Through a confluence of interesting happenings, I had the chance to do a quick phone interview with Gary Vaynerchuk, social media headliner, last month. It. Was. Awesome.

Gary talks social entrepreneurship. Listen in.

A few notes: this was done on Google Voice, so you will hear the “start recording” message. You will also hear the runaway guest star of the interview, i.e. Gary’s GPS.


  • Gary’s thoughts on social cause marketing–It is at an interesting point in maturation. Business people are leveraging cause marketing, not sure if it’s a good thing–will it cause consumer cynicism?
  • Business models that have caught Gary’s attention: buy one, give one is clever, so is giving percentage of retail price. He is more concerned about the passion of founding entrepreneurs of a startup—how are they evangelizing the message of impact + business?
  • Social enterprises Gary likes: Warby Parker, charity: water


Gary Vaynerchuk, a household name after 2008 TED Talk

A little background on Gary, and my sincere enthusiasm in having a chance to chat with him. Gary has been a household name for me and my entrepreneurial siblings since we watched his TED Talk  —“Do What You Want (no excuses!)”— about a year after it was posted.

To be fair, I think we were as captivated by his passionate, colorful speaking style (note emphasis of phrases such as “please stop doing that!” and “there is no reason [in 2008] to do $#@! you hate!”)  as by the clarity of his message. [tune in, esp. to 25-55 sec :]

There is something refreshing about his vigor and unapologetic, no holds bar approach to entrepreneurship. He went all in for his new venture, saw traction, and was committed to making it grow. Let’s just say, at moments demanding inspiration, I have tuned back in to this talk—and maybe even joined him in some of his memorable phrases.

A book, another two, and an empire

Since those early days of breaking into the social media scene, Vaynerchuk has attained certain celebrity status among social media superstars. There was the first book in 2009, Crush It!: Why NOW Is the Time to Cash In on Your Passion, which was well-received and frequently quoted. The follow-up came just a couple years later.
The Thank You Economy and has been topping charts as a best-seller. Gary will be releasing his latest book this year,  Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook: How to Tell Your Story in a Noisy, Social World.

Gary V’s empire now expands beyond WineLibrary TV to include books, a social media consultancy, and investments in upcoming startups. He frequently headlines large social media events and conferences, is popular for his candor and humor, and is unabashed in giving advice to new entrepreneurs. (See him give his two cents to this entrpreneur at a talk at 59:00: warning, expletives)

What would Innov8Social have to ask Gary Vaynerchuk?

Gary Vaynerchuk does not profess to be a social entrepreneur, so why interview him for Innov8Social?

As has been mentioned before, in this blog’s authentic exploration of social innovation, I have found (repeatedly) that one of the hardest part of social entrepreneurship is being an entrepreneur. It is the initial hurdle.

Whether you are enterprising for money, world domination, or social good—there is a pervasive emphasis on taking on the challenge with an entrepreneurial mindset. And that’s why Gary Vaynerchuk was a great candidate to continue and deepen the exploration. In a few words (some of them likely four-letter) he can get to the heart of the matter when it becomes to being an entrepreneur.

Notably, not every entrepreneur needs to be like him. Not by a long shot. But there is an infinite depth that can be learned from his enthusiasm, belief, and strategic thinking when it comes to launching and growing enterprises.


Gary shares what he really thinks about Innov8Social

As you may have noticed from the audio interview (above) we spent part of our 15-20 minutes doing a Q&A for Innov8Social readers. The rest of the time I talked blogger-to-blogger with Gary. I caught him up on my efforts with Innov8Social at the meta level, asked his opinion of how I can focus on growing, and what would be “success” for this blog and effort.

As I anticipated (and hoped), he was frank and honest. From dealing with readership in hundreds of thousands of pageviews, and millions of clicks—Innov8Social is at best a humble effort. It was good to talk to him openly and pause for reflection on my efforts so far, and how Innov8Social can grow into the expansive vision I have for it.

Hope you enjoy listening to our conversation as much as I did having it., and that it provides a different perspective on how a through-and-through entrepreneur views social enterprise.

Interview with Kim Meredith, Stanford PACS

We have covered the Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) website, the blog, a webinar, articles, and an event of Stanford PACS on Innov8Social. So it was a special experience to sit down with Kim Meredith, the Executive Director of the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society (PACS)–the research center dedicated to studying social innovation and which publishes the SSIR.

PACS is an remarkable ecosystem supporting academic research in philanthropy & social innovation. It produces and crowdsources ideas and experience through the SSIR online and print publications, conducts webinars, hosts free live workshops, and supports emerging research in this evolving field.

Its leader, Kim Meredith, is in an instant warm, knowledgeable, and engaged in the nuances of the field as well as the overarching high-level topics surrounding social innovation, philanthropy, and community engagement. She shared her broad vision for PACS and SSIR, what drives her work, and how the broader community can stay connected with the important social impact work being done there.

You can hear Kim explain the mission and work of PACS in this brief video:

Q&A with Kim Meredith, Executive Director of Stanford PACS

What is PACS?

[Kim Meredith, PACS]: PACS is a research center for scholars, practitioners, leaders, and publisher of the SSIR, focusing on topics of business, law, education in civil society. It emphasizes cross-sector collaboration, forming cross-disciplinary discussions and relationships, to be a center of knowledge-creation and sharing. It has 3 full-time faculty co-directors with backgrounds spanning organizational behavior, Political Science, and Law.
Interview with Kim Meredith, Stanford PACS

How has PACS grown since its start?

[Kim Meredith]: PACS has seen remarkable growth in the past few years—both in size of the center and its reach. PACS started out employing one full-time faculty member and now employees nine employees, and has scaled six times in two and-a-half years.

What goals have guided your work at PACS?

[Kim Meredith]: I learned about the position opening through my daughter, who was attending Stanford at the time. The vision and goals put forth regarding PACS fit well with my executive experience at Planned Parenthood and I was enthusiastic about pursuing the growth potential of PACS.
The goals that have guided me have been simple:
  • Acquire SSIR, which was originally housed in the Stanford business school.  The addition of SSIR has facilitated a deeper degree of knowledge-sharing, and has brought that publication into the same building as other impact-related research initiatives.
  • Fund valuable research. I outlined this as a priority so as to establish PACS as a center of learning and knowledge creation. It has been remarkable to see the level of engagement and sharing that PACS represents today—through publications, curriculum, and events.
  • Go global.  Our team has been working closely with Peking University in China to create a research center for Stanford faculty, students, and field practitioners to research philanthropy and civil society in China. The efforts resulted in Stanford PACS Peking (note: read an interesting interview with Kim Meredith re: the Peking campus)

What kinds of events does PACS host?

[Kim Meredith]: Recent PACS events have included:
Philanthropy Educators Symposium: The largest-ever convening of philanthropy educators, hosted by the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society (Stanford PACS) in partnership with the Learning by Giving Foundation and Giving 2.0.
10 Years of SSIR: 10 year anniversary celebration with remarks by Paul Brest, PACS faculty co-director,and others
Donors Choose + charity: water: Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen, Stanford PACS Founder and Board Chairman, leads a conversation with Charles Best, Founder and CEO of, and Scott Harrison, Founder and CEO of charity:water.
GoodJobs event: A challenge focused on open data, jobs, and the social sector. GoodJobs invites Stanford students to create mobile and web tools that will help young people access social impact jobs.

