A new chapter

After eight guilty months, this Thanksgiving I finally made the time to start publishing content  I had collected and written up in March of this year during my trip to Australia. I used the early morning hours to nurse a cup of coffee (or three) and start editing posts that had sat silently in their folders for way too long. And as I was reading through all the background research and interviews that I had done for each visit, I got genuinely re-excited about all the knowledge, connections and experiences I collected over the last two years of working on Social Venturers! I was overcome by a sense of elation and gratitude as I reflected on the great conversations I had on my most recent trip to Australia alone:

I spoke with Kaitlin Tait – Co-Founder of Spark* International – in a cozy social enterprise cafe in Richmond, Melbourne, about their journey from Tanzania via Cambridge to Papua New Guinea and Australia.

I spent one late afternoon at The Difference Incubator in Melbourne discussing the next big thing for the social enterprise sector, vehemently nodding my head in agreement with Isaac Jeffries thinking to myself “These Australians really get it!”.

Another time I found myself talking to Tom Allen outside the Queensland Library in Brisbane’s tropical sun soaking up every word he said about bringing social entrepreneurship into middle and high school classrooms, all the while filling me in on his international lifestyle and passion for using design thinking for social good.  


Social enterprise cafe STREAT was founded in 2009 by Rebecca Scott & Kate Barrelle

I have learned so much from Social Venturers in Australia, Europe and the United States, and I can’t thank them enough for making time to critically and openly talk about their programs and share their outlooks on the world of social enterprise at large! With that said it comes as no surprise that I was disappointed with myself for not sharing any of these insights and  experiences until eight months later. It doesn’t look like much on the site itself but it takes about an hour for each post (Spotlight and Field Visit) to be edited for online publication and go live; and it wasn’t even about making the time, it was about everything else that was going on.

Once I received my greencard for the United States in March 2016, I jumped into local work projects with both feet: I ran two rounds of a 12-week pre-accelerator for university students, took on the role as B Keeper for Central Virginia’s B Corp community, launched Virginia’s first social enterprise mini-accelerator in collaboration with Unreasonable Institute, started to advise small businesses and startups with a social mission one-on-one and helped run a co-working space. I joined an incredible network of ecosystem builders called Startup Champions for which I help run communications and outreach, and I supported a local accelerator for high-growth companies as mentor coordinator. I loved every minute of my work locally, and still do, but inevitably Social Venturers was pushed into the background.

This is the moment where I am supposed to say “But that’s all going to change now! Now that I remember how important and invigorating all the research behind Social Venturers is, I will make it a priority and magically fit another five hours into my 50-hour week! Boo-yah!”. I have made these types of commitments before and know It. Doesn’t. Work. As much as I have always enjoyed Social Venturers, the travel, the research, the conversations – right now is not the time.

I have answered many of the questions I had when I launched Social Venturers. I have seen many different support models for social entrepreneurs, not around the world, but at least on three continents. From the very beginning I was very aware of the fact that the landscape of social enterprise support is transient and ever evolving. I never fooled myself into thinking I could capture it all; because “all” will be different a week from today.

My first field visits for Social Venturers took me to Europe in January 2015

My first field visits for Social Venturers took me to Europe in January 2015

Instead of focusing my efforts on the big questions, I have shifted my attention on social enterprise support in mid-market sized cities. When life dropped me off in Richmond, Virginia, I declared it a testing ground for social enterprise support in mid-tier cities. Having learned so much about support models in metropolitan areas like Berlin, London, Amsterdam, New York City, and Melbourne, I became more and more curious about the power, opportunities and challenges of social entrepreneurship in smaller places with less awareness and infrastructure for these type of changemakers.

In September 2016, I launched Unreasonable Lab Virginia with a group of startup ninjas, and it gave me some first insights into the differences for social enterprise support between large, established ecosystems and emerging ones (Read more about early lessons, our definition of success and next steps!). It is a first step into a new direction for Social Venturers. Not only do I get to apply everything I learned from other support organizations in different countries, I am also expanding my toolbox venturing into the world of B Corps, honing my skills in startup acceleration and community building, and growing the foundation of Social Venturers. All in all, a pretty exciting prospect for 2017!

Join me on my journey! If we have not met yet, drop me a line to anika@socialventurers.com! If we have met, let’s catch up for coffee again next time I’m back in your neck of the woods (Germany and Australia are coming up!). If you know of a social enterprise support program that I could learn from, especially but not exclusively in mid-tier cities, I want to be in the know! Let’s connect via Twitter or LinkedIn. Stay in touch and stay critical.  

