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. 

Why is Social Enterprise Gaining Traction Now?

Fourteen states have passed new laws that recognize new legal structures for social enterprise. Social enterprise could account for as much as 3-5% of the US GDP. Based on the first ever census for social enterprise, the for-good, for-profit entities have created over 14K jobs and generate of $300M in revenue. And those are the conservative numbers.

So, why now?


city at twilight
It’s the Millennials.

The millennials, born in the early 1980’s up to the early 2000’s, are coming of age now and may have something to do with the social enterprise boom. They are finishing up college and graduate school, entering the workforce, getting married, having kids, starting companies—and doing things in their own distinct style.

Generational research weaves fascinating narratives of trends of individuals over time. By looking at a stretch of years, historical context, lifestyle norms, economic trends, and other factors you can actually begin to paint broad brushstrokes of what defines a generation and see how that generation, in turn, impact the ones that follow.

In case you find yourself skeptical look at these descriptions of past generations, compiled by Auburn Mountain Consumer Education. They each tell a story about the values, attributes, and motivations of people born during a range of years.

The Lost Generation (1880’s-1900)
The Greatest Generation (1900-1920’s)
Silent Generation (1920’s-1941)
Baby Boomers (1940’s-1950’s)
Generation Jones (1950’s-1960’s)
Generation X (1960’s-1980’s)
Millenials (1980’s-2000’s)

6 Attributes that Make Millennials Prone to Social Enterprise

There are specific characteristics of millenials that make them suited for impact-oriented enterprise. Here are a few of the

1. Connected & Collaborative. Millennials are remarkably collaborative. If it’s not worth doing together, it’s not worth doing–seems to be the attitude. Collaborative consumption has seen a huge lift as millennials not only lead the way with new peer-to-peer sharing startups but also use them extensively.

2. Open to Change. Millennials are not as bound by tradition. Their lives have been marked by arrays of traditions, cultures, and religions that have been introduced to them not only by their family, but by neighbors, friends, and through social networks. In any year a person can celebrate numerous world traditions, eat at restaurants that represent far-trotten regions of the world, and share laugh, photos, and tweets with people who are completely different from themselves. They don’t process the world through a single lens, because they’ve only ever seen it through multiple ones.

3. Self-Assured, Confident.  The millennials have each other, and need your approval a lot less than you think. They are not afraid to take a leap of faith or two, even if it means leaving stable structures such as college, jobs, or relationships. They are compelled to satisfy their inner desires—whether to achieve fame/fortune, to create lasting impact, or to do something that has never been done before.

4. Special. Millennials are the children of Baby Boomers and Generation X-ers. They were raised with the belief that they could do anything and to not compromise on their passion. Some may say that this has created a sense of entitlement in millennials and an unwillingness to have their identities tied to a job or position; however, millennials will argue that they feel that they (and everyone else) should be able to customize a work-life balance.

5. Risk-Takers. Not only are millennials not generally averse to risk, they actually seem to embrace it. They have a track road of actively innovating and re-thinking they way things are done and are largely driving emerging fields such as the sharing economy, impact investing, social enterprise, and re-thinking legal structures and policy-making.

6. Witness to the Great Recession. An interesting feature of the millennials is that they have not only been witness to the Great Recession, but have been deeply impacted by its effects. Many have had difficulties in finding their early-career jobs, have had to move back into their homes, and/or have seen their parents become uncertain about their retirement or future. The collapse of the financial system and market economy has taught millennials to be lean and to question the status quo for traditional structures for finance, economy, and medicine.

These features, taken together, give robust support as to why social enterprise and law/policy supporting social entrepreneurs has taken hold at this precise moment in time. Though a number of other factors play into the growth of social enterprise, the Millennial Generation cannot be overlooked as a driving force.

There are some excellent resources we came across in putting this post together. See below for a list of articles.

Millennials: Confident. Connected. Open to Change (Pew Research Social & Demographic Trends)
How Millennials Are Shaping The Future Of Social Entrepreneurship And Technology (Huffington Post)
Characteristics of the Millennial Generation (Millennials Go to College, by Neil Howe and William Strauss)
Generation Sell (The New York Times)
Social entrepreneurship and the millennial generation: all about altruism? (WhyDev)
Social Entrepreneurship Valued Among Millennials (University of Notre Dame)

The Post-Millennial Latest Generation…The Tactile Generation?