Who are the current faculty directors?

[Kim Meredith]: Stanford PACS is guided by three thought leaders in the impact space.
  • Woody Powell, Professor of Education and by courtesy Sociology, Organizational Behavior, Management Science and Engineering, and Communication;
  • Rob Reich, Associate Professor of Political Science, Faculty Director of the Program on Ethics in Society and, by courtesy, of Philosophy and the School of Education; and
  • Paul Brest, Professor of Law, Emeritus and Former Dean of the School of Law, and formerPresident of The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

What is “civil society”?

[Kim Meredith]: It refers to what is popularly called the “third sector”, independent of government and business.

What is the role of foundations in philanthropic giving?

Interview with Kim Meredith, Stanford PACS
continued reading: Giving 2.0,
SSIR 10th Anniversary edition,
upcoming event flier…thanks Kim!
[Kim Meredith]: Foundations only account for about 14% of philanthropic giving. Individuals give the lion’s share, i.e. over 80%, of giving. Beyond monetary contributions, foundations are drivers of change, they raise awareness about key issues, and work strategically to achieve outcome-oriented action.

What is the “new social economy”?

[Kim Meredith]: It encompasses the space between public, philanthropic, and private sector. The new social economy often involves nonprofit, as well as hybrid structures, and has opened up a new kind of discussion about mission-based ventures.

Do you see funding institutions that embrace this venture philanthropy mindset?

[Kim Meredith]: Silicon Valley Social Venture Fund (sv2) and Full Circle Fund are two funds that are actively engaged in this space.

What role do you think bloggers and entrants to the social innovation space can have? 

[Kim Meredith]: Bloggers and newcomers to this field can play a vital role in identifying, sourcing, and analyzing relevant, big data. There is an increasing need for qualified data, and writers and researchers in the field may be well-poised to address this need.
Answering these questions such as who is collecting data, how is it being collected, and where is it stored, creates an informed discussion about giving, philanthropy, and impact

Do you have any book recommendations?

[Kim Meredith]: Giving 2.0
and The Dragonfly Effect
are books that frame the social innovation and philanthropy issues and provide insight into emerging trends.

California holds a special place in the story of new legal structures for social enterprise. Not only was it the 6th state to pass benefit corporation legislation, it was also the first state to pass flexible purpose legislation—-in the same legislative term.

Meet Attorney Todd Johnson

One of the thought leaders in social enterprise law in California, and co-author of the FPC (flexible purpose corporation) law is R.Todd Johnson Todd Johnson. Todd is a Partner at Jones Day and is the Practice Leader of the Energy group of the firm where he focuses on Renewable Energy and Sustainability.

Todd has had a lengthy career serving social entrepreneurs, having represented companies such as SunPower, Embrace Technologies, GoodGuide,, as well as Grameen Trust, and advising companies like Good Capital, Global Giving, and B Labs during his 25 year career at Jones Day. He also blogs at Business for Good.

Innov8Social had a chance to speak with Todd Johnson about his vision for the intersection of law, policy, and social enterprise; as well as the story behind California’s flexible purpose corporation.

Read the Interview

Q1 | Innov8Social:  How do you define social entrepreneurship?

A1 | R. Todd Johnson, Partner at Jones Day:

 Social entrepreneurship is applying the best tools of entrepreneurship to tackle some of the world’s toughest problems, in a way that people and the planet can flourish.

Q2 | Innov8Social:  Can you share the history of the flexible purpose corporation?

A2 | Todd Johnson :

In the late 1990’s as I started working with social entrepreneurs I noticed some dysfunction in the way the legal community thought about legal structures for social enterprises. The thinking was bifurcated…there was a 1 or 0 mentality on the subject, and there wasn’t much middle ground. Entrepreneurs were forced to choose between being a “for-profit” or a “not-for-profit,” terms loaded with baggage of what entities should and should not do.
Then, a shift started happening. Companies such as Salesforce championed a 1-1-1 model and other corporations, often spurred by institutional investors, adopted strong environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) measures. These innovations moved the for-profit model more toward a company doing good rather than merely minimizing harm.
Even these initial steps were cautiously taken. Companies like Google already had standing mottos of doing the least harm (i.e. “don’t be evil”) and certain sin stock filters on portfolios excluded vice-products such as tobacco, alcohol, etc.
I began working with the social enterprise PureVida Coffee in the late 1990’s, whose founders had new questions. For example, they wanted to know if you want to do something that is fully blended, what legal structure should you adopt?
As I started thinking about these issues, I met Jay Cohen Gilbert and others social enterprise thinkers at the Aspen Institute. He and B Corporation co-founders were beginning to develop the B Lab and B Corporation concepts.
In working closely on issues of social enterprise law, I saw a huge flaw in many corporate statutes. In California, for example, a social enterprise couldn’t even file Articles of Incorporation with a mission/impact driven statement of purpose. The fact that founders could not write in a purpose for their corporations was a major issue.
In 2005-2006 I did a study on constituency statutes for B Lab. Constituency statutes can be effective tools in legal tool kit; however, they don’t necessarily create transparency around stakeholder empowerment. And in all 31 states with constituency statutes, it is elective (i.e. Boards can abide, but are not required to).
In 2008, B Lab proposed a California constituency statute applying a “shall” requirement—to apply to all corporations. While I supported the idea that the market should allow for social enterprise, I was wary of forcing it on every corporation. A few entities, including the State Bar Association opposed the proposed law. 2008 was also the first year of major budget battles in CA (i.e. there were 99 bills that Gov. Schwarzenegger allowed to lapse, and vetoed by default). The governor didn’t comment on any of the vetoes, except for this one—he told the bill’s sponsor that he wanted a better bill, and wanted CA to be a leader.
I convened a meeting at our SF offices in Fall 2008. The robust discussions resulted in a working group of 10 lawyers including attorneys from large firms, smaller firms law firm, academics, nonprofit attorneys, and foundation attorneys who kicked off a multi-year effort to create a new statute for social enterprise.
In 2009, we published a draft of a new law and distributed it to 300 social entrepreneurs, organizations, thought leaders, and incubators, and received comments from many. In response, we made changes to the proposed legislation and prepared an FAQ to explain the changes made and those that were not made in response to comments. That FAQ remains available to this date, providing transparency in the trade-offs made in drafting the legislation. In 2010, California state senator DeSaulnier sponsored the bill. Unfortunately it was another budget battle bill year, and the bill didn’t proceed very far. In 2010, B Lab also ended up introducing their own legislation in MD and VT, and in 2011, introduced a version in California.
In 2011, both the benefit corporation and flexible purpose corporation legislation passed into law in CA. Since that time, fifteen states have adopted either a benefit corporation or social enterprise legislation that resembles FPC. And just two weeks ago, Delaware (the grand-daddy of all corporate laws), introduced legislation that is a hybrid between the benefit corporation and the flexible purpose corporation.

Q3 | Innov8Social:  What have you seen from the front lines of being part of social enterprise legislation?

A3 | Todd Johnson:

The structuring of social enterprise is in its infancy. We are in the rapid prototyping phase, and we should realize there will be failures. I think it is key to apply design theory in determining legal structure for social enterprise.
For me, the real test for these new legal forms will be whether they attract capital. Today, the jury is still out on that point. Most of the B Corporations that have institutional investor funding are traditional Delaware corporations or they are companies like Patagonia – owned and controlled by a founder with a passion around anchoring the mission. The key will be when capital flows freely into companies that are organized affirmatively to achieve blended value or the triple-bottom line and are structured to make that institutional, rather than subject to the will of the founder (which is always at risk of death, divorce or a change of heart).