Spotlight: Rob Lalka

Rob long

What drives you?

My faith, which teaches me to work on behalf of the common good.

How do you define social entrepreneurship?

Entrepreneurship is problem solving; social entrepreneurship is solving problems that matter most to society.

Biggest SocEnt trend you have seen in the last 5 years?

“The recognition by mainstream investors (Morgan Stanley Investing with Impact Initiative, BlackRock Impact, Goldman Sachs’ Impact Capital) that there is an opportunity  to invest in social business while gaining gaining returns. Some major players globally think that social entrepreneurship is something worth paying attention to. Younger generations switch their money from philanthropy to social entrepreneurship.


In the New Orleans community: Rob Lalka is a partner at Medora Ventures and Director of Strategy and Partnerships at Propeller, a startup incubator in New Orleans, Louisiana, where he oversees all of Propeller’s partnership development, strategic initiatives, and external relations. He is also a lecturer at Loyola University, where he teaches an MBA course on venture capital and another on the use of NASA intellectual property in commercial applications.

In philanthropy and impact investing: Lalka previously worked at Village Capital, where he led partnership development for the firm and supported the creation of a $13.2 million globally diversified investment vehicle, which is backed by a $2.6 million partnership with USAID.  He has also been a senior advisor at the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, where he coordinated their philanthropic-private partnerships and designed a demand-based approach for smallholder farmers in Africa to purchase conservation-based equipment and cropping systems.    

In global affairs and international development:  Lalka helped to create the Secretary of State’s Office of Global Partnerships, as one of two civil servants and the first Presidential Management Fellow in that office. From 2009 to 2012, the office leveraged $829 million in public and private resources for diplomacy and development, working with over 1,600 partners from around the world. During the 2011 Arab revolutions, Lalka led the U.S. Government’s efforts on the Secretary’s flagship alliance to promote entrepreneurship across the Middle East and North Africa. Coordinated efforts across 12 U.S. Embassies, 15 Executive Branch agencies, and 180 new partnerships, which created 20,000 new jobs and trained 40,000 youth.



Spotlight: Emily Winograd

emily long

What drives you?

“I have advocated for causes like educational equity, environmental sustainability, and food justice through a number of channels over the years.  Through this work, I have encountered many visionary leaders with great strategies for social change.  One of the challenges I’ve seen is with leaders and organizations that lack the flexibility, cultural competence, or empathy they need to adapt their approach to communities and build movements.  I am passionate about the positive effect that design thinking and cultural competence can have in the social sector.”

How do you define social entrepreneurship?

Creatively using the resources available, often by-passing existing business and government institutions, in order to build an ideal solution with the user’s needs in mind.

Biggest SocEnt trend you have seen in the last 5 years?

“I’ll just speak for PresenTense. We have overhauled our curriculum to truly follow the design thinking process. We strongly believe in the power of customer empathy to develop solutions and our curriculum reflects this. In an effort to make our programs accessible to many communities, we have started developing different formats to meet partners’ program needs.”


Emily obtained dual Bachelor of Arts degrees at Barnard College and The Jewish Theological Seminary, in Sociology and Bible Studies, respectively. She explains: “I never necessarily wanted to pursue a job in the Jewish community, but I was always interested in social impact. My first job was as campus recruiter for Teach For America (TFA). I learned a lot about how large institutional nonprofits work, and I applied those principles to upgrade the curriculum, program assessments, and other systems within PresenTense.  After two years at TFA, I came across the position at PresenTense. I joined the team in May 2014, and it’s been an incredible learning experience with a great team.”



Spotlight: Evan Burfield

Evan long

What drives you?

“I grew up watching Star Wars and my mother used to sit down and talk to me about the lessons of Luke Skywalker, and the fact that people who have great gifts have the responsibility to contribute to greater good. If I think of myself as a gifted person, I have to give back. If I don’t give back, I must not have had the gifts. If you really want to be a player in the world, it comes down to your ability to make change.”

Biggest SocEnt trend you have seen in the last 5 years?

“The costs of building a business continue to decrease. Capital networks respond to that in terms of scouting and funding. Angel investment has changed, today we have a lot more data and better mechanisms in place. In line with this development, there also is more awareness about disruptive innovation – just think of Uber or Tesla. You could almost say that the Valley has collided into D.C.


