Acelero: Starting a Business in Social Services

For education entrepreneur Aaron Lieberman, the importance of knowing every aspect of the start-up business from the ground up is paramount. “Start small,” he counsels. “Learn as much as you can and figure things out as you go along.”

Lieberman was invited by the Social Enterprise Club to speak to HBS students last Wednesday. A small group of students, most with backgrounds in teaching or early childcare, turned up for his presentation.

Lieberman firmly believes bootstrapping a business forces one to find out what will work successfully as quickly as possible. This wisdom is borne out by his successes as the founder of JumpStart, a national nonprofit, early-education organization and as founder and CEO of Acelero, a for-profit company which provides local non-profit Head Start organizations with on-site coaching and feedback, technology and tools, and network support.

Head Start programs are comprehensive child-development programs that serve children from birth to age five, with the overall goal of increasing the school readiness of young children in low-income families. Close to 900,000 children are currently covered by Head Start programs, which receive about $7 billion of federal funding each year.

Acelero was set up based on the idea that Head Start programs need effective management systems and tools to maximize results. Acelero developed and piloted the concept in 2001, beginning with two Head Start programs in Newburgh, NY, and Meriden, CT, in 2002. Growth has been rapid since then, and Acelero plans to expand by one to two additional Head Start programs a year.

Lieberman spoke at length about the four key lessons he took from starting Acelero. The first relates to the power of a motivating vision and shared values. Under-paid, under-appreciated social workers in Head Start need an inspiring reason to continue dedicating time and energy to the program, and it is important for them to have a cheerleader.

Second, open and honest communication is crucial. Lieberman shared a great story about a team-member who cried openly at the workplace frequently, which became increasingly disturbing for other team members. Although uncomfortable with raising such a personal issue, Lieberman eventually spoke to her and was pleasantly surprised when she responded positively to his feedback and changed her behavior. An environment that fosters open and honest feedback takes time and a lot of effort to cultivate, but Lieberman stresses that the rewards are worth it.

The third lesson he shared touched on the role of systematic processes in planning and executing any activity. He stressed that people are more likely to accept and embrace change when they have been properly consulted and informed during the development process. Moreover, a structured and transparent process makes change predictable and less disruptive to team members.

Lastly, Lieberman highlighted the importance of using information and data to get great outcomes, even in social services. Data is irrefutable and makes it that much easier to make the right decision.

Lieberman also touched on the differences between for-profit and non-profit social organizations. While acknowledging that nonprofits may have greater reach and scope, Lieberman points to the ability of for-profit organizations to attract better-quality people, which can raise standards. This is a realistic trade-off; Lieberman’s frank acknowledgement that passion for social issues must be balanced against the natural wish for business ownership and monetary rewards was most interesting.