Q4 | Innov8Social:  How do you help social enterprises determine the right structure for their business?

A4 | Todd Johnson:

When I discuss legal structure options with social entrepreneurs, I walk them through a “design tree” of options. It helps to evaluate the traits of each form against the needs of a particular business.
I personally don’t find tandem structures (using both a for-profit and a non-profit corporation) to be a good option, except in the situation of a “corner case”. Look, a startup is hard to launch on its own—without a social mission. Nine out of ten startups fail in the first two years. And social entrepreneurs aren’t just doing a start-up, but they are also trying to tackle some of the world’s hardest problems.Tandem structures lead to social enterprises doing all of that while living with the worst of both worlds—i.e. having to adhere to strict accountability of corporate law as well as IRS regulations.
However, some social enterprises have chosen a tandem model because tax deductible contributions are key to the business model. For example, Global Giving adopted a tandem structure; although I’m sure that Mari and Dennis could give founders an earful about the challenges of establishing and operating such a structure. In contrast, there seems to be a movement for social entrepreneurs to consider starting in a non-profit as a way to cover the soft costs of start-up, and then morphing into a for-profit once a product or business idea is fully baked. This is challenging and not for the faint of heart, even if it is possible. Embrace Technologies did something like this, but not without receiving hundreds of pro bono hours from a law firm to navigate the challenges. Also, it can be difficult and costly to move assets between entities–a business and nonprofit (i.e. you need 2 law firms, and huge transaction cost are major). At the end of the day, I think the administrative and operational costs of pursuing this route make it extremely unwise, except in the rarest of circumstances.

Q5 | Innov8Social:  Should CA still pursue a constituency statute?

A5 | Todd Johnson:

No, that’s crazy!
In mid-1980’s states introduced constituency statutes to be able to look at other interests besides maximizing shareholder value. So 31 states have passed them, but they were essentially anti-takeover tools. The idea of using them for social enterprises as a way to anchor the mission is no longer necessary in most cases, now that B Lab has been successful in getting alternative legislation adopted in so many states.
And we need to remember, no courts have ever looked at using constituency statutes as a way to anchor the social mission of a social enterprise. There is a risk that a constituency statute might not be effective to protect a corporation’s mission.

Q6 | Innov8Social:  What are your thoughts on how social enterprises should measure impact?

A6 | Todd Johnson:

First, let’s be clear. Social enterprise is not a sector! A social enterprise is a business deploying capital to solve problems/do good. Organizations that are making money and doing good are social enterprises. At its essence, social entrepreneurship is a “way” of doing business, rather than a type of business.
But that means that measuring impact depends on the type of business of a social enterprise. We can’t think of impact in a uniform way. For example, can measure impact by successful petitions. Embrace can measure the number of babies lives saved by the number of inexpensive infant incubators distributed. The folks at d.light can estimate the amount of kerosene not used in favor of their solar-powered LED lights and the health and environmental benefits.
It’s incumbent on the social enterprises to develop an impact strategy and a means for measuring and reporting that impact. Of course, as my examples note, this will be different for a base of the economic pyramid company than for a Western-focused technology company. And it will be hard for companies with a mission around personal transformation. But social enterprises need to own this issue as part of their business plan, and it must include looking and thinking about the unintended negative consequences.Bottom line: If social entrepreneurs want to attract impact investing money, then they need to have a well-developed impact story, developed using the same type of empathic design thinking they used to develop their service or product.

Q7 | Innov8Social:  What inspires your commitment to the social enterprise movement?

A7 | Todd Johnson:

My parents have always been very active in their communities and always modeled giving back. From the very beginning of my legal career I have sought out ways to give back.
At Jones Day, I run the renewable energy and sustainability practice—and that fits well with my passions.
But ultimately, I feel like that part of my responsibility–and others of us who are more established in the field (or just older)— to help build an ecosystem for the young lawyers passionate about this emerging arena.

Q8 | Innov8Social: What advice do you have for attorneys interested in practicing social enterprise law?

A8 | Todd Johnson:

First, there really isn’t such a thing as “social enterprise law.” The most important goal for any young lawyer passionate about this area must be to become a very good lawyer in a specific expertise – capital markets, mergers and acquisitions, venture capital and private equity, intellectual property, etc. Then apply that expertise to social enterprises. Initially, focus on becoming an expert.
Lawyers need to understand at the beginning of their careers that the trajectory of an attorney’s career is like an hour-glass—broad at the beginning, specialized as it develops, and broad in the later years — and prepare accordingly.note: photo of Todd was adapted from his LinkedIn photo. 

How do you manage your charitable giving?

For many people donations are impulse investments—a friend is running a race to fund cancer research, you see a photo of animals being mistreated, a natural disaster impacts thousands of individuals and you want to do something, you strongly support a cause on principal and want to vote with your dollar.

Bright Funds, a New Way to Manage Charitable Giving

Bright Funds, an innovative social enterprise startup launched in 2012, takes an investment portfolio approach to charitable giving. Bright Funds is an online platform that makes the process of donating more like investing—where you can create an individualized portfolio, diversify your giving according to interests and causes, and research relevant non-profits within your selected “Bright Funds”.

Julie StreuliMeet Julia

Innov8Social had a chance to catch up with Julia Streuli, Head of Communications of the lean Bright Funds startup team to talk about the inspiration behind the idea, how the platform works, and what’s ahead for the company.

Read the Interview

Q1 | Innov8Social: What problem is Bright Funds addressing?

A1 | Julia Streuili, Bright Funds’ Head of Communications:

In talking to Julia her enthusiasm for the concept behind Bright Funds and its potential to shift how we think about charitable giving is immediately apparent.

Julia highlighted the fact that high net worth individuals and philanthropists often hire people to research nonprofits to receive donations, noting however; that there are not many tools available for the average individual to track, research, and design charitable giving.

She explained that Bright Funds provides an investment approach to individual giving to ensure that donor dollars are channelled to non-profits that are highly impactful. There is a certain pattern in giving: 1) choose where to give and, 2) give; however, missing from the usual equation is 3) find out what impact your giving had on the cause. Julia noted that Bright Funds closes that “feedback loop” between donating to a nonprofit and following up on the impact of your donation by featuring non-profits that have a track record of being highly impactful in certain core sectors.

Specifically, Bright Funds uses multiple lenses to identify impactful nonprofits including assessments from platforms such as: CharityNavigator, Charity Watch, Universal Giving, GiveWell, and Philanthropedia.Individual donors (i.e. Bright Fund investors) choose the percentage of giving for each of four broad sectors: water, poverty, environment, education, health, or they can choose their own fund of non-profits not included in the Bright Funds list.  They can then research and select specific non-profits that serve their interest in the sector.Julia said that creating a portfolio based on sector was by design—because it shifts the focus from charities to the causes they champion. By aligning yourself with causes that are important, you can better assess impact on the issue, rather than the organization.

Q2 | Innov8Social: What tools does Bright Funds offer?

A2 | Julia, Bright Funds:

Julia overviewed the quick protyping and release of Bright Funds offerings. The startup launched a consumer-facing site in 2012 on #GivingTuesday, enabling anyone to create a profile and begin designing and tracking their charitable giving—all for free. The team is now in the midst of launching an enterprise platform.