The future of social enterprise lies in the hands of the succeeding generation, literally. The post-millennial generation has grown up using smart devices and social networks. They will likely learn to text and browse the internet long before they learn to write in cursive.

And as touch is often related to feel. They will are also the first generation to truly feel some of the impacts of the influx of social media. Cyberbullying seems to already be reaching new highs while simultaneously stooping to unthinkable lows. The new generation is also seeing the impact of their parents and older siblings’ support for new equalities such as marriage equality. They may be the first generation to truly feel the lift of the inequality, prejudice, and stigma previously associated with coming out.

Additionally, they have been born into feeling the effects of guns. Murder-suicide, mass shootings, and epic debates on gun control are not a one-off in this post-millennial generation, they have becoming increasingly and alarming a reality.

For social enterprise, it is an uncertain reception with the newest generation—they already have a great deal on their plate. However, there hope that just as the differences between people of one sexual orientation or another may soon be lifted, that this new tactile generation will also be able to think beyond for-profit, non-profit, and hybrid businesses to create a more universal social enterprise that describes not only a single sector but the whole sector.


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.

This infographic by Impact Engine, a 16-week accelerator program that supports for-profit businesses making the world a better place, provides a visual map of the social enterprises that were accepted into its first cohort in 2012.Where are they now? You can find their websites here:

1st Cohort of Social Enterprises in @TheImpactEngine:


We may know that one man’s junk is another’s treasure; however, today’s social entrepreneurs are showing us that one industry’s waste can be another’s fuel.  You may arrive at the idea of commercializing waste from different angles, but whatever view you take on the topic, it seems to  make plenty of dollars and sense.This post highlights six startups that utilize and repurpose waste created by other industries to create their core product or service. The industries span biological waste, heat waste, food waste, and–yes, human waste.


Commercializing Waste: 6 Industries that Turn Waste Into Profit

1. Making plastic out of phosphorous and other chemicals from waste water.

Algix, LLC, a startup out of Georgia, started in 2010 when its founders became fascinated with the idea of using algae to scrub wastewater of chemicals such as phosphorous that were deposited into water streams from carpet mills and dairies in northwest region of the state. Their efforts yielded pounds upon pounds of algae. After experimenting with various techniques, they found that blending the aquatic biomass with base resin could yield a durable plastic that can be used in injection molding, compression molding, and thermoforming.

2. Converting wasted heat from a car engine’s exhaust into an adsorption-driven car AC unit.

For the past three years,  Warwick Energy Research Lab at Warwick University has been exploring ways to utilize adsorption of wasted heat to power refrigeration, heat pumps, and air conditioning. An adsorption heat pump essentially uses a chemical rather than mechanical processor and is driven by heat, rather than mechanical rotation.
3. Processing human waste into fertilizer and electricity as part of an urban slum sanitation system. 

While some may hear the statistic of 2.6 billion people around the world lacking adequate sanitation and feel jaded. The founders of Sanergy, saw it as a commercial and social entrepreneurial opportunity. In 2010, nearing the completion of their degrees from MIT’s Sloan School of Management, they developed a sanitation system for urban slums that establishes a pay-as-you-use system of sanitation centers for local use that collects and transports waste to processing plants that converts it into biogas through anaerobic processes. The resulting methane converts to sellable electricity and solid waste that be used as organic fertilizer.

4. Spinning farm waste into biofuel, cellulosic ethanol. 

Canada’s Iogen Bio-Products, recently acquired by Danish enzyme manufacturer Novozymes for $67.3M, has been producing and selling enzymes it generates from agricultural waste to companies dealing in pulp & paper, textile, grain-processing, and animal feed. Iogen is one example of a company that has found a niche in creating cellulosic ethanol, which is a renewable fuel made from farm waste and used to power cars.

5. Upcycling non-recyclable waste into retail inventory. 

For the past 9 years Terracycle has been diverting trash from landfills—to the tune of 2.5 billion pieces. Not only does it reuse and “upcycle” the waste, it has donated over $6M to local charities and schools. All while expanding its revenue growth. In 2012 the company extended its reach to Turkey, Hungary, and Puerto Rico—for a portfolio of over 20 countries. TerraCycle was tarted by a Princeton freshman in 2001 to collect non-recyclable waste such as drink pouches, chip bags, and toothbrushes and use them to create a broad range of consumer products. TerraCycle products are now carried by major retailers including WalMart and Target.

