoff event would be a hackathon of sorts where business ideas, instead of coding, were drawn up and then voted on during the event.

It was difficult for me to imagine the concept for an entire social enterprise coming to fruition at an event, but I wanted to see what would happen and how it would unfold. So, I did my part in marketing and looked forward to the kickoff event.

When I was there, I started wondering what brought these other people to the Project and what they expected and experienced, so I talked with a few of them.

In doing so, I came across a few themes that I think all of us would benefit from keeping in mind when starting any venture or volunteering to support the development of one:

No one has all the answers

From the college students volunteering to the experts presenting and participating, no one had all the answers. If they did, there probably wouldn’t be any need for the Archimedes Project to exist because the problem would already be solved.

Yet when I talked with people at the event, not knowing something was mentioned a few times. Adam Lewis, a consultant with Rabin Martin, a public health strategy firm, thought he was going to be in over his head. He said that in terms of public health issues, he had more of a background in “maternal/child health than infectious disease” or cholera specifically, and he hadn’t yet “spent much time learning about the Haitian context.” He did get a sense beforehand of what the workshops would be like, but even given that and his experience in public health, Lewis said that he assumed that others had it figured out and he would just come and participate.

Maxine Lancelot, a Tufts University undergraduate student who volunteered in development for the Project, said that she didn’t have a lot of expectations. She talked with the founder of the Archimedes Project and got excited, so she decided to join. With experience working at the World Health Organization at Geneva and a couple of non-profits in DC, Lancelot had a history of dedicating her time and efforts to addressing health issues, but from what she said, this seemed to be different from anything she had done because something new was being created from scratch. She even said that this was the first project she has worked on where she didn’t know the end point.

Diversity makes for better problem solving

So, are we doomed when we put together a bunch of people who don’t have the answers? Not necessarily.

One of the first things Luke Gabriel said to me that caught my attention when I interviewed him was, “I’m not an expert in anything.” A PhD in Neuroscience at the University of Massachusetts Medical School who kind of threw himself into the Project, as he described it, Luke said that members of his team “definitely [had] different ways [of approaching] problems.” Some were reductive, he explained. Others were expansive. “Seeing all sides of the issue by chance” in terms of how the members of his group were matched together was “pretty amazing.” Nobody on his team had experience working in this way in developing countries, Luke said.

Lewis independently echoed these sentiments. Diversity strengthened his team’s ability to solve the problem while expertise, he seemed to suggest, actually hampered the problem solving to some degree. For instance, the people with experience on the ground in Haiti had such an intimate knowledge of the problem and prior attempts to solve it that they already had a constrained idea about what could work. That is, in some ways the experts were more limited when trying to come up with solutions than those with little knowledge of the problem they were trying to solve.

Diversity came into play when Lewis talked about the panel of experts the participants heard the first night of the event. Made up almost entirely of people who worked at NGOs, the panel focused most of their time discussing the clean water movement, said Lewis. He heard them and saw a gap: The business component was largely missing in their discussions. With a background that includes looking at the elements of sustainability business models in the context of maternal and child health in the developing world, Adam had a way to contribute. This is why he was there, and he used the skills he gained with his experience at Rabin Martin and elsewhere to his advantage with the Archimedes Project.

A willingness to embrace continual change is helpful

When Lewis’s group got started, he described it as a sort of free-for-all. The members of his team worked together and integrated feedback they received from the panel experts to craft their potential solution.

“An hour before we were supposed to [pitch], we pivoted,” Lewis said. Then, his team found out that three or four other groups had similar ideas as his team’s new idea. So, the next day, his team pivoted again.

“I’m interested [in seeing] if other groups faced similar challenges” and “pivoted the way we did,” Lewis remarked. “It’s interesting to see how people adapted” and changed their idea.

From what Lewis said, it seemed that all of that change paid off and not just because his team believes it arrived at a better potential solution by the end of the event. Lewis learned a lot and was excited “to see it all come together and see that [an Archimedes Project solution] actually could work.”

What some might consider small failures in the ideation seemed to be treated by Lewis’s team as working ideas that simply needed to be worked on a bit more. That attitude seems to have helped the team realize quickly that it needed to change, make that change, and end up with, according to Lewis, better, more differentiated ideas.

Focus on the moment and keep driving forward to have a better chance of progressing

As exciting and eye-opening as the event was for many of the participants, it was only the beginning. The event was a preliminary formulation of ideas for fighting cholera in Haiti and a gathering of people who might work on implementing the social enterprise that delivers the solution.

Much work lays ahead to make the Project’s goal of a social enterprise a reality, and the participants I talked with realized this and didn’t let this knowledge interfere with what they were doing at the moment. Instead, they did their part to develop their own ideas in the time they had so that the ideation process could move forward and the Project could move on to the next stage: implementation. Who knows? The Archimedes Project could return to ideation before implementation is possible. I suspect it will have to on some level to have the best chance of succeeding. However, I would view the iterations that lead to that kind of movement as progress because they would make the social enterprise more sustainable in the long run. I wonder, will Steven Gary Blank write a book along the lines of The Four Steps to the Epiphany focused on the unique challenges social enterprises face?

This article was originally posted on rockonink.com

About the author:
Maria de Leon

Maria was a volunteer for our first Ideation Lab in 2013. She is founder of online magazine Rock On Ink (www.rockonink.com), I write about a variety of topics in marketing, business management and culture, and more. In the past I have written about business strategy, marketing analytics, data, organizational readiness, word of mouth, software, emerging technologies and their foundational principles, and more.

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