Silicon Valley Mentors Nuture Social Entrepreneurs

By Michelle Quinn
East Bay Times

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) This article out of the East Bay Times takes a look at how several social entrepreneurs worldwide are tapping into a pool of more than 100 tech industry veterans who serve as mentors and offer free advice from the trenches.

East Bay Times

Every Friday morning, Jessie Becker hops on the telephone to talk to her Silicon Valley mentors about her startup.

Becker isn’t making the latest smartphone app or the newest fintech service. She is working on a device that will prevent women in developing countries from dying of postpartum hemorrhaging.

Through Santa Clara University’s Global Social Benefit Institute, Becker, whose company InPress Technologies is in Mountain View, is one of several hundred social entrepreneurs worldwide who have tapped into a pool of more than 100 tech industry veterans who serve as mentors and offer free advice from the trenches.

What Becker gets from her mentors is not how to make her device or how to go through clinical trials. Instead, they pepper her with questions about everything else that will make her effort a success — what is the size of the potential market, what she should think about as she seeks financing, how she should elevate the company’s messaging.

This is the stuff that will determine whether InPress will succeed or fail.

Silicon Valley is known for its ability to nurture ideas from the small seedling stage and scale them into towering giants. That know-how is needed as well in the field of social entrepreneurship, where many first-time founders with enthusiasm often attempt to do too much as they aim to fix an intractable social problem.

“The pool of talent that exists locally is an enormous asset,” said Jim Bildner, chief executive of the Draper, Richards, Kaplan Foundation, which recently announced its third fund — $65 million — to back 100 early stage, high-impact social enterprises.

Launched 13 years ago, Santa Clara’s program “recognized how valuable it is,” said Bildner. His foundation doesn’t have a formal relationship with Santa Clara’s program. “We are in the middle of talent that is looking to mentor entrepreneurs who want to change the world.”

Social entrepreneurs often seek to bring a business mindset to social problems. They often measure their success not in just the return they make for investors but also by other metrics, such as whether they have improved the lives of the people they are trying to help.

In the 20 or so years since social entrepreneurship first caught on, an entire ecosystem has sprung up to foster these entrepreneurs at various stages, such as Santa Clara’s program, which is housed at the Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship, and the Skoll Foundation, created by Jeff Skoll, the first employee and former president of eBay. The Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation, based in Menlo Park, looks for “system entrepreneurs,” people whose work aims to change the underlying systemic issues at the root of problems.

In the Santa Clara program, first-time entrepreneurs, typically outside the U.S., talk to mentors weekly via Skype. The program is now starting to export mentors to places such as India and sub-Saharan Africa, thanks to grants from General Electric and USAID, the U.S. Agency for International Development.

“It’s what we do everyday when we wake up,” said Pamela Roussos, a former software executive and mentor who is now the senior director of the institute. Mentors “don’t necessarily understand the market targeted, but we are uncovering some assumptions that need to be tested.”

For Phyllis Whiteley, a partner at Mohr Davidow Ventures and one of Becker’s mentors, mentoring social entrepreneurs struck her as the right thing to do after a career of building companies.

She has helped a mobile marketing company in Brazil, a sanitary pad startup for Rwanda and a firm that hopes to use drones to deliver medicines and diagnostic tests in rural Kenya.

“Anyone who has been an entrepreneur or been investing, this is something we can really do,” she said.

On a recent Friday morning call, Becker and the company’s CEO, Anne Morrissey, mulled out loud how to market their device in a country like India, where women might double up in hospital beds. Resources, of course, are very tight. Should InPress make the device reusable rather than for a single use?

And they needed help navigating a potential opportunity. A well-known medical company had expressed interest in the product and becoming an investor. What should they do? Whiteley peppered them with questions.

Listening in, I wondered: We are already seeing what purports to be the largest transfer of wealth as baby boomers pass on their life savings to their heirs and philanthropy. But what about their knowledge? Will we see an explosion of people like Whiteley, seasoned venture capitalists and serial entrepreneurs, who want to give back something concrete — the discipline of a business mindset — to those like Becker and others in tough places solving tough problems?

If so, I am excited about what social entrepreneurs and tech alums can accomplish together.

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