Evan’s entrepreneurial career started out when he founded netDecide – a provider of enterprise wealth management solutions – fresh out of high school. After five years as netDecide’s Chief Strategy Officer, Evan obtained his undergraduate and graduate degrees from University of Oxford. At the same time, he co-founded Synteractive, an IT consulting firm with clients in the public, private and nonprofit sector. In 2012, he joined Startup D.C., a grassroots initiative for serial entrepreneurs, angel investors, and community leaders, dedicated to unlock the entrepreneurial potential of the D.C. region. After his role at the Startup America Partnership from 2011 to 2013, he and Donna Harris co-founded 1776 in January 2013.




In December, I took a trip to New Orleans to learn more about Propeller – an accelerator I had heard much about in as far as Richmond. A friend in D.C. made the connection with Rob Lalka – head of Strategy at Propeller. That very morning, Propeller was hosting Innovate New Orleans – a two-day training program in design thinking and social innovation run by Civic Accelerator. So I first saw Rob in action when he introduced Propeller to the twenty or so workshop participants.

Rob Lalka welcoming participants of Innovate New Orleans

Rob Lalka welcoming participants of Innovate New Orleans

Leveraging the spirit of renaissance

Propeller was originally founded as Social Entrepreneurs New Orleans just after Hurricane Katrina and later became Propeller. “Right after the storm, a lot of people simply wanted to help rebuild. Some people said that we should not rebuild, but that was not an option. Where you are sitting right now was supposed to become a park. Instead it is New Orleans’ hub for social innovation and entrepreneurship.” Propeller works with ventures primarily in sectors of food security, education, healthcare and water. Since 2011, Propeller has supported the launch of over 90 ventures, which in turn have created over 250 full- and part time positions and generated over $60 million in revenues and follow-up funding (website). Looking at the bigger picture, Propeller ventures have increased the amount of healthy meals for school children in New Orleans by over 40 percent, rehabilitated over 1,300 acres of wetlands, improved healthcare access for families from low-income communities, and with disabled children, and have worked with over 1,100 educators to support student learning outcomes and prevent youth violence (website).

Propeller runs an accelerator for early-stage ventures in the fall and one in spring for those that are looking to scale their activities. Besides, it functions as an incubator that offers 10,000 square feet of co-working and event space. Having worked with Village Capital in D.C., I ask Rob how the social enterprise landscape in New Orleans is distinct from the capital. He explains: ”You can’t talk about New Orleans without talking about community. You cannot solve a problem in this city without engaging the people around you. Rebuilding the Ninth Ward and developing Propeller would not have been possible without the support from the community. Most entrepreneurs we work with – when faced with a shortage of some kind – will respond with ‘I have a guy, I know someone who can help me with this.’ And that makes New Orleans different.” I was intrigued.

Social entrepreneurship in smaller communities

By Rob Lalka

Having mainly spoken with support organizations in large cities I was curious to hear more about the role of community in a smaller city like New Orleans; how do you engage locals in social ventures? What does that look like?

Rob tells me: “Amidst all of the good indicators in New Orleans – and there are many from the last decade – it is clear that all businesses across the city have not benefited equally.  Racial inequities are particularly alarming: while minorities represent 43% of the population citywide, they own 27% of all firms, and their businesses receive less than 2% of receipts.

“Surveys completed for the Data Center’s New Orleans Index at 10 show that these business owners do not feel supported by the ecosystem and that they are either unaware of or excluded from available resources. Despite being generally positive about the services to support small businesses, only 39% of respondents agreed with the statement: “Generally speaking, I feel that New Orleans is friendly to minority small business owners.” The uneven playing field is more than an opinion; this is the reality of an incomplete recovery.

Propeller work space

Propeller work space

“At Propeller, we believe that it is our responsibility – to our board, our funders, and to fulfilling our mission – that we address these issues directly, honestly, and meaningfully. The citywide statistics, and the stories our neighbors share each day, make it clear that our entrepreneurial community must come together to support our entire community.

“Thus far, our efforts have yielded results. To date, minorities have represented 42% of our entrepreneurs (exceeding the 27% of firms that are minority-owned in New Orleans). Similarly, 7 of our 14 staff members are minorities and 4 of our 9 board members are minorities. Nationwide, 29% of firms are women-led; at Propeller, 57% of our businesses are led by women, 12 of our 14 staff are women, and 6 of our 9 board members are women.  But there is far more work to do, and our work in the community — organizing from the suites to the streets — on a day-in, day-out basis will continually be important in the coming months.”

