For those who are not familiar with the world of startups and VC’s, can you talk about the purpose of Unreasonable Group and the role your organization plays in helping new businesses?
Entrepreneurs create businesses. All businesses, no matter what they do, sell a product or a service that solves a problem. We align with entrepreneurs who have chosen to work on problems that are seemingly intractable. They are just like any business, but if they are successful at solving the problem, they can help bend history in the right direction. It just so happens that the core product or service they provide solves a seemingly intractable social or environmental problem.
We see it as our mission, as an organization, to ensure that we can help them scale their effective solutions further, farther and faster. How we go about that, comes from our belief that business is business and there are fundamentals, without question. We’ve found that the most significant way that we can fortify these entrepreneurs, as they try and scale their company and broaden their impact, is through relationships. We pride ourselves on having a very tight global community oriented around driving resources, value, and insights into the entrepreneurs that we support.
For example, an entrepreneur may be looking for help on cross-continental supply chain, because they are scaling their solar company from India to East Africa. We can connect them to (1) experts in that field, but also (2), other entrepreneurs who have done similar things. Or maybe an entrepreneur will say, we’re looking to place a board member and we want to ensure it’s somebody who was a former head of USAID. We’ll say “Great! We’ll connect you to our network and you can have those conversations”. Or an entrepreneur may be looking to raise money for financing and they are looking to be connected to a Malaysian Sovereign Wealth Fund who specializes in the type of work they want to get funded. We pride ourselves in branching those connections.
The only other thing to mention, in terms of the types of companies we are working with; is that these are entrepreneurs who have what we call a paradoxical mix of confidence and ability. They have enough confidence to believe that they can go out and change the trajectory of history, solve a global issue. But they have enough humility to acknowledge that they can’t do it alone, that the current business model that they are leveraging might work now, but won’t work at full levels of scale.
You’ve told us a little bit about the types of entrepreneur’s you seek out, the work that they do and why that is important from a business perspective. Can you share if there is any personal connection to why you seek out entrepreneurs who are doing work that has an impact on a global scale?
The genesis of Unreasonable is partly selfish, it is part of my own personal journey that I am obviously still on. In university, I launched three different startups and I basically felt like a misfit, between two worlds. I was launching startups that solved problems, that were typically delegated to the non-profit world, but with for-profit business models.
I remember spending time in the non-profit community and thinking, this has got to be my tribe because they care about and are solving the same types of problems that myself and the team I was working with do. But I was a total misfit because I would categorize myself as a capitalist. Not because I believe greed is good, I think that greed is a very bad thing, but because I do believe that profits are the best driver for ingenuity and innovation for markets at scale. So, if one wants to solve a problem at scale, it’s got to be profitable.
I finally went over to the for-profit world and thought, “well they get that.” But then I was even more of a misfit because I just don’t value profit in and of itself. I only see it as a driver and its impact at scale.
So, in this journey as an entrepreneur throughout university, I didn’t feel like I had a community that I could really hang out with, who were speaking the same language and had similar aspirations. The genesis of Unreasonable was a misfit seeking refuge among other misfits. In essence, I’ve kind of fortified myself with a community of entrepreneurs who are crazy enough to believe that they can change the world. They are so hell bent and so determined, that the reality of it is they’re not going to stop at anything short of success.
That is what it came out of. What has kept me in for nearly a decade is the selfless side of it. I can launch one or two or three companies of my own, that can have a lot of impact on the world, no question one company can do a lot of good. Or we can be in the business of helping entrepreneurs on the front line, that have the most effective solutions already and we can help them scale. The impact that comes out of that, there is so much more leverage. Now Unreasonable is my only company.
You’ve mentioned in the past the quote “doing well and doing good”. What does this phrase mean to you and your team?
Most the world is bifurcated non-profit and for-profit. They are at opposite ends of the spectrum. On the one end, you’re doing good, which means you’re solving societal or environmental problems. On the opposite end of that spectrum, you’re doing well, which means you’re making money.
That has been the paradigm that we have lived in for multiple generations. Recently people have started to say, “hang on, we can do both”. There is a huge movement around this. What I believe, and our entrepreneurs are proving, is that it’s not just that you can do good and do well, it’s actually that if you want to do better than everyone else, the key is to solve harder problems that matter more. It’s our belief that you’ll do the best by doing the most amount of good as a business. That is a big shift.
What we are looking for in an entrepreneur is a very rare breed; they can make a billion-dollar company, impact a billion people and win a Nobel Prize all because of the one company that they scaled.
Our belief is that the future titans of industry are going to be companies that are profitably solving the world’s hardest problems. There is so much more value in that. Business has been pretty good at capturing value, but if it they orientate around solving harder problems, they can create so much more value.
Can you explain what your accelerator programs are and how they work?
There is the expression that those who can’t do, teach. I don’t actually think that is true but it’s fun to play with these words. For us, it’s more like those who can’t do or teach, do what we do [laughter].
The reason I say we don’t do anything is because we only have two jobs. One is to become master conveners; how do we get unlikely people in a room together to help each other solve problems, [people] that would never ordinarily be in the same room. For example, you might have an entrepreneur from Liberia who’s working with former child soldiers in the same room with the head USAID and the director of the World Bank. They would never normally be in the same room. So, part of it is being master conveners.
The other part of it, is creating conditions. We strive to create conditions where we see uncommon, productive collisions between people and ideas, that would never normally happen.
