When we started Acara a few years ago, our mission was to help start social ventures. Even though we were working with university students, we felt our mission was really about impact. We believed that university students had the passion, ability and desire to create innovative venture plans. After several years of doing this, we have found those beliefs to be true in every respect. But we have also learned a lot about student entrepreneurs. Starting social ventures is not only hard, but a departure of career aspirations for many students. If Acara’s only mission was starting ventures, it would be stupid to just work with students, we would work with entrepreneurs of every age. We would be better off running a program like Unreasonable Institute or Y Combinator. It’s hard to separate education out of the mission of these organizations, as they definitely educate the attendees, but success for an incubator is clearly measured by success (finding funding and starting up) of the ventures in the incubator.
Nor is Acara meant to be a pure competition like the Dell Social Innovation Challenge or Rice Business Plan competition. (I guess everything really is bigger in Texas). The Dell competition is based on a large grant from Dell and the latter is primarily fueled by potential investors in the businesses. These program perform a large marketing effort to get as many entries (up to several thousand) as they can.
So what is the Acara mission? And how do we balance the education mission of a university with the desire to create impact? The issue of whether a university should be tied to real-world impact probably seems silly to many people. For most people, education is about learning a skill to get a job. Period. And many schools (vo-tech schools, community colleges, even university programs such as nursing) do exactly that. But university education is also about learning how to learn, exploring things, academic freedom, and getting a well-rounded education. I referenced this article in my last post, but this New Yorker article on Stanford digs into the question of whether Stanford is too closely tied to the business interests of Silicon Valley. Perhaps a more revealing view of that question are these class notes from the startup class being taught by Peter Thiel at Stanford. I spent a career in a big company, not in a university, so I completely get classes like this, and many of those same topics work their way into Acara lectures. In my experience on the corporate side of hiring, I wanted the T-shaped students. I wanted the depth of knowledge, but I assumed that was a given. What I really wanted was the initiative AND curiosity. In the end, those were always the best people I hired and made the most impact.
Back to refining our own mission, we utilized the Business Model Canvas to examine our value proposition and business model. It was clear that our value proposition is education. It’s a clear value proposition to the student, we offer something they value, and tuition is a well understood payment mechanism. We don’t want to create a business model based on an equity stake (like many incubators do), because many social ventures won’t have enough revenue and if that was how we funded things, then we would prioritize to only get businesses that were going to be successful in making a lot of money. At the end of the day, our output is really individuals. Our successes are students that learn how to be leaders, and are empowered to go out and start or change something. This kind of discussion gets at the heart of what a social venture is, and what you want to accomplish as an organization. And it’s a fair argument to say that if the venture doesn’t make a lot of money, it’s not helping anyone. I think the field of “social ventures” is new enough, that no one really knows what it means. But for us, this is what makes sense. We want students to get the holistic view. But the only way to do that, is via real world experiences, and working on real problems.
Therefore, one of our board members (a former engineer turned CEO) defined success for Acara by the equation:
Success = A (# of students) + B (# of pilot ventures) + C (#of successful ventures).
Each term would be equally weighted, so we don’t overall emphasize eduction over successful ventures or vice versa. Good ideas, esp in the social sector, take time to develop. To me, what this says, is we are trying to push the boundary of the university as far as we can into creation and incubation of social ventures. It may not be the fastest way to develop ventures but it is the best way to develop leaders.
Higher Education has been in the news a lot these last few months, mostly because of the ongoing issues with student loans and debates on the value of a college education. But there are a lot of other more fundamental changes going on. It’s something I’ll write about over the next few weeks. Acara is a program that is in the middle of this changing university education, so we are in midst of navigating many of these challlenges. In the very early days of my career in the technology business, I had a boss who called what we were doing on the leading edge of chip design research, the “bleeding edge”, because we got bloody a lot from breaking new ground. Acara is similar, we’ve tried lots of new things, some of them have made us bloody.