Wrapping up

On my way to the airport a few days later, cab driver Cliff confirmed this mentality. He spoke about how all the cabbies stick together and help each other out. According to Cliff, Uber was currently being sued in New Orleans for over-charging a lady in Jefferson Parish “She told the sheriff, who was her uncle, or her cousin, or somehow related to her, and the sheriff told Uber they weren’t welcome in his Parish. That’s why folks like it – everyone in the community looks out for each other.” Whether Cliff got all the details of the case I don’t know, but he – as much as Rob Lalka at Propeller – feels strongly about the importance of community in New Orleans.





In 2005, Ariel Beery and Aharon Horwitz were fed up with people constantly telling them that their generation was the future. They thought that there had to be something to do in the present rather than the future. Together in an apartment in Jerusalem, they brainstormed ideas for how to make a difference. They wanted to bring together people to work on ideas in a collaborative setting. They created a magazine only to realize that print media was not an efficient channel to follow their mission. In 2009, in partnership with Combined Jewish Philanthropies in Boston, they came up with an accelerator model that become the heart and soul of PresenTense.  Fast forward 7 years and PresenTense is running eight  programs in Israel and seven  in the United States.

Focus group discussion

Focus group discussion

“The mission of the American PresenTense is to use entrepreneurship as a tool to enrich Jewish communal life, grow local economies and solve critical issues facing society.” explains Emily Winograd, Vice President of Programs at PresenTense US’ headquarter. “In Israel, we don’t focus as much on the Jewish aspect, but rather, our mission is economic empowerment and full participation in the startup ecosystem for all members of Israeli society, particularly marginalized groups.”

Selection & Program Overview

In every location, PresenTense works with local partner organization to implement their programs. Hence, the selection process differs according to the needs, circumstances and community of each partner. “The content is very universal so that anyone can contribute to the conversation. The curriculum is based on design thinking – we emphasize visioning and empathy – and is delivered over six seminars. We complement seminars with  mentoring and coaching, leveraging local networks of personal coaches and subject matter experts. Our goal is to grow an ecosystem of support by engaging the entire Jewish community around each partner. Most Fellows work full-time or are in graduate school. Two programs only have seminars on Sundays, some programs run on weeknights. Most of our programs run from January to June in cohorts of seven to fourteen participants. With a core team of six in New York and Denver, we work with local coordinators and trainers for each program to deliver our curriculum. A strong curriculum, capable trainers and a strong network of experienced mentors are key to a successful program.”

Brainstorming potential solutions in session

Solution brainstorming

How PresenTense is unique

I had no idea that Israel is a hub for technical innovation and startups. So obviously I learned a lot during this interview. What fascinates me about PresenTense is that they manage to leverage their Jewish community across the US and within Israel to sync their efforts in the space of social startup incubation and acceleration. Emily tells me that Joshua Venture Group, Upstart, PresenTense and ROI convene at an annual conference known as The Collaboratory to create an ecosystem that provides continuous support to Alumni of these programs. This is something I would love to see with non-Jewish support organizations! I realize that some of these efforts take place at the Global Social Entrepreneurship Network out of London, UK, and Conveners in the US. But the longer I think about it the more I believe that organizing in sub-groups has its advantages as opposed to trying to meet at SOCAP or flying to some other destination for a Learning Exchange (which have their benefits, too).
Another defining characteristic of PresenTense is their partnership model. Partner organizations pay to run a PresenTense Accelerator (like Compass Partners). Now you know I am a great fan of financial sustainability of support programs and I love seeing this approach work! How do we adapt our cost structure to be able to implement this model in mid-tier cities and their communities that have less financial resources?




In early December 2015, I had the opportunity to interview 1776 in D.C. to learn what makes their approach to social enterprise support unique. My first lesson: They don’t even support social entrepreneurs, technically speaking. “We work with entrepreneurs that are active in sectors that are highly regulated but haven’t undergone digital disruption yet. That’s where the greatest need and potential for scalable disruptive innovation lies.”, explains Evan Burfield – co-founder of 1776. “1776 is not interested in startups that are building the next photo-sharing or dating app, we are looking for founders that are part of the Third Wave of the Internet.”