6. Growing gourmet mushrooms from coffee grounds. 

Innov8Social has covered the work of Back to the Roots on a few occasions. Their story bears mention here as well. Started by two Berkeley seniors in 2009, Back to the Roots mushroom kits utilize used coffee grinds to grow 1.5 pounds of gourmet oyster mushrooms in a grow-at-home mushroom kit. The kits have gained an ardent following, and are now carried in over 300 Whole Foods locations as well as at a number of other retail outlets. BTTR is especially proud of the 3.6 billion pounds of coffee grounds it has diverted from landfills and the over 130,000 pounds of fresh produce it has enabled individuals to grow at home. The duo has met President Obama and were named in the Forbes List of Top 30 Under 30 for Food and Wine.

Over fifty women and a handful of men gathered at the eco-chic offices of Kiva in downtown San Francisco on Tuesday, February 12th 2013 to discuss social entrepreneurship. The panel of experienced women practitioners and mentors in the field was organized by Linda Cleary and Barb Krause of Women in Business (WIB), a subgroup of the Northern California German American Business Association (GABA).

GABA Panel of Women Social Entrepreneurs @ Kiva
Women Social Entrepreneurship Panel, hosted by GABA and Kiva


While the panelists—from IndieGoGo, Kiva, Santa Clara’s GSBI program, and social enterprise startups— explained their work and organizations’ missions, they made the gathering uniquely personal by sharing their individual stories and journeys in the field.

Moderated by Britt Huber of Kiva


Seven panelists shared the stage and were hosted by the evening’s Moderator Britt Huber, Kiva’s VP of Human Resources. Britt outlined the role Kiva has played in expanding microfinance, noting that repayment rate for the organization’s micro-loans to borrowers in developing countries is over 95%. Kiva, a 501(c)(3) non-profit,  has expanded it’s presence to 67 countries since its inception in 2005 and is powered by over 100 employees and 400 volunteers.
GABA Panel of Women Social Entrepreneurs @ Kiva
Moderator Britt Huber

The speakers sat on stools in front of the audience creating an informal, intimate setting.  Each gave a brief introduction, and then Britt posed a few questions spurring anecdotes and candid reflections before opening the session up for Q&A from the audience.

  • What was the trigger motivation that shifted your interest to social entrepreneurship?
  • What are you most proud of? What keeps you up at night? (See below for their responses)
  • How do you define a nonprofit and for-profit social venture? How should a social entrepreneur decide?

Meet the Panel

Panelist Dr. Laura E. Stachel, Co-Founder of WE CARE Solar.
After fourteen years practicing obstetrics-gynecology medicine, a back injury took Dr. Laura out of the daily practice of medicine and on a path to pursuing policy through a Masters in Public Health.  She redefined her connection to the medicine following a trip to Nigeria. The purpose of the travel was to study and support local physicians in a region with high maternal mortality rates; however, she discovered a very essential problem limiting medical care at the facility. Light, or the lack of it. Because of the region’s sporadic electricity, doctors and nurses were using makeshift lighting methods such as candles and headlamps to administer surgeries and intensive care. Dr. Laura emailed her husband, a solar energy innovator, and the seed of a social enterprise was planted.  Together they developed prototypes and researched need for a solar-powered off-grid electric system that was portable.  Five years later, and WE CARE solar suitcases have been delivered to medical facilities in countries including Sierra Leone, India, Sudan, Nigeria, Liberia, Uganda, Malawi, Thailand, Burma, and Somalia. Organized as a 501(c)(3) non-profit, WE CARE Solar has received recognition, awards, and multiple grants facilitating its growth and scalability.

What she is proud of: Creating an impact on women’s healthcare.
What keeps her up at night: The daily challenges of running a business.

Panelist Lesley Silverthorn Marincola, Founder and CEO of Angaza Designs
Lesley’s background in human-centered design stems from her study of product design and mechanical engineering at Stanford and hands-on work on the first three generations of the Amazon Kindle. She co-founded Angaza Designs in 2009 after living in Tanzania and experiencing first-hand the local dependence to kerosene-powered light. Lesley and a small team were compelled to innovate a design-oriented solution. She shared the iterative ideation process Angaza Designs has gone through in developing an off-the grid energy solution that is also affordable. The team’s initial product was a high-powered light bulb with relatively steep up-front costs. Realizing that it wasn’t affordable for the populations they were trying to serve, Angaza pivoted to create a low-cost pay-as-you go solution. The product that resulted was the
GABA Panel of Women Social Entrepreneurs @ KivaSoLite3 Solar Home System that emits bright LED light and also charges cell phones, which is supported by a unique payment platform allowing for small-sum payments. Her company is a for-profit social venture, with an emphasis on keeping up-front costs low.

