Our fifth class focused on US-based nonprofits operating globally, with Willy Foote, the founder and CEO of Root Capital joining our class via Zoom from Cambridge, MA (I cannot type those words without hearing the Car Talk brothers in my head referencing “our fair city”). I hadn’t anticipated it, but Willy’s talk was an excellent continuation of the discussion that has been emerging in the class around the role of corporations in contributing to - or hindering - social change. Willy’s talk ran headlong at the issue, posing possibly the ultimate social entrepreneurship question to the students: “How do we use the tools of capitalism without being controlled by them?”
Willy’s story is a particularly relevant one for students studying social entrepreneurship through a business school, having started down that path himself. Raised in a family that valued public service, Willy described early influences - his father, moving from Missouri to Miami in 1981 - and then travels and other experiences that ultimately encouraged him to trade in a job in finance for a fellowship in journalism. I particularly appreciated the way Willy described starting Harvard Business School, but then dropping out shortly after because he just couldn’t shake the notion that there was something he might actually do - right then and there - to unleash the power of “moving large sums of capital to where it was needed most, not where it was least risky.”
I couldn’t help but think of Paul Shoemaker’s excellent book, Can’t Not Do while Willy was talking. I sometimes hear people say that they want to be a social entrepreneur, but they’re not sure what it is they want to work on. Part of me thinks of this as a great indication that social entrepreneurship is becoming more of a recognized thing, and more people wanting to contribute to positive change in the world is certainly an unqualified good. But there is another part of me that can’t help but think that that’s not at all how I’ve experienced it, and I worry that people are responding to the hype around a few very visible social entrepreneurs, as opposed to the more intrinsic experience of being incapable of inaction. A common theme of being a social entrepreneur that has emerged among our speakers so far in this class is that they didn’t choose it so much as it chose them.
Willy is palpably passionate when talking about the challenges facing small-hold farmers globally, but even more so, he is emphatic when describing their power and import as the climate vanguard, and the most effective guardians of our most precious ecosystems. In this way, Willy’s talk about working globally mirrored some of the most important thinking that is happening in the sector around how to most effectively - and respectfully - operate in the nonprofit sector, both globally and domestically. Besides his assets-based mindset, Willy referenced Bryan Stevenson’s four steps to change the world: get proximate, change the narrative, stay hopeful and put yourself in uncomfortable places. I cannot think of any better advice that students of social entrepreneurship might receive.
Willy also talked about more familiar business concepts, and shared stories of ups and downs. He referenced the strategic imperative of exploring adjacent markets, he described efforts to diversify markets and the power of not trying to do too much and instead identifying the “slipstreams that unlock other value.” Willy closed his remarks by talking about Root Capital’s endgame - not trying to be the sole funder of the “misfitting middle” (those too small for traditional bank loans and too big for microfinance), but rather to inspire replication and adaptation by other institutions. This was a good reminder that it is in the endgame that we see the greatest difference between more traditional nonprofit organizations led by social entrepreneurs and social enterprises more broadly defined.
The second half of the class included the remaining two student presentations - one on Blake Mycoskie, the founder of Tom’s and one on Josh Nesbit, the founder of Medic Mobile. There was also a brief group discussion on Krakauer’s Three Cups of Deceit and I am planning a bonus blog on my choice to include that text in the syllabus later this week.
Next week we will be talking about democracy entrepreneurship, and joined by Yordanos Eyoel, the founder and CEO of Keseb. Perhaps reflecting my own fascination with the topic (but also because this is such a new field), I’ve assigned a little more in terms of readings and watchings this week:
READ: The Messy World of Data Behind Tech’s Campaign to Get Out the Vote https://www.protocol.com/ballotpedia-ballotready-voting-data
“Democracy Market Analysis, Leadership Now Project” file:///Users/jillvialet/Downloads/Democracy+Market+Analysis+1.1+-+PUBLIC+(April+2019,+updated+Nov+2019)+(2)+(1)%20(2).pdf
“The Role of Proximate Democracy Entrepreneurship in Building a Multiracial Democracy”, Eyoel, Nonprofit Policy Forum https://www.degruyter.com/document/doi/10.1515/npf-2021-0046/html?lang=en
WATCH: Unbreaking America: Solving the Corruption Crisis
Why Voting Isn’t Enough https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wi7HFSCjKs8&ab_channel=TEDxTalks
Highlights 2022 Global Democracy Champions Summit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_wr-rslmrmE&ab_channel=KesebGlobal
People need meaning, the opportunity for mastery, and community to thrive. Creating opportunities for people to contribute, and to find their best selves is some of the most important work we can do.