As you enter 1776…

The Third Wave of the Internet

I had to look up what exactly Evan meant (if you are more versed, jump ahead): According to Steve Case, startup investor and former AOL CEO, the first wave started in 1985 when only 3% of Americans were connected via the internet and business were prohibited from using the world wide web (until 1991). For the next 15 years, individuals and later business were busy building the internet itself, developing the infrastructure and raising public awareness of this world wide web (Tech Co). Simona Jankowski at Goldman Sachs describes the second wave as spanning the next 15 years (2000 to 2015). Since 2000, desktop computers have gradually been replaced by mobile technologies, providing more than 2 billion users with access to the internet. According to Steve Case, this second wave is characterized by the development of technologies that supports services and apps like Facebook, Instagram, Youtube or Amazon giving rise to a social media revolution and the app economy (D.C. Inno). The Third Wave is about “integrating [the internet] into everyday life, in increasingly seamless and ubiquitous ways. These third-wave companies will take on some of the economy’s largest sectors: healthcare, education, transportation, energy, financial services, food and government services. These third-wave sectors — all now ripe for disruption — represent more than half of the U.S. economy.”(Washington Post). These are the companies that Evan and Donna – the founders of 1776 – are looking for.

1776 – beginnings and current programs

Donna and Evan ran the Startup America Partnership (now UP Global) from 2011 to 2013 where they focused on accelerating entrepreneurial ecosystems across the United States. Evan elaborates: “For over a year we took a deep dive trying to understand why certain sectors such as education, healthcare or transportation have not undergone the digital disruption that has spurred innovation in other industries. We learned that these sectors – due to their complexity and high levels of regulation – are hard to disrupt. Governmental and market failures present tremendous entrepreneurial opportunities, under the condition that entrepreneurs are trained accordingly and have access to industry experts and mentors from that particular industry. And that is something that you will rarely find in one location. What was missing was a global incubator that connects these high potential entrepreneurs to markets, investors, and support mechanisms around the world. That’s the premise under which Donna and I founded 1776 in 2013.”


Work space and kitchen

1776’s incubator programs exists of two locations in D.C. and a predominantly virtual incubator which close to 500 members from around the world access. My standard survey for data collection was almost impossible to populate with 1776; Evan explains why: “Each startup founder has certain milestones they try to achieve:raising their seed capital from family and friends, building their MVP, selling to their first customers, raising their first A-round. Based on these milestones, they take steps in the program we offer – at their own pace. There is no point in trying to streamline the process.” I ask Evan about their take on mentorship. 1776 distinguishes between mentors – a founder who has recently validated and scaled a business in the same industry as the 1776 member – and experts who teach founders anything from how to build a pitch deck or deal with compliance in your sector. They are the ones who teach classes and contribute their expertise across the board. “We try not to recruit mentors who tell our members how things were done in the industry 15 years ago. Experience goes a long way, but it is crucial for us that mentors have recently operated in the industry and are able to give relevant advice and make connections.”

Challenge Cup

To leverage its global network, 1776 organizes Challenge Cup – a worldwide tournament for startup founders. 1776 and their partners Global Entrepreneurship Network, Revolution and over 50 incubators around the world, look for “the most promising, highly scalable startups that are poised to solve the major challenges of our time.” (website). In the first round, over 1,000 applicants will enter the Challenge Cup hosted in 45 cities around the world. A total of 135 participants will move to the next round to compete in the regional finals. From there, the most promising 45 enter the global finals which will be held in Washington, D.C., in June 2016 to compete for over $1 million in prizes while gaining access to potential customers, investors and the media. Follow Challenge Cup on Twitter!

Wrapping up

What I appreciate about 1776’s take on social entrepreneurship is that they don’t have one. First and foremost they seek out high-growth business opportunities. “Pitching a heartbreaking story of social injustice does not qualify you to become a member of 1776.” Evan says, “Before anything you need to prove that you have an idea for a disruptive business. Tell me how you’ll make money, how you’ll build a high-growth and scalable business, and why it’s attractive to investors. Solving your customer’s needs in a sustainable and efficient way should be your highest priority. If, for example, that means bringing solar electrification to rural Africa, it needs to be a viable, scalable business, not you as a good Samaritan. The greatest business opportunities in highly regulated sectors can be realized through disrupting innovation. Often they coincide with social needs.”

To me that sounds like a perfect playing field for savvy change makers who know how to leverage entrepreneurship to create a sustainable shift in current less-than-ideal equilibrium.  



Spotlight: Megan Christenson

Megan long

What drives you?

“The opportunity to solve problems that I care about with people who I really respect.”

How do you define social entrepreneurship?

“To me, a social entrepreneur is someone who is not satisfied with the status quo of something and cannot NOT solve it. It’s not a glamorous lifestyle for 99%, but they see a problem and they won’t stop at anything to solve it in a sustainable and scalable way.”