What she is proud of: Being okay to fail.
What keeps her up at night: Fundraising—you need to be really resilient as a social entrepreneur, passion is not always enough.

Panelist Dr. Lee Ng, Director of Social Venture Technology at Siemens and Mentor at SCU’s Global Social Business Incubator.
In a humorous, candid style, Dr. Lee imparted sage advice to social entrepreneurs and would-be social entrepreneurs based on her years of experience and mentorship in the field. Her day job at Siemens keeps her close to emerging technologies in cleantech, and as a mentor at SCU’s GSBI program for the past seven years, she has been able to impart valuable knowledge to entrepreneurs from around the world who have a social mission for their venture. She emphasized taking a practical approach to deciding on a social entrepreneurship structure—consider first, the type of funding your organization will be seeking and then evaluate the formation structures with that in mind.

What she is proud of: Her mentees who have succeeded in their social ventures.
What keeps her up at night: Her teenagers :)

Panelist Michelle Kreger, Senior Director of Strategic Initiatives at Kiva.
When Michelle joined Kiva in 2006, after volunteering with the organization as a translator, Kiva serviced $2M in micro-loans to borrowers fighting poverty in developing countries. Seven years later, the non-profit has serviced over $400M in loans. The exponential growth in participation in  microfinance has also changed the landscape and needs of the industry. In 2011, she joined an emerging group at Kiva dedicated to exploring new loan products to serve the influx of new players in the social impact world. One main constituencies she focused on was social entrepreneurs. Kiva has partnered with over 30 social enterprises to fund projects and support their work. These new partnerships span fields from education, innovative agriculture, clean energy, water and sanitation, to transportation and health. Her team recently partnered with Strathmore University in Kenya to create student loans payable in 10-12 years.

What she is proud of: Consciously deciding to break a model that works to create new models.
What keeps her up at night: How to find people who are social entrepreneurs and don’t know it, and how to use Kiva’s network to support their work.

GABA Panel of Women Social Entrepreneurs @ KivaPanelist Erica Bliss, Past Manager at Technoserve and President of Women Entrepreneurs at Haas.
After gaining experience as a business analyst, Erica discovered Technoserve as a way to leverage her consulting skills to support social enterprises in developing countries. She spent two-and-a-half years as a TechnoServe Consultant and Manager in Uganda assisting local farmers develop partnerships and products to increase local market share. She also served as a consultant to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Africa before returning to California to pursue an MBA with a focus on social enterprise. She shared a unique experience working with local farmers to create a mango juice sourced from local mangoes to parallel popular juices imported from other countries.

What she is proud of:  Building a cohesive team in Africa that continues the work they started together.
What keeps her up at night: The massive population of youth under the age of fifteen in Africa and the challenges, such as job creation, that they will face in the coming years.

Panelist Juli Betwee, CEO, Pivot.Point Partners and Mentor at SCU’s Global Social Business Incubator.  Juli has over twenty-five years of experience in business consulting and strategy. Recently, she partnered with the GSBI at Santa Clara University to leverage her knowledge and experience in business to support social entrepreneurs. New to the field of social entrepreneurship, she offered a practical look at the industry from the lens of corporate growth and scalability. About how to measure social impact, she noted that assessing social impact engages a three-dimensional way of thinking which calls on looking at predictive analytics rather than historic analytics and focusing on trends, patterns, and correlations rather than simply numbers.

What she is proud of: Impacting and influencing over 100 women entrepreneurs.
What keeps her up at night: How to move more quickly to make greater impact with social entrepreneurs.

Panelist Erica Labovitz, Director of Strategic Programs at Indiegogo.
Erica admitted to the audience that she hadn’t considered herself to be a social entrepreneur before speaking on the panel, but in sharing her personal history in engaging in education and policy work in the U.S. and abroad it became clear that she wears the title well. Erica studied in Economics in college and pursued a Masters degree at Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy. While on a volunteer trip in Africa she received an email from the founders of IndieGoGo asking her if she wanted to join their team. She was one of the first four employees at the popular crowdfunding platform. She is interested in finding creative ways to leverage the potential of crowdfunding platforms and enterprise tools to serve social impact. IndieGoGo is a for-profit corporation.

