Innovation & Design

Pop!Tech Gives Social Innovators a Boost


The annual conference trains nonprofit leaders, who often lack entrepreneurial knowhow, in branding, impact, and making connections

Melanie Edwards had worked for JPMorgan Chase (JPM), AT&T (T), and the U.N. But none of those jobs exactly prepared the 45-year-old to run Mobile Metrix, a nonprofit market-research firm she founded in San Francisco in 2006 to collect data on the estimated 20 million "invisible" inhabitants of Brazil's ghettos. At an autumn retreat in Maine, Edwards picked up some of the business basics she had been missing.

Edwards was among 18 social innovators chosen from among more than 110 applicants from 33 countries for the inaugural Pop!Tech Social Innovation Fellowship. The leaders of Pop!Tech, an annual conference about ideas shaping the future, saw the fellowship, which is funded by the gathering's $3,500 ticket price, as a way to support social innovation. "We chose high-potential leaders whom we thought could make transformational impact," says Andrew Zolli, Pop!Tech's curator, who develops programs for Pop!Tech Institute. "This is about giving them the nuts-and-bolts training they need to build successful organizations."

For four days in mid-October, the fellows shared a conference room at the Point Lookout Resort and Conference Center in Northport, Maine. Originally built as a corporate retreat for MBNA America Bank (now part of Bank of America (BAC)), the hilltop resort had an appropriately "we rule the world" view: a tree-covered landscape, ablaze in reds and golds, sloping toward the coast with the Atlantic stretching out beyond. The workshops covered everything from how to write a mission statement and appeal to investors to how to handle pesky reporters. Sessions leaders included Cheryl Heller, chief executive of branding firm Heller Communications Design; Robert Fabricant, executive creative director at frogdesign; venture capitalist John Balen of Canaan Partners; and social entrepreneur Paul Polak.

passion, but no training

It was almost a weekend executive MBA seminar for these social innovators, who work in 10 different sectors—education, health care, law, and human rights, to name a few—and span the for-profit/nonprofit divide. (See more photos of the workshops by Pop!Tech's Kris Krüg.) While their missions varied wildly, most shared a couple of traits: They had passion, which had taken them this far. But, like Edwards, they lacked entreprenuerial training. This became immediately apparent in the first session, Good Brand Camp, led by Heller. To kick it off, each fellow stood to give the elevator pitch for his or her organization, although most would have needed a ride to the top of the Sears Tower to get the idea across.

"I used the same pitch I always use, thinking it was very effective—only to learn through feedback that what I was saying was confusing, not concrete, and begged more questions than answers," says Heather Fleming, the 29-year-old founder of Catapult Design, a Menlo Park (Calif.) engineering and design firm that works with global nonprofits. "Brand Camp was an eye-opening experience."

A second lesson emerged on Day 2: how to make an impact. Entrepreneurs tend to focus first on business models, while nonprofit founders don't think enough about them. But social innovators—and all entrepreneurs, really—need to step back and think about what structure will enable them to make the biggest splash.

the biggest impact

These days people talk a lot about the triple bottom line: profits, environmental performance, and social impact. But Kevin Starr, who runs the Mulago Foundation, a venture fund that specializes in seeding health, conservation and development initiatives in the Third World, told participants that there's only one bottom line: impact. "Whether you are a for-profit or not-for-profit should be determined by what will give you the biggest impact," said Starr. "My job is to buy impact. To get the biggest bang for my philanthropic buck."

Participants seemed surprised. Nathan Sigworth and his partner, Taylor Thompson, both barely out of college, are launching PharmaSecure, a startup that they hope will halt global pharmaceutical counterfeiting. "We'd been focusing on metrics for financial success, but we hadn't thought about metrics for social impact," Sigworth conceded after Starr's session.

Finally, the fellowship proved the value of connections. After the workshops concluded, the 18 participants moved down the road to Camden, Maine, to attend the Pop!Tech conference, an annual gathering of 600 people from across the economy. There they had the chance to rub shoulders with venture capitalists and possible partners. "I had conversations with six to eight potential funders," says fellow Tevis Howard, the 24-year-old founder of a profitable microforestry enterprise in Kenya called Komaza. Another participant was connected through the Pop!Tech network with a defense agency interested in his software.

'Invisible' Market

"I know that at least 40 percent of the fellows have fundraising or development meetings planned, and that's a low estimate," says Zolli of Pop!Tech. "Most of the fellows are going to have a very busy few months."

Nearly a month after returning from Maine, Edwards is still following up on her connections. "Thanks to the fellows program, I gained new insight into how to reach more people, faster," she says. "Our mission remains the same, but it became clear that our market could extend to 4 billion 'invisible' people, so we've got loads of work ahead. Trustworthy partnerships will be key."

Jessie Scanlon is the senior writer for Innovation Design on BusinessWeek.com.

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