In trying to create these conditions; we bring together a cohort of entrepreneurs, usually about a dozen, that typically come from all around the world. We put them in an immersive environment for two full weeks. And we bring in about fifty mentors and specialists. Specialists typically have an expertise in a specific trade or business, be that supply chain management, or accounting or branding and product design. Mentors are typically serial entrepreneurs or globally appreciated thought leaders.
Though we do not refer to ourselves as an accelerator, we do see part of our job as being an accelerant for serendipity. All towards the end goal of scaling the work of the entrepreneurs we back.
One Workplace and Unreasonable met as you were preparing to launch one of your accelerator programs, The Girl Effect Accelerator. How did that relationship come together?
Our relationship came together very last minute in a beautifully serendipitous way. When we run these programs, space is really important. When we talk about creating certain conditions, it is not just the location that matters, but the design of the space needs to be incredibly well thought out.
In the fall of 2014, we were launching The Girl Effect Accelerator, which focuses on entrepreneurs who benefit woman and girls in poverty. We had all the entrepreneurs confirmed and flying in from around the world. We had the venue, about 2 hours north of San Francisco at a family owned a farm in Mendocino County. We had the mentors confirmed, everything. We had this incredible farm but realized we had no furniture whatsoever. I reached out to one of our mentors who is the Global Director at the D School at Stanford and I said; “Do you know anyone who would be crazy enough to outfit this entire venue with furniture that would help create a creative environment? And by the way, the program is in 10 days and we have no money” [laughter]. That was a hard ask.
He helped make the connection to One Workplace. Immediately the connection we made felt kindred. One Workplace gave us an entire showroom of furniture, at last minute notice, which was not just wildly generous but also took a fair amount of creative courage.
What has been amazing about the relationship is, it’s not just the furniture. Yes, it is beautiful and it’s brilliant, but the amount of intention put into the designing of the space and seeing furniture as not just something you sit on, but a creative asset, was one of the biggest value-adds, beyond the ability to borrow.
It was very natural the second time we were in California [for Project Literacy Lab] to reach out to One Workplace. We hope that we can continue to work together. As companies, we both want to do the right thing. And you all are as crazy as us [laughter] in terms of being able to do something that has never been done before, that is a little bit scary.
Could you talk more about the way space impacts people?
If you really want to be intentional, you need to be intentional about everything. For example, we will often times do really fast ideation sessions where we will get a bunch of mentors and specialists and other entrepreneurs to circle around one entrepreneur and say, “Hey, what’s your biggest challenge, how can we help you solve it in real time?” In 90 minutes, we try to come up with as many breakthroughs as possible.
When we are doing these ideation sessions, posture is really important. At different times during this ideation, we might say, take 5 minutes by yourself and write down as many breakthrough ideas as you can. We’re going to have someone doing that, sitting in a chair, that ideally has them a little bit on the edge of their seat, and has a platform to write on. We’re then going to say, now we want you to pair up with somebody else, we want you to stand up and take 8 minutes to share all your ideas with each other and see what else you can come up with. So now we want them standing, maybe at a cocktail height table. Then we’ll say, now we want everyone to circle up and sit together and share all the breakthroughs you’ve come up with and have a conversation for 10 minutes around that. Now we want seating that has nothing blocking the front of it; no table, no writing surface. Ideally everything is on wheels so we can bring them all together quickly in a circle and we are all at the exact same level.
That is an example of how in 20 minutes we have 3 different postures, that lead to different types of ideas and idea generation. The furniture itself actually plays a huge role in how you think as an individual and especially how you think collectively within a group.
What we loved about the furniture we borrowed from you is that it’s so adaptable, so moveable. We can use it in the type of posture we want and it leads to the type of conversations we want.
As this idea of social entrepreneurship is gaining traction, how do you see social entrepreneurship changing in the future?
We don’t use the words “social entrepreneurship”. We found that it’s label and a label bifurcates.
An example would be, I am willing to guess that Elon Musk doesn’t associate himself as a social entrepreneur. He probably says I am an entrepreneur trying to solve some of the world’s hardest problems. Or multiple world’s hardest problems [laughter]. But the moment that we self-identify as a social entrepreneur, that becomes a label, and other entrepreneurs don’t see themselves aligned with it.
So, we don’t use that terminology.
We actually think the future of business is, in essence, going to be [what people today identify as] social entrepreneurship. [We think] the most successful companies of the future will be those solving the world’s hardest problems.
That is the language we like to use. We are entrepreneurs trying to solve intractable problems because anybody can find value in that. There is no label, there is no nomenclature. Anybody wants to be a part of a revolution where we can profitably solve the hardest problems out there. I think the future of social entrepreneurship is entrepreneurship.
What is your advice for people who want to become involved and help solve the world’s hardest problems or do you have advice on how someone could be involved on smaller, personal level?
If someone wants to be an entrepreneur the best analogy I have heard, is that it is like riding a bike; you can’t read about it or talk about it, you just need to do it. All entrepreneurs start clueless and foolhardy. It’s just like riding a bike, you just need to jump on and do it and the momentum will take you through it.
If every individual was a little bit more mindful and intentional with how they live their daily lives; what they work on, what they ate, absolutely anything, the world can really shift. If you look at consumer behavior, which is one of the smallest things, you can be more intentional about where the products you buy come from and what has been put into them, and what type of impact the company has environmentally and socially. As demands shifts, which it does over time, the industry shifts. That’s a slow process, no question. But, it’s critically important. That expression “you can vote with your dollars”, I think that is very real.
We would never say that an organization that helps one person was not a noteworthy organization. We’ve just chosen to work with those that have scale built into their model. Making a daily difference in an individual’s life is massive. It could be as simple as how you raise your kids, how you treat your parents.