Social Enterprise Startup Perspectives Recap

Student pitchWhat does it take to launch a social enterprise? And who are the key enablers in that effort? These were some of the questions explored on Tuesday’s panel event at the Harvard i-lab.

Below a new mosaic of colorful glass sculptures and fueled with strawberry-banana smoothies, a full crowd listened to HBS Professor Allen S. Grossman discuss challenges and opportunities in the social enterprise startup space with two accomplished alumni from the sector: Scott Given, MBA 2010, co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of Unlocking Potential; and Joanna Jacobson, MBA 1987, co-founder and Managing Partner of Strategic Grant Partners.

Before coming to HBS, Given was a school principal at Excel Academy Charter School in East Boston. He successfully led Excel through a dramatic turnaround in student achievement scores. The experience showed him that while certain charter schools had the resources and flexibility to achieve significant gains, local district schools were not benefiting from the positive changes occurring in education reform. He used his time at HBS to develop ideas for bridging this gap and turning around underperforming district schools. These ideas ultimately found expression in Unlocking Potential, which opened its first school – UP Academy Charter School – to 500 students this August.

Critical along the way was support from Joanna Jacobson and Strategic Grant Partners, which donates pro bono consulting as well as funds. In evaluating grantees, Strategic Grant Partners looks for great leaders and game-changing ideas.  They found both in Given and Unlocking Potential.

According to Jacobson, Given’s star record as a principal made him an easy pick but Unlocking Potential’s value proposition was also crucial: unlike most charter networks, which open grades year-by-year and may not be accessible to all students, Unlocking Potential would keep the students in place and change the staff and policies of the school around them. UP Academy is an “in-district Horace Mann charter school” and its district affiliation requires it to serve a student population with a higher proportion of English-language learners and students with disabilities than most charters. These factors upped the complexity and scale of the challenges facing Given, but also meant that if Unlocking Potential is successful, it will change the standards to which other charters are held. Innovative funders like Strategic Grant Partners find this possibility especially enticing.

The conversation at the i-lab was full of takeaways for students passionate about social enterprise startups. Networking is key: Given’s business plan for Unlocking Potential created starting points for conversations with peers and professors at Harvard, as well as education reform experts throughout the country; the resulting feedback was integral to Unlocking Potential’s design. Jacobson emphasized the funding community’s growing emphasis on quantifiable measures to track and prove effectiveness – not just the outputs of the organization’s activities, but the downstream social outcomes fostered by those outputs.

On broader questions of career vision and strategy, Given and Jacobson offered both inspiration and candid counsel. Faced with multiple options for contributing to education reform, Given chose the path of entrepreneurship, cognizant of the risks but inspired by the potential for life-changing impact. Jacobson offered a broader perspective: social entrepreneurship has reached an inflection point where the field is saturated with people, ideas, and answers. Funders are increasingly picky about their projects, and the bar for novelty is higher. Students shouldn’t disregard opportunities to join existing organizations; it may be a more efficient strategy for contributing tangibly to the cause they care about.

After leading the panel through an audience Q&A, Professor Grossman provided an additional observation on career strategy: social entrepreneurs need to connect their passion for ideas with a commitment to execution. In the private sector, entrepreneurs are often different people than the professional managers ultimately hired to scale the business. Without the same established structure for buyouts and managerial development, social sector start-ups may be challenged by the transition from idea to sustainability. Scott Given and Joanna Jacobson’s successes may be partly explained by their equal commitment to vision and long-term execution.

Social Enterprise Initiative Director Laura Moon and Professor Herman “Dutch” Leonard closed the event with some notes on upcoming opportunities for students to engage with social enterprise at HBS. These include a “Social Innovation Lab” winter course to incubate and test start-up ideas and the launch of the Social Venture Track of the HBS Business Plan Competition.

Additionally, the Social Enterprise Initiative “Business Plan Contest—Building a Team” webpage is designed to help students form teams for both the course and the business plan contest. Students can register ideas and attract team members, or to advertise their skills and get recruited to a team.

For details on these and other programs, visit the Social Enterprise Initiative website.

Editor’s Note: Nick Gerry-Bullard is a 1st year student at HBS and member of the Social Enterprise Club Leadership Team.