Biggest SocEnt trend you have seen in the last 5 years?

“When we first started three years ago we felt like we could accurately name all three or four dozen impact accelerators. And now we have over 300 in the U.S. alone – we have seen massive growth in the support space. Now candidates have a choice in programs, which makes us continue to strive for excellence and relevance.


“My entire career has been in the startup space. I graduated from college during the recession and landed job at a healthcare startup in Chicago which was purchased by larger company. For me it was a great opportunity to go business school. The Monterey Institute on International Studies offered a specialization on social entrepreneurship which was a great fit. Throughout my studies I consulted nonprofit and for-profit startups; I worked with Ross Baird at Village Capital during a semester off and by them time I graduated I knew she wanted to stay in entrepreneurship.”



Spotlight: Ayesha Khanna

Ayesha long

What drives you?

“I want social entrepreneurs  to succeed because they’re working on really hard complex issues, they are so committed, it’s lonely. To me, every day is about the entrepreneurs and what they accomplish in their lives. We need to figure out new solutions.”

How do you define social entrepreneurship?

“Social entrepreneurs are Individuals that are trying to solve a social problem using business principles.”

Biggest SocEnt trend you have seen in the last 5 years?

“It’s a great time to be in the U.S. right now. Sure, there are still significant gaps, especially in terms of early stage funding (Pioneer Gap) and appropriate investment tools for nonprofits. Simply, we need to get more capital for social entrepreneurs. At the same time, every state has something happening in social innovation – it is becoming part of the vernacular. Investors – over time – are becoming more impact-focused. Mid-tier cities are beginning to focus on building an infrastructure: Think of Atlanta, Chicago, and Austin. Next up will be Baltimore, Charlotte, Kansas City, Detroit, Houston.


Ayesha holds a Master’s degree in psychology and after graduating from college, worked in India with with Adapt (formerly the Spastics Society of Northern India). After a year, she joined at what was then Andersen Consulting (today’s Accenture) and stayed on for eight years. About her time in strategy consulting she says: “I was increasingly missing the kind of work that nurtured my soul, like the work I had done with Adapt. So I started looking for alternatives.” For six years after her career at Andersen Consulting, Ayesha led the YMCA of Greater Atlanta as Chief Executive Officer before joining the United Way of Metropolitan Atlanta in early 2005.  Before her role at Points of Light, she co-chaired Women for Obama in Georgia and supported Borders for Atlanta as Director of Finance. Ayesha came on board with Points of Light in 2009 where she was head of the Civic Incubator and – as part of that – founded Civic Accelerator.



Civic Accelerator

When I planned my trip to New Orleans in December 2015, I came across an event at Propeller the same day I had scheduled an interview with Rob Lalka at Propeller. “Innovate New Orleans” was a day two-day workshop for professionals to learn all about design thinking, the Lean Startup Method and business model design, held by Points of Light’s Civic Accelerator. I had been in touch with Megan Christenson – Director at Civic Accelerator – when I was headed for D.C. earlier in 2015 but we had missed each other, so I was thrilled to get a chance to talk to her and Ayesha Khanna – President of the Civic Incubator (of which the accelerator is part).

Ayesha Khanna at CivicX's 2015 Spring Demo Day

Ayesha Khanna at CivicX’s 2015 Spring Demo Day

Civic Accelerator focuses on so-called “civic ventures’: “for-profit and nonprofit startups that include people as part of the solution to critical social problems.” [website]. Over the course of three months, the program works with ten to fifteen early stage teams – in person and online – to fully develop their ventures and prepare to scale. Civic Accelerator works with two cohorts per year, each of them revolves around one central issue. “In the early days, we focused on four broad outcome areas — education, the environment, economic development, and tech for good”, explains Ayesha, “… but we have since evolved to go deeper in economic development and education to organize our cohorts around design challenges or specific outcomes, including upcoming cohorts focused on digital and financial inclusion and opportunity youth.”

In their selection process, the committee looks for ventures that achieve social impact by engaging people as a core part of their solution. For their last round, they received 200 applications out of which the application committee (comprised of 15 experts) invited thirteen to join the program. Since Civic Accelerator works with ventures at the prototype stage they assess applicants based on several key criteria:

  • Entrepreneur/Team – background, domain expertise, how well suited to execute
  • Product – what problem solving for target customers, how do we know the product will work and risks have been mitigated?  
  • Customer —  the uniqueness of their solution, whether customers are likely to adopt their solution and pