Silicon Valley Takeaways: Unexpected Lessons about Social Entrepreneurship from the Tech Mecca of the World
How can we best achieve systemic social change? What role can entrepreneurship and the private sector play in scaling social impact in the U.S. and internationally? Are businesses better positioned than NGOs or the government to fund and catalyze social innovation? When I applied to the Silicon Valley i-lab trip this past fall, these questions were on the top of my mind. Some might say that Silicon Valley is hardly the place to visit to understand how to address market failures or public goods issues, like climate change or access to clean water. After all, the region is a mecca for computer hackers, engineers, and devoted TechCrunch readers. Coffee shops are filled with venture capitalists and unassuming entrepreneurs, who speak in a foreign language comprised of an alphabet of funding series, big data, and software terminology. Indeed, after our group's first few visits to start-ups throughout the week, I began to wonder what knowledge I served to gain about social ventures from entrepreneurs whose successes were based on software and hardware programs that I had never even heard of.
Yet, as the trip came to a close on Friday, I reflected on all that I had learned and witnessed throughout the week. I realized that much of the high-level theories and practices that I heard from start-ups and VCs had tremendous parallels and applicability to my own areas of interest. For example, the mantra of lean start-up guru Eric Ries is "fail early, fail often." This is a message that Ries advises tech entrepreneurs to follow, to avoid investing superfluous amounts of time and money in products or services that haven't been tested in the marketplace. Yet, this advice is equally valuable for social entrepreneurs as they work to solve unaddressed market gaps. In the same way that an app developer should create a minimum viable product to test with potential consumers, someone looking for solutions to reducing water-borne illnesses in a developing country should first begin by creating a basic prototype that can be tested with and evaluated by the target population. Further, we also heard time and again throughout our week that execution is far greater than the idea. On the final day of the program, Randy Komisar, a partner at VC firm, KPCB, highlighted this philosophy, noting that ideas are a dime a dozen. Rather than investing in an idea, Komisar emphasized the importance of understanding the personality and work ethic of the entrepreneur behind the idea. I feel that this is an important message for entrepreneurs beyond Silicon Valley and the world of technology. When thinking about solving a pressing social issue, we often agonize over finding the magic solution or the perfect idea that no one else has thought of. However, rather than finding the panacea to poverty, it is essential to develop one's skills and ability to execute an idea in order to have a measurable impact.
On a higher level, I was able to get a first-hand glimpse of the power of venture capital and entrepreneurship in creating systemic change, whether it be in developing improved computer security software, creating an online educational flashcard program, or improving agricultural yields in emerging economies. As Peter Wendell, a venture capitalist at Sierra Ventures, mentioned on our first day in Silicon Valley, the revenues of venture capital-funded companies comprise 22% of the U.S. economy's GDP. Silicon Valley's powerful VC - entrepreneur ecosystem reflects the crucial role that funding can have in creating and scaling impact. While achieving global social change requires the support of a diversity of different players and funding models, this trip had strongly reinforced my belief that entrepreneurship in the private sector has played and will continue to play a crucial role in creating large-scale, systemic social impact.
-Ryan Heffrin, Harvard College