In this post I am going to talk about what are sometimes called T-Shaped people. This is a term that was first used by Tim Brown of IDEO, and is a popular term in Silicon Valley. This extensive article in the New Yorker about Stanford, (a good article, I will come back to it in later posts) describes how Stanford uses the term to describe desired attributes in their students. What is a T-shaped student? Namely a student that is very deep in one topic (the I) and then has some cross-disciplinary experience (the top horizontal bar to make the T). Universities are generally excellent at developing students into an I shape. Whether the student is studying engineering, design, public health, business, ecology or any other discipline, a university like ours does a terrific job of teaching students the theory and basic knowledge of that field. Students generally go into a major because they like it and have a passion for it but ultimately they want to use that knowledge to make an impact in the world. That’s where the T comes in. That means sticking your head up out of the I, looking around, working with other disciplines, and understanding how they work together to solve real problems. Universities traditionally have not done very well at putting the T’s on students.
Acara is in many ways a program to make the T. We uses words like social entrepreneurship, sustainable development, designing solutions, but in effect, what we are doing is putting students into real life, multi-disciplinary situations, which require using both broad and deep skills of the team members. This requires students from multiple colleges and majors across the university, it requires a curriculum that focuses on the broad topics, it requires lecturers and mentors from different disciplines, it requires working on real problems and not the least, it requires cooperation across all these groups in the university. Traditional university departments are set up to be deep (a PhD is a pretty big I). Acara, because it is part of a multi-disciplinary center like IonE, not part of a particular college, and has a dual mission of education AND impact, is perfectly situated for making the T.
It’s important to make sure there is both a vertical and a horizontal to the student. There has been a lot of press about Peter Thiel and his Thiel Fellowship to take young people under 20 and pay them not to go to university. Well, they do work in a concentrated academy of sorts, so it’s more like a self directed study. But it’s not likely to develop the depth of training needed if you are going to tackle serious problems in the world. Along the same lines as Thiel, Jonah Lehrer (who seems to be the new Malcolm Gladwell) in the Wall Street Journal talks about what a college education really should be teaching students, and rightly focuses on T skills. I certainly don’t disagree with Thiel or Lehrer; the ability to learn how to think and learn on your own, to work with others, and to learn how to make an impact are the core of my beliefs also. But an 18 year old, no matter how brilliant, generally does not have much of an I. Unfortunately, recent examples like Instagram selling to Facebook for $1B do not help this case much, perception-wise. Students will think they can write an app, and that’s it. Instagram is a nice, fun app, but it’s not worth a billion dollars and is hardly going to tackle a serious problem like renewable energy. That takes I people and T people.
This all seems obvious, and is certainly done well in pockets in many universities, so why isn’t it done more? First of all, it’s harder than it looks. You need to do it collaboratively from a teaching standpoint, as not many people are able to teach something so diverse single handedly. That means bringing in other lecturers. That’s time consuming, logistically challenging, and can be expensive if you pay them. Universities are notoriously siloed organizations, which makes this bureaucratically challenging. And there is not a particular incentive for an individual professor to do this. It’s not what they are typically rewarded for. It takes a few champions in a university willing to spend the time to make it happen. Here at the UMN, we have found the right champions who believe this is crucial for the 21st-century university. Universities develop I’s, it is important to do the T’s here as well.
Creating T-shaped people is a key goal for Acara. We want to take I’s and help them to use those skills to make real impact.
In my last post, I said that we will do a series on questions and challenges that Acara has been facing and would love to hear all of your thoughts. Just to give you a background again – the Acara Challenge is a semester-long education and entrepreneurial training program that runs across universities in India, US and Mexico, where students learn about design for social change and create sustainable solutions to community problems.
The question of the week is: ‘Should the Acara Challenge be sector agnostic!’ During the first two editions, we had specific topics guiding the Challenge – clean water and clean energy for cooking. The question is whether such topics help ideate and remain focused or they create barriers. One might argue that when students visit the community as part of the Acara Challenge course, they might discover problems across several domains including education, financial inclusion, energy and livelihood and might have ideas to solve any of them. Passion, sudden interest, personal connection – it could be anything. So why should the Challenge make them channel their thoughts in one or two directions only!