The enterprise tool integrates with a company’s benefits system. It lets employees design and track donations and customize the list of nonprofits featured. So far, Bright Funds has seen interest in the new tool by various Fortune 500 and mid-sized Bay area tech companies. Many companies already feature allocated giving programs, but most haven’t designed a holistic approach to help employees manage their giving. Bright Funds sees potential for more-effective platform for personal giving, that can allow for efficiencies such as direct deposit (from an employee’s paycheck) as well as utilizing a company’s donation-match policies.

Q3 | Innov8Social: How does Bright Funds vet the nonprofits featured in its funds?

A3 | Julia, Bright Funds:

As mentioned, Bright Funds has identified major five major categories, each of which form a different Bright Fund (i.e. there are currently 5 Bright Funds: water, poverty, environment, education, health, or customized fun).

If donors are interested in supporting a specific cause or effort, they can read through the descriptions of the non-profits for each Fund to identify the “facets” (or focus areas) for each non-profit and can select or deselect individual non-profits to support on that basis.

Julia noted that Bright Funds strives to be objective in selecting nonprofits to be in porfolio offerings. As mentioned, Bright Funds looks at 5 different insititutional charity evaluating bodies, each of which has its own criteria to identify funds. Pooling information from various assessment platforms enables a more holistic view of non-profits—so as not to favor more-established charities over newer ones, etc.

Notably, Julia added that consumers can add any nonprofit/favorite nonprofits. For companies, if they support a group of local nonprofits, Bright Funds can build company fund portfolio.

Q4 | Innov8Social: Can individuals support social enterprises in their Bright Funds portfolio?

A4 | Julia, Bright Funds:

Julia said that at this time, individuals cannot support a social enterprise in their Bright Funds portfolio. She noted that Bright Funds has a non-profit foundation, through which donation is channelled. So it is possible that a donation to social enterprise could go through the Bright Fund Foundation.

Q5 | Innov8Social: What legal structure has Bright Funds’ selected?

A5 | Julia, Bright Funds:

Bright Funds is structured as a for-profit startup and non-profit foundation. Specifically, the for-profit entity is a commercial fundraiser– which means that it has signed contracts with all charities in the fund to act as a fundraiser for the nonprofit.

Julia noted that originally both cofounders considered becoming a nonprofit, but wanted to be able to leverage the initial investment. The decision to become a commercial fundraiser was based on idea that 100% funds should be tax deductible.

Q6 | Innov8Social: Is Bright Funds scalable?

A6 | Julia, Bright Funds:

Julia noted that since Bright Funds is a cloud-based platform, it is relatively easy to scale.

Q7 | Innov8Social: How has Bright Funds been funded?

A7 | Julia, Bright Funds:

Julia shared that Bright Funds has been backed by investor funding. It closed its first round of funding from angel investors around time when consumer platform launched in 2012. It is also a portfolio company at Hattery in San Francisco. She also mentioned the immeasurable assistance and mentorship that Leila Janah, Founder of Samasource and Bright Funds Board advisor and mentor, has provided.

Q8 | Innov8Social: How is Bright Funds monetized?

A8 | Julia, Bright Funds:

Julia explained that with its commercial fundraising status, Bright Funds takes a percentage of the raise. And noted that the amount taken is often about half of what the non-profit would budget for marketing and attracting donations.

Note: This post was edited to clarify distinctions of categories and types of Bright Funds. 
Literacy is a deceptive statistic in America. As we covered earlier, though the U.S. appears to top the charts in literacy rates globally—the numbers don’t account for low literacy. This is a topic ripe for social innovation.

Knowji, an App for Literacy

The need for new ways to address literacy was not lost on the founders of the mobile app Knowji, Emmie and Nick Thomas. They began researching literacy in America and learned the stark statistics of effects of non-literacy and low literacy from the Digest of Education Statistics and National Institute for Literacy, and were not just alarmed—they were moved to action.
Emmie and Nick have taken an active role as social entrepreneurs to develop a comprehensive, gamified app that gives users multiple ways to learn new words. Illustrations give a visual cue, recorded audio provides another way to learn, and new words are provided with context, synonyms and “collocations” (i.e. examples of common phrases that utilize the word.)But this app is not like reading a dictionary—users are introduced to characters and led through various games and exercises to test their knowledge. It is a way not only to learn basic words but to continue expanding vocabulary with advanced words.
Innov8Social had a chance to sit down with Emmie Thomas, one of Knowji’s co-founders to learn about the app she helped create and the inspiration behind Knowji.You can check out the multiple Knowji offerings in Apple’s mobile App Store and try out the free trial version which has samples of the other offerings.

Meet Emmie

Emmie is passionate about literacy, in part because as a first-generation American, she has lived its reality.  After her family’s  Emmie Thomasmove to the U.S. she saw and experienced the challenges of building her own vocabulary, comprehension, and literacy. Her efforts paid off and she completed her undergraduate education at NYU in Business and Finance. She pursued a career in asset management, technology development, mobile sales, and business development for nearly two decades before setting her sights on something much closer to heart and central to her identity.
After hearing a commencement speech by Bill Gates in July 7, 2007 calling graduates to take action to address some of the world’s most pressing issues, Emmie began researching resources for developing and furthering literacy in English. She found existing tools to be linear and, on the whole, outdated. With emerging technology such as smartphone apps and tablets, she felt like there were better, more-tactile ways to learn and to teach.
Emmie, and her husband Nick Thomas–Knowji co-founder and CTO– set out to pursue a big idea. They wanted to make literacy learning fun, educational, and comprehensive through a series of apps that engaged users by introducing compelling characters, establishing storylines, and using data-driven techniques to achieve true learning.

Literacy as a Spectrum, Not a Checkbox

When we sat down to discuss the interview questions, Emmie introduced an interesting concept.She mentioned that through her research she had found literacy to be a spectrum rather than a checkbox. Though we feel compelled to adhere to statistics that gauge literacy as percentage points, in reality, she noted that there are levels and grades of literacy. People might pass the basic definition of literacy but may actually be competently illiterate—they may be able to read and write, but have a minimal level of comprehension so as not to be able to read and understand a set of directions, a contract, or a newspaper article. Emmie observed that these individuals often fall through the cracks of the education system and may never have access to tools and learning techniques increase and expand their comprehension to a functional level.

Read the Interview

Q1 | Innov8Social: What drew you to create education and literacy apps?

A1 | Emmie Thomas, Co-Founder & CEO of Knowji:

Sure, I would like to begin by establishing what most people perceive when they think of the word “literacy” or “illiteracy”. We think of someone who cannot read or write at all, someone poorly educated. If we think of literacy in that context, the percentage of Americans who suffer from this is relatively small. However, if you include those who can read and write English in America but perform at the lowest level of literacy skills, approximately one in four American adults are functionally illiterate. Their literacy level is too low to perform basic functions in the workplace like paying bills, understanding legal and financial documents and using technology.
The effect this has on those people and society as a whole is staggering, and we feel that there is a real opportunity to make a difference. To date, we have published a set of 12 Apple iOS apps to help move people beyond functional illiteracy and all the way to advanced literacy such as teaching words for the SAT and GRE. Now we’re in the process of building more content for future apps. In particular, we are developing content to help people, specifically ESL/ELL people who are below functional illiteracy level in English.