What she is proud of: Generating esteem-building through job creation.
What keeps her up at night: How to create a level playing field for startup entrepreneurs.

GABA Panel of Women Social Entrepreneurs @ Kiva



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.

Albert Einstein famously said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

It is profound, especially coming from one of the preeminent thinkers of our time. The sentiment is a pointed call not only to find our true passion, but to be bold in defining our own measures of success.
It fits especially well in emerging fields like social entrepreneurship. Standing at the crossroads of social impact and entrepreneurship is exciting and alluring, and, at times undefined, frustrating, and challenging.
“So you mean social media, like Facebook?”, “Oh, right, but how are you going to make money?”, “That’s nice, but really how do you measure there some kind of a stock exchange?” “Will startups really use new legal structures for social enterprise when the existing ones are so well-defined?” “Yeah, but do you really think social entrepreneurs are going to be able to get funding?” “Honestly, in the long run is it even going to make a difference, after all business is business, right?”
The questions, adapted from many heard and overheard, help to angle and define an emerging field. They remind us that if we measure social entrepreneurs by traditional yardsticks of enterprise or non-profit—they may look like fish climbing trees.
Pineapple Perfect

Instead, social innovators have to stand out to fit in. Defining new measures and changing the conversation of what success and failure are keys to reinvention.

And, as per Einstein’s quote, it is important to not try to be something you are not.
Case in point, the pineapple.
A pineapple would make a terrible banana. It’s skin is too tough and prickly. It can’t be peeled with ease. It’s sweetness is accompanied with a sharp tangy taste. It would be the worst banana of the lot.
Thankfully the virtues of a pineapple are not locked away in its failure of being a banana. The beloved unofficial state fruit of Hawaii has found its stride and audience, with over 14M tons grown and sold each year.So the moral, don’t be that guy who judges a fish for not being able to climb a tree. Instead, be the pineapple you were meant to be.

What Americans increasingly refer to as social enterprise to refer to companies that are guided by a mission of doing good as well as pursuing profit, our Canadian neighbors call social purpose business.

The infographic below published on by the Canadian Youth Business Foundation steps through the various components of what makes a venture a social purpose business.Though there is no official legal structure to support social purpose businesses in Canada currently, there is movement to create new types of legal entities to capture the for-profit + for-good model.The current entity structures available in Canada are: for-profit corporations, co-operatives, not-for-profits, and charities.

There are some great online resources to deepen an understanding of Canada’s social enterprise climate. Here are a few we came across:

Meet Nathan

Behind the big idea of social enterprise Goodjoe—a community-based T-shirt company with a passion for doing good—Nathan Pham, GoodJoeis co-founder Nathan Pham.

Nathan’s path to social entrepreneurship started  in tech and marketing. He graduated from UC Davis in 2003 with a degree in computer science before going on to work as a sales engineer at a few different hi-tech firms.
For him, the idea for a social enterprise sparked when he came across a Life is Good store in Chicago in 2007. He began researching the tshirt industry and crowdsourcing and reconnected with college friend Jourdan Yeh.

Meet GoodJoe, a Social Enterprise for Crowdsourcing Design

Together they worked on the concept of creating a platform to sell t-shirts with social impact messaging by crowdsourcing design from professional and amateur designers. In their business model, they built-in avenues to support non-profits looking to use Goodjoe by providing the service free of charge and promoting the non-profit ‘stores’ on the website and through design contests.The concept gained momentum and Goodjoe officially launched at the end of 2008.
Goodjoe now carries thousands of products featuring the work of numerous designers, has hosted over 60 themed design contests, and has raised over $100,000 for artists and non-profits.

Read the Interview

Interview with Natham Pham, Co-Founder of

Innov8Social had a chance to catch up with Nathan to learn more about GoodJoe and his path to social entrepreneurship.

Q1 | Innov8Social:  What inspired you to start Goodjoe? Did you feel like something was missing in the online shopping experience—or did you have an innovative take on it?

A1 | Nathan Pham, Founder of GoodJoe:  It all started when I was on a business trip to the East Coast in 2007. I was caught in a snow storm and got stuck at the Chicago O’Hare airport for the night. When I was there bored and curious, I wandered around and saw a Life is Good store. I was instantly attracted by their smiley face logo. Then I went on to learn more about them. Then became inspired and obsessed and wanted to start a similar business.

After tons of research, in addition to me not knowing how to design, I applied my understanding of the crowdsourcing concept to launch goodjoe, in Dec’08, as a community-based company. By hosting contests, goodjoe utilizes the talent of the graphic designers community to help nonprofits spread their message and engage with their users.One key differentiation of goodjoe and a couple crowdsourcing t-shirt sites out there is that we zoom in and focus on working with nonprofits and using their causes as design themes. We believe that there is a huge need in helping nonprofits expose their cause, solicit and engage supporters, and to us t-shirt design competition is the solution.

As far as online shopping experience, in addition to offering cool and unique graphic t-shirts and products, we thrive to be transparent with the way we do business and how goodjoe operates. That way each person that interacts with goodjoe can see their impact either through a purchase, a vote for a design, or simply sharing a nonprofit that they’ve learned about on goodjoe to their peers.
Q2 | Innov8Social:   What is the mission of Goodjoe? What are your greatest hopes for it in the next 5 years?
A2 | Nathan:  The Goodjoe Mission: We strive to empower and creatively inspire individuals to contribute to our local and global communities.
To elaborate…our hope is that the goodjoe t-shirts and products become a conversation starter in local communities. Every design is intended to create conversation about its origin, the artist that created it and what is the inpsiration behind it. When this happens, the message of the nonprofit and the cause travel far and wide offline, to wherever their supporters might be.Our goal in the next 5 years is to be the online marketplace of choice for socially and environmentally aware customers. For every product purchased, they will be able to connect with the designers and the nonprofit, which are supposedly aligned with their interest and values.
Q3 | Innov8Social:  How did your team decide to monetize your social venture?
A3 | Nathan:  From day 1, when we brainstormed the idea and concept, we made sure the business model can generate revenue, and not depending on things such as ads. Our philoshophy has always been to create cool products that end customers would want to buy and support us, the artists and the causes. That way, we don’t have to do things that require us to charge the nonprofits for using our platform. The end goal is that when a customer buys something, everyone benefits.
Q4 | Innov8Social:   What were some of the unexpected challenges you faced in launching and growing GJ? What did you learn?
A4 | Nathan:  Oh man, where do I begin? ;O) Before and in the early days of launching, the biggest challenge was to understand the ins and outs of the t-shirs production and the industry. Prior to launching goodjoe, we never had any experience with the industry. So we had to everything from scratch. Up until now, the constant challenge is the catch-22 that all the internet social startups must solve. For us, the catch-22 problem is attracting quality graphic designers so that the nonprofits can be interested in signing up and working with us. And with the designers, we need to show that they will receive exposure and monetary benefits from nonprofits promoting the contests and designs, which indirectly promoting them.

Up to date, we have been learning a lot from working with nonprofits. We’ve learned that the needs and wants of each nonprofit are very dynamic. So it has been difficult to pinpoint a formula that capture the consistent needs so that we can do the next build to service more nonprofits. We are almost there though. Also, we’ve found out that nonprofits are quite behind with adapting new technology and new ways of doing things. Most of them are barely catching on with the whole social media. And so when we explain the goodjoe model, most of them do get overwhelmed. Base on these experiences, we have been able to figure out how to better articulate our model so that nonprofits can see the benefits.

Q5 | Innov8Social:   What are 3 tips you have for social entrepreneurs starting out in the online space?

A6 | Nathan:   (1) Find a sector that you are very passionate about making a difference in; (2) Do extensive research to validate that there is a business opportunity there; (3) Find a couple people that share the same values and passion to take on the challenge. And don’t give up until you’ve tried every angle you can possibly think of.

You can read more interviews with social entrepreneurs on Innov8Social as part of our ongoing efforts to profile individuals active in the field. You can also nominate a social entrepreneur.

Take Action: Submit a Design for Democracy Today

One of the ways Goodjoe engages with t-shirt designers across the country is through hosting various contests calling for design. Designers can submit a shirt design idea to a weekly or daily contest or to one of the themed contests.In honor of inauguration day, Goodjoe and GlobalGiving are launching design contest today.

The call is to “create a design that evokes the power and importance of programs around the world that ensure that all people can participate. Design for democracy.”

You have from today until February 8th to submit a design and vote on designs you love.

A Logo to Fit

A post about Goodjoe would be remiss without mention of its own logo design. It is a creative doodle that incorporates the letters G and J for Goodjoe in a fun, quirky ensemble evoking sense of wisdom and gentle happiness—not unlike the calm, kind, and passionate presence Nathan himself evokes.
It is unique, clever, and is a great fit for the goodjoe concept.