On the other hand, one might argue that specific topics probably enable focused thought processes and might help participants quickly choose one area instead of delving into multiple problems and spending time choosing the problem area itself. With the limited time at hand, this approach probably makes more sense for us. But again, ideas and businesses are started by people who are passionate about certain ideas and passion can be for any domain – from unemployment to technology for agriculture.
What do you think!
Yes, IT is on. NextBillion did a post on GEW a few days ago and it reminds me of how entrepreneurship and sustainable development continue to dominate as topics of interest at universities around the world. Each November, the Global Entrepreneurship Week connects people everywhere through local, national and global activities designed to help them explore their potential as self-starters and innovators. Co-founded by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and Enterprise UK in 2008, GEW has become a quite popular series of events.
So what does this mean for us? As a community of students, researchers, VCs and mentors including people from academia and industry, entrepreneurship is something we celebrate throughout the year – through the Acara Challenge and through our Sales for Social Impact program. Entrepreneurship is a part and parcel of our vision and nature.
I want to use this opportunity to do a series on some important and difficult questions that we have been facing in our work of encouraging and supporting student entrepreneurship, both in developed and developing countries.
Here’s the first question: How important do you think it is to teach entrepreneurship and design thinking to students? As Acara Institute, we have been doing this for over two years now and have faced several roadblocks. And when we looking at business plan competition organizers or early stage incubators, we wonder whether that’s what we should focus our efforts on.
Should we drop our agenda of teaching students about concepts of sustainable development, business planning and team management! And instead, just invite entries for social business plans from universities around the world! Wouldn’t that be much easier, rather than continuing to work with faculty members and training them so that they can hep students? But isn’t education an important component of the value chain. Can we simple assume that students have enough information and self learning tools that they can start ventures, particularly those focuses on the bottom of the pyramid. Or maybe with limited resources at hand, it makes sense to just support mature ideas with successful proof-of-concept and forget about the education part!
We look forward to hearing from you!
I have been struggling with this question for quite some time now. A few years down the line, I think I want to set up my own incubation fund. When I talk about it, people ask me – what kind of fund would this be – social or business? Given where I work, it seems to be a valid question initially. But I am not sure if I know the answer or whether I understand the question itself?
Let’s take a step back and ask – What is this thing called ‘social entrepreneurship’? Is it about helping the poor? But what does that mean? Is it about whether this support is free or comes with a cost? But doesn’t free support makes the beneficiary dependable? Is that a good thing? Is charity as a model sustainable?
Is social entrepreneurship about working in a non-profit? Does that mean that the people who want to earn the big bucks never stand a chance to do this? Or maybe they can earn a lot of money and fund large projects or recruit people to start several non-profits in their name and actually help millions? Doesn’t that sound better? Or maybe, it is about change – that I join a fledgling non-profit which does great work and turn things around, or I use my expertise and talent to help a non-profit deliver services efficiently and effectively.
Is social entrepreneurship about starting your own venture which focuses on the low-income segments as the primary beneficiaries? Should this ventures be a for-profit one? Or is that bad! But does that mean that Reliance and HLL are being run by social entrepreneurs? Don’t these companies have their largest customer segments in the low-income communities, both in urban and rural settings, or at least, that’s what’s gonna happen soon?
I am not sure what the answers to these questions are. But I have realized that the debate about right and wrong is by itself flawed. At the end, it’s all being impact, no matter what road one takes. Whether one sets up an Aravind Eye Care, an Akansha Foundation, or an HUL? Some people even say that Infosys is the largest social enterprise in India. They have created livelihood for millions, made India stand high in the field of IT outsourcing, and changed world’s perception of our country itself. Isn’t that large scale socio-economic impact! Probably, that’s whats required. Maybe, all entrepreneurship is social. What do you think?