Q2 | Innov8Social: Tell us a little about how Knowji started and its mission?

A2 | Emmie, Co-Founder of Knowji:

It was really a confluence of two events that gave birth to the idea of Knowji. Firstly, I was considering going to grad school at the time and found myself struggling to build my vocabulary for the GRE exam. I had thousands of words to learn and I was struggling to remember them all, and I found myself unnecessarily wasting a lot of time and effort in studying. At the same time, I was at an inflection point in my life where I felt a strong need to find work that was meaningful and fulfilling. This led me to explore and research different ideas, and out of that I found those ideas around education were the most compelling and fulfilling to me. I think the reason for this is because my family value education so highly. Education is the ticket to opportunity, to freedom, and it’s a great equalizer. My parents came to America specifically so their children would have the opportunity to go to college.

So the combination of these two events led me to the idea of starting a company that could work on problems in education. The reason we honed in on verbal development is because of the struggles I personally experienced and witnessed growing up in New York City. These are problems people often live with all their lives. However, with the right learning tools, these are problems that can easily be addressed. That’s the opportunity we’re excited about. I know since I started using Knowji myself, I have found myself to be a better communicator and writer. In today’s online and social world, having the ability to communicate well is crucial to success.

Our mission is to leverage technology and innovative content to bring affordable high quality education to anyone, anytime, anywhere.

Q3 | Innov8Social: What drew you to create education apps?

A3 | Emmie, Co-Founder of Knowji:

In addition to what I said earlier, I feel strongly about empowering people in a way that is sustainable. Since I was a small child growing up in New York City, I’ve often pondered the question of how we can help lift people out of poverty, and thus reduce violence and suffering in homes and communities. I still think about this question, almost every day, and the solution that most resonates with me is this famous quote, “you feed a man a fish, you feed him for a day. You teach a man to fish, you feed him a lifetime.”

Q4 | Innov8Social: Where do you think the greatest opportunities are for the meeting place of technology + education?

A4 | Emmie, Co-Founder of Knowji:

This is a great question. We see four opportunities: Self-paced learning, adaptive and customized learning, distance learning, and mobile learning.

a) Self paced learning. Today technology can empower people to learn at their own pace. We see this in the results from people using our apps. Some of our users take two to three times longer to learn a word than others. In a traditional classroom, all students at the same age are under pressure to learn at the same pace. What if instead learning was self-paced? Students could self study while teachers are freed up to spend their time helping students through difficult problems.

b) Adaptive Learning. This is an area of opportunity that takes learning to a whole new level. Computers can aid in learning in ways that are humanly impossible to do. For instance, a computer can perform complex mathematical algorithms that generate a personalized curriculum tailored to the exact needs of each student. It can track an unlimited number of answers and behaviors from each student year after year, and at any time crunch all that data instantaneously to figure out the best lesson at that precise moment for a student’s learning style or ability. So a computer can perform tasks in scope and dimension that are humanly impossible, and therefore in the domain of education, become an amazingly powerful personal tutor in a way that was never before possible. I should add, we don’t for a moment imagine this usurping teachers in the classroom, but we certainly see it as an incredibly powerful tool to augment classroom teaching, and further empower students.

Our apps are a version of this personalized adaptive learning, though on a smaller scale. Based on a student’s interactions, our app presents words that the student is struggling with more frequently than other words. The app also calculates an optimal time when the student should drill each word so as to maximize their memory retention of the words. We’ve really just begun in terms of the complexity of our adaptive learning algorithm. Yet despite that, our apps are already helping people learn and remember hundreds of words in just a few weeks.

c) Distance Learning. Teachers and professors are no longer required to be physically located in the same classroom as their students. High quality education is now available to millions if not billions of people across the globe – either for free or at a substantially reduced rate. We’re already seeing this with companies like Khan Academy, Uadacity, and universities like MIT and Stanford that are spearheading this change.

d) Mobile Learning. With a mobile device, anyone can learn any time and anywhere. This is a very exciting opportunity when you consider that one in five adults on the planet cannot read or write. That’s 1.5 billion people. What if we could equip every child with a mobile device like an iPod Touch or an iPad that doesn’t require a persistent Internet connection? They could receive education even if they have to work to support their family. Studying a few minutes every day could empower a child to become literate, and who knows, that could open up for them the possibility one day of college.

Q5 | Innov8Social: What trends in education technology excite you?

A5 | Emmie, Co-Founder of Knowji:

If I had to pick one, I would pick mobile learning. However, I think the fusion of trends I mentioned is what makes it an extremely exciting time to be working in this area.

Q5 | Innov8Social: What advice do you have for other social entrepreneurs starting out in the education technology sector?

A6 | Emmie, Co-Founder of Knowji:


  • Always pick a problem/solution space that you are already intimately familiar with. I think it is really hard building something great if you don’t intimately understand the problems of your users or customers.
  • Have someone on the team who knows how to market and network in your target market. So for instance, selling to K12 schools has been a challenge for us because no one on our team had the connection or experience selling into K12 schools. We’ve had to build those connections as we go along. That takes a long time.
  • Finally, be very committed to your cause because this will help you stay on course when the going gets tough. And it will get tough!


Q7 | Innov8Social: Social entrepreneurship comes in different flavors. There are non-profits and for-profit companies. Why did you not choose to make Knowji a non-profit entity since it has such a social mission?

A7 | Emmie, Co-Founder of Knowji:

We thought through this question carefully when we started the company, and our decision ultimately came from a two important principles. First we want to be a self-sustaining organization, one that doesn’t require us to seek donations. Secondly, we aspire to be a company that will one day inspire other companies to do good and do well at the same time.

Innovation is not effective when seen as a sedentary object that be passed from company to organization, or that merely serves to accessorize an office desk or town hall meeting.

Innovation is better understood when seen to be a living, breathing entity that mixes, blends, challenges and inspires impact in diverse industries, cultures, and organizations. Acknowledging this dynamic nature of innovation, two prominent institutes known for teaching organizational strategy and process are teaming together to present the first conference of its kind.The 1st annual Strategic Execution Conference is is being hosted by IPS Learning and the Stanford Center for Professional Development on April 24-25th at the Hyatt San Francisco.

IPS Learning

Meet Tim Wasserman, Chief Learning Officer Tim Wasserman

The conference will bring together organizational leaders and change agents to discuss, explore, and connect on issues surrounding organizational strategy, execution, experience, design, and impact.Innov8Social had a chance to talk to Chief Learning Officer and key organizer of the conference, Tim Wasserman. In his role, Tim also serves as Program Director of the Stanford Advanced Project Management program, where he teaches a number of courses.

How do Strategic Execution and Innovation Connect?

In explaining how the conference came to be, Tim emphasized that IPS and Stanford already have a fourteen year partnership centered around teaching strategy and execution. Additionally, the entities collaborate to offer a Stanford Advanced Project Management Certificate. Tim mentioned that over 4500 students have ‘graduated’ from the certificate program, and nearly ten thousand individuals have taken participated by taking a course in the subject.

He explained that many graduates from the program inquired about how to connect with others in the field, other graduates, and to learn about the ‘real world’ application of strategic execution theory outlined through the coursework.

And thus, the seed for the conference was planted.

Who Should Attend the Conference?

Participants and graduates of the Stanford Advanced Project Management Certificate program are encouraged to attend. Additionally—since the focus is on real-world application and learnings—executives and leaders in of social enterprises, companies, and non-profits would not only gain but also be able to add value to the ongoing conversation about execution and process.

What Should an Participant Hope to Gain from Attending?

The conference organizers recently released the official agenda for the Strategic Execution Conference.  For social innovators, the Wednesday afternoon keynote speech by Nike’s former Sustainability Innovator, Darcy Winslow—will be of interest.

Since the field of strategic execution and process has been evolving and developing for a over a decade, social innovators can also stand to learn by asking questions about how project managers measure impact, and how project management differs and parallels when applied to social enterprise.

You can find out more about the conference and register on the Strategic Execution Conference website.

Special Offer for Innov8Social Readers

The organizers of the Strategic Execution Conference are offering Innov8Social readers a special offer for the event.
Enter the promotion code SECINNOV8 when you register to receive:
  • $1995 special rate, discounted from the original $2395 list rate (savings of $400)
  • One night free hotel at the Hyatt Regency (location of the conference)

Meet Jonathan Storper, Attorney in Sustainability

Innov8Social had the chance to speak with Jonathan Storper, a Partner at the well-established law firm Hanson Bridgett and lead attorney of the firm’s Sustainable Business Practice. Jonathan was instrumental in drafting and supporting the benefit Jonathan Storpercorporation legislation in California through all stages of its development and passage.

To provide a little background, Jonathan has been a prominent voice and early champion of creating a new legal structure that recognizes impact-oriented goals in addition to profit.

Storper has been synonymous with the benefit corporation movement from its nascent stage. If you have been keeping up with Innov8Social since its start in May 2011 you may have read recaps and posts about events such as the Sustainable Enterprise ConferenceSan Jose Green Business Academy, and SOCAP11—events at which Jonathan presented or spoke about the topic. The support extended to his firm, Hanson Bridgett, which has been frequently listed in support of the legislation.

Read the Interview

Q1 | Innov8Social:  How do you define social innovation?

A1 | Jonathan Storper, Partner at Hanson Bridgett LLP:   I define it as any new venture or action that attempts to improve the human condition. Social innovation harnesses the creativity of humans to improve the human condition in some way.

Q2 | Innov8Social:  Was AB 361 (California’s benefit corporation legislation) the first piece of legislation you helped to write? What was your experience in drafting it?

A2 | Jonathan Storper:   The benefit corporation legislation, passed in October 2011 was not the first legislative effort I was involved with. The first was AB 2944 in 2008, which was a precursor to benefit corporation legislation.

That bill proposed that companies could consider multiple stakeholders (including interests of employees, the community, and the environment) when assessing the best interest of the corporation. It passed through the California State Assembly and State Senate but was ultimately vetoed by Governor Schwarzenegger.

I found it interesting to see how the legislature works, how support and opposition for legislation works, and how coalitions work.  It was wonderful to work on enacting policy. And, I saw first-hand that passing legislation is an iterative process.

The first bill, AB 2944, was essentially a constituency statute, as 31 other states have. The bill had significant opposition of a committee from the State Bar.

Hanson Bridget is a founding B corp member and was in contact with the B Lab family early in the process. The idea for the new legislation came from a conversation with B Lab.  In thinking about proposing new legislation, I wanted to be sure the new form was one that social entrepreneurs wanted, not something only attorneys wanted.

For AB 361, the team drafting the legislation was more ready and more aware of support and opposition. I learned from the prior experience that projects like these take longer than you think and really require coalition-building. I knew it would be vital to build a constituency and have a broad coalition even before working on the legislation, so we created a legal working group to draft and develop the legislation and process.

I am much more satisfied with what [the 2011 legislation] evolved to [from the 2008 version]. It is broader than a constituency statute and provides for accountability, transparency, consumer protection, and shareholder rights. Legislation is iterative and even the current benefit corporation may also need to evolve and change in the future.

Q3 | Innov8Social:  Would it still be useful to have a constituency statute in CA?

A3 | Jonathan Storper:   Having a constituency statute would be great because it would encourage boards to do more for social and environmental issues.

However, there is no assessment or reporting required with a constituency statute. Considering that new legislation such as the benefit corporation requires transparency, it may be more protective than a constituency statute. I’m not sure that a constituency statute for California is as necessary now.

Q4 | Innov8Social:  What advice do you have for social innovation-minded attorneys interested in policy and legislation work?

A4 | Jonathan Storper:    Don’t get discouraged. It may take longer than you think—but a few really dedicated people can make a difference, still. A few people and a few good ideas are able to harness exponential power of really good people, companies, and associations. Being involved in the process has renewed my faith in the legislature.

If you choose to work for a firm, find one that encourages pro bono work. I am grateful to be part of a firm that supports pro bono work. Being so involved with the legislation has also been helpful to the firm. I have incorporated a number of benefit corporations, in fact–just one earlier today.Q5 | Innov8Social:  How has the passage of benefit corporation legislation and flexible purpose corporation affected your legal practice?

A5 | Jonathan Storper:   It has been interesting. I always tell people who are interested in converting or starting a social enterprise about the usual customary forms as well as flexible purpose corporation and benefit corporation. About 2/3 or 75% of social enterprises that have chosen one of the two new structures has elected to to structure as a benefit corporations. The choice to do so is more aligned with the already-existing mission/practice of the business.

I have been approached about new legal structures by companies such as an ad agency, music company, consumer product company, science fiction publisher, and education providers.

I have been asked to make presentations about the new structures, and found that I really enjoy the opportunity to speak and write about this topic.

Q6 | Innov8Social:  How do you see social enterprises measuring impact?

A6 | Jonathan Storper:   This is one of the biggest challenges for social enterprise. There are a number of different standard-setting organizations. This is unfortunate but is how our economy works.

It will take awhile for there to be a uniform way to measure impact, but will be valuable.

Q7 | Innov8Social:  What is next for you and Hanson Bridgett in terms of projects related to sustainability and social entrepreneurship…in 2013 and beyond?

A7 | Jonathan Storper:   A lot of attorneys interested in the area branch out and use their knowledge in sustainability to do different things. One of my Partners participates in Global Social Venture Competition at Haas.

My next goal is to come up with a best practices guide for benefit corporation in collaboration with UCLA’s School of Public Policy. I am interested in providing guidance on how a Board of Directors would approach a multi-stakeholder model.  We hope to provide guidance on how the Board can create an organization using assets that are tangible and intangible that help solve the human condition.

Accelerator programs have emerged as a popular way to experience the startup process, especially within the social innovation context. One of the most visited pages of Innov8Social is the expanding list  accelerator and incubator programs for social entrepreneurs.The ingredients for an effective accelerator program for social innovators appear to be:

  • a balanced combination of resources (in-kind and seed funding),
  • a focused purpose or social innovation niche,
  • a robust panel of mentors and supporters, and
  • a non-intrusive take (i.e. limited equity hold or monetary stake in the startup).

Meet Tumml, A New Urban Innovation Accelerator ProgramTumml

Tumml is a new social enterprise accelerator program that seems to fit the bill for success. Its focus is supporting urban innovation—that is, harnessing entrepreneurship to address issues related urban development. Tumml is poised to become a platform for meaningful social impact addressing the unique problems and issues that arise in city settings.

Tumml is structured as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and has received funding from sources including a grant from the Blackstone Charitable Foundation and sponsorship from Accela.


julie and claraMeet Julie and Clara

Innov8Social had a chance to talk to one of Tumml’s Co-Founders, Julie Lein about the accelerator—which is a startup itself gearing up for its first cohort of startup teams.

Julie hails from a background dedicated to social innovation. After her undergraduate degree at Stanford, she pursued social impact through local politics and gained experience in polling and political consulting. She furthered her interest in social innovation through pursuing an MBA at MIT Sloan where she received the Sloan Social Impact Fellowship and Peer Recognition Award and served as Co-Chair of the MIT Sloan Women in Management Conference in 2012—where is also where she met her future co-founder and Tumml CEO Clara Brenner.

Interview with Tumml Co-Founder Julie Lein

Julie Lein
Q1 | Innov8Social:  What is Tumml?

A1 | Julie Lein, Tumml President and Co-Founder:  Tumml is an urban ventures accelerator, with the mission of empowering entrepreneurs to solve urban problems. As a nonprofit, Tumml’s goal is to identify and support the next generation of Zipcars and Revolution Foods. Through a four-month program, Tumml invites early stage companies into its office space to receive hands-on support, seed funding, and services to help grow their businesses and make a significant impact on their communities.

Q2 | Innov8Social:  What is the problem that the Tumml accelerator program is addressing?

A2 | Julie:  From growing obesity levels to a less competitive education system, our generation has a huge number of challenges to overcome. And, in the current economic climate, we cannot rely on government alone to tackle these problems. More than half of US cities canceled or delayed infrastructure projects in 2011 and 2012 was the fifth straight year of declining city revenues. These cuts are having profoundly negative impacts on the safety, education, mobility, and health of the 81% of Americans who live in and around cities.

Q3 | Innov8Social:  What do you envision as the solution?

A3 | Julie:   Urban impact entrepreneurs can fill an important role in the current economy. From Recyclebank to Alta Bike Share, entrepreneurs start companies that are nimble and scalable – and we believe that there should be more of them tackling urban problems.

Q4 | Innov8Social:   What are the unique challenges that urban impact entrepreneurs face?

A4 | Julie:  

1) They have trouble securing seed stage funding – In a Tumml survey of 106 entrepreneurs, 33% of traditional entrepreneurs had secured venture capital or angel investment, compared with only 15% of urban impact entrepreneurs.

2) They’re more than twice as likely to want to connect with civic and government leaders – These entrepreneurs aren’t looking to get hired or embed themselves in government, but they need help when it comes to navigating the urban landscape.

That’s where Tumml comes in. Applications launch in March — look out for it on our website at

Q5 | Innov8Social:   What inspired the launch of Tumml?

A5 | Julie:   My partner Clara and I met at MIT Sloan and co-directed the women’s conference. We had such a good time working together that we decided to start a company after business school. Clara came from a real estate and sustainability background, and I came from a local politics and polling background, so urban challenges were very core to both of our passions. And then Tumml was born!

(By the way, the name is Yiddish for a “shake up”, which Clara’s grandmother came up with).


Apply for the Tumml Accelerator Program

Applications to be part of the first cohort of the Tumml accelerator program for urban innovation, taking place from June 2013 to September 2013, will be available in March 2013. You can find out more on the Tumml program page.
Participants of the Tumml accelerator program will receive a few key benefits to help launch their urban impact idea, including:
  • $20,000 of seed funding (in exchange for approximately 5% equity)
  • $10,000 of in-kind resources including legal support, mentorship, and access to a co-working space
  • An opportunity to pitch to VC’s, angel funders, urban policy, experts, and potential customers and gain valuable feedback, as well as an opportunity to scale their projects

If you wonder what positive steps are taking place to support homeless populations in suburban areas, you just need to visit the Downtown Streets Team Facebook page to see uplifting updates.There is Joe who used to sleep under stairways, who now sleeps in his own home with his dog Mollie. There is Jesus (aka “Chuy”) who gained employment in catering and food services and completed his first shift earlier in February. There is Keceziner (sounds like “Cassina”) who found permanent housing through Downtown Streets Team and is enrolled in classes to become a pharmacy technician.

The FB page showcases many more examples of successful transitions, dedicated volunteers, and progress in the mission to address local homelessness.Downtown Streets Team

Meet Downtown Streets Team

Downtown Streets Team (DST) is an innovative 501(c)(3) non-profit organization envisioning creative solutions to addressing local homelessness. Looking beyond unhoused populations, DST collaborates with multiple stakeholders including social service agencies, government agencies, individual communities, private sector to empower, prepare, and equip unhoused individuals with the skills and resources that will make their transition a success.

Meet Andrew

Innov8Social had a chance to learn more about DST and its new social enterprise initiatives from Andrew Hening who oversees Employment Services and Social Enterprise at the growing organization.
Andrew Hening
Andrew studied Foreign Affairs at the University of Virginia and interned at the Department of Economic Development in Richmond and clerked as a paralegal before heading west as an Americorps VISTA fellow. He worked on homelessness initiatives with the City of San Jose and continued his work in the field by joining Downtown Streets Team in 2011.
Andrew was a 2012 New Leaders Council Fellow and serves on the Steering Committee of Starlight REACH, a panel of local community leaders working on mental health outreach plans for local youth.

Andrew shared a little about the history of DST, a for-profit social enterprise arm that he is working on, and what is ahead for the organization.

Interview with Andrew Hening, Manager of Employment Services and Social Enterprise at Downtown Streets Team

Q1 | Innov8Social:   How do you define social innovation?

A1 | Andrew Hening, Manager of Employment Services and Social Enterprise at Downtown Streets Team:  For me, social innovation is any for-profit/non-profit/hybrid/program/project/initiative that deliberately looks beyond the profit motive and disrupts the status quo in order to address a societal challenge.

It is not just a company, for example, using environmentally mindful production processes because it is cheaper or the PR Department recommends it. Rather, it is a company that explicitly embraces going green in the mission statement and is trying to introduce a product or service that fundamentally changes the way we think about our relationship with the environment.

Q2 | Innov8Social:  What is the mission of Downtown Streets Team (DST) in Silicon Valley? How long has the organization been around?

A2 | Andrew:  DST strives to end homelessness by restoring the dignity and rebuilding the lives of unhoused men and women. Appreciation of other people ‘s own autonomy is essential, and to that end, we simply do whatever it takes to empower individuals to embrace their own change.

The program was created in Palo Alto in 2005 with just four Team Members and a $25,000 budget. We are now in Palo Alto, San Jose, and Sunnyvale with almost 100 Team Members and a budget close to $2,000,000. Though more importantly perhaps, in every community we’ve entered, we have helped shift the dialogue away from the homeless being the problem and, instead, to them being seen as part of the solution.

Q3 | Innov8Social:  What are the major barriers for homeless job seekers? How does DST address them?

A3 | Andrew:   Homeless job seekers face an array of barriers, such as large gaps in employment, criminal histories, and/or mismatched skill sets due to changes in the economy. Fortunately, we have had a great deal of success with helping people overcome these challenges. In the past 18 months, over 40 Team Members have graduated into employment, including people who had not worked in 20 years, people who have multiple felonies for assault and theft, and people who have had to completely retrain themselves in a new career field.

The fact of the matter is, all of our Team Members have so much talent to offer employers, and the real challenge, really the most significant barrier we see, is helping Team Members realize that themselves. Our work experience contracts, our weekly success meetings, our Participants of the Week awards, our peer-based management structure, and our commitment to treating people with respect and dignity are all designed to help people see the best in themselves again or for the first time.

Q4 | Innov8Social:  Can you tell us a little about the Social Enterprise initiatives of DST, such as the training class for homeless entrepreneurs?

A4 | Andrew:   In 2012 DST ran two business-planning classes for our more entrepreneurial Team Members. The curriculum fundamentally aims to show our Team Members that there is more to a business than the idea itself, which is a lesson I have had to learn myself. During the four week class we work with students on creating a business plan that includes: market analysis, sales and marketing strategies, organizational structure, product description and research, and basic financial information.

Of the ten Team Members who have taken the class, two people are actually in the process of launching their businesses, which could more accurately be described as micro-enterprises at this nascent stage. A Palo Alto Team Member is using his experience in power-washing to start a small contracting business with local restaurant franchises, and a San Jose Team Member has already obtained his business license and seller’s permit for a portrait business. It’s incredibly exciting to see the progression from a raw idea to an actual money-making endeavor.

On top of helping our Team Members find creative revenue streams for themselves, we are also in the process of starting a “for-profit” arm of DST. We are working with an organization in Berkeley to launch a “triple-bottom-line” weatherization company that will employ Team Members with all types of backgrounds and barriers. The company will be working on weatherizing homes in order to reduce energy usage in the Valley, and all profits will be reinvested in the company, so we can hire more Team Members, or they will be donated to DST’s “non-profit” services.

Q5 | Innov8Social:  What are goals for DST in 2013 and beyond?

A5 | Andrew:   In addition to starting the “for-profit” arm, one of our major goals for 2013 is to launch a new team in San Rafael. If and when this happens, it will mark our first expansion beyond Silicon Valley and will be a major test for the scalability of our program. DST has witnessed amazing growth since our founding, and the success of these two initiatives will propel our mission and our operating values to previously unimaginable levels. Our entire staff is extremely excited about the impact that awaits.

There are paths, and there are callings.  Listening to the story of Alejandro Velez and Nikhil Arora of Back to the Roots is less like hearing about two recent college graduates who sought a path to become innovative social entrepreneurs—and more like social entrepreneurs who could not ignore a compelling call to connect the dots between business, waste, and sustainability.

Meet Nikhil and AlejandroAlexander Velez and Nikhil Arora

I met the dynamic co-founder duo at the 2011 Green Festival in San Francisco. As I emceed the Sustainable Home & Organic Gardening stage, one of the speaker groups I introduced was Back to the Roots (BTTR). Though I hadn’t heard of them, I could tell something was unique when the hall filled to capacity and people lined the aisles and stood in the back just to listen in to the guys.

They Launched Back to the Roots, Making Gourmet Mushrooms from Coffee Grounds

Back to the Roots, a certified B Corporation, is a food company dedicated to making food personal again. Their leading product is a mushroom kit which utilizes coffee grounds (waste) incubated with mushroom culture to enable people to grow organic mushrooms within days, in the comfort of their home.  The seed of this innovative, unconventional business idea was planted by a an Economics professor at their alma mater, Berkeley, who mentioned in passing that coffee grounds can yield mushrooms.

The pair, who didn’t even know each other, both reached out to the professor who connected them. The rest, as they say, is mushroom farming history.

back to the roots at green festival 2011Since those early days in 2009, Alejandro and Nikhil have worked to achieve success and create impact. Not only has BTTR been profitable from the outset, it has diverted and reused over 3.5 million pounds of coffee grounds, helped families grow over 135,000 pounds of fresh food, donated premium soil (a byproduct of the mushroom kits) to 10 urban schools. Their mushroom kits are sold in over 300 Whole Food locations.

Like a rolling stone gathers no moss, their company and mission have gained incredible momentum, traction, and reach. They are celebrated TED speakers, were named in Forbes List of Top 30 Under 30 in Food and Wine, and were among of a handful of entrepreneurs invited to meet with President Obama about challenges and solutions for small business owners.

Nikhil and Alejandro have been successful in engaging, exciting, and delighting their customer base. With over 20,000 Facebook fans, BTTR uses the medium to encourage customers to share photos, tips, and questions about the mushroom kit experience. And, thanks to a successful Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign, BTTR will soon be introducing an entirely new sustainable product, the Home Aquaponics Garden, that will create a mini-ecosystem of plants, fish, and water.

The guys and the BTTR are busy. Between growing the business, engaging in social entrepreneur advocacy, supporting community sustainability efforts, and connecting with media & press…I learned first-hand that there is barely a moment to spare!

Innov8Social had a chance to ask the Alejandro and Nikhil a few questions about their social entrepreneurship journey.  Their enthusiasm for their work and for supporting others in the field is inspiring, and we are glad to be able to follow their story and progress.

Read the Interview

back to the roots at green festival 2011 (3)

Interview with Nikhil and Alejandro, Back to the Roots Co-Founders

Q1 | Innov8Social:  How did you define social innovation before you started BTTR in 2009? And how do you define it now?

A1 | Nikhil Arora and Alejandro Velez, Co-Founders of Back the the Roots:  Before we started BTTR in 2009, enacting social innovation ourselves took the form on internships and work on campus. Alex founded Sage Mentors, and I worked at University of Ghana on campus sustainability. There was the idea that business didn’t have to do harm, but as we created and built BTTR it became clear to us that business could also do good, and there were growing examples of this. We knew we could do it too.

Q2 | Innov8Social:   2012 saw a major scaling up of the distribution and offerings of BTTR, what were some the wins and challenges you have faced?

A2 | Nikhil and Alejandro:  One of our major wins was increasing sales of our Mushroom Gardens – this means that more people are growing their own food! It also means that we scaled up our One Photo, One Kit program on Facebook – for every photo that someone posts of their mushroom kit, we’ll donate a Mushroom Garden and sustainability curriculum to a school of their choice. Another win was launching our Home Aquaponics Garden – though that was a challenge as well! Funding was a major challenge which we decided to approach by crowdfunding the project.

Q3 | Innov8Social:   BTTR also launched a successful crowdfunding campaign in 2012—how was your experience in leveraging funding from your supporters to expand your product line?

A3 | Nikhil and Alejandro:  We had an awesome experience with crowdfunding – the outpouring of support from our customers and friends was incredible. Part of the reason we chose crowdfunding was so that our customers could be involved with the project and really be a part of it coming alive. They even helped us choose which seeds will be included with the kits!

Q4 | Innov8Social:   Do you have any advice for early-stage social entrepreneurs who are trying to validate their social innovation idea and gain traction?

A4 | Nikhil and Alejandro:   Be transparent. If people know what you’re doing, they know they’ll be able to trust you. We never hid our warehouse operations or our struggles, and so people knew that when we told them something, it was true. Also – talk to everybody! Live and breathe what you’re doing and it will start to attract attention.

Q5 | Innov8Social:   What are your goals for 2013 and beyond?

A5 | Nikhil and Alejandro:   In 2013, we’re really focusing on the official launch of the Aquaponics Garden – it’s on pre-order right now. We’re also planning a revamp of the Mushroom Garden that we’re excited to share in the coming months! As for beyond, BTTR is always brainstorming the next idea and we’re looking forward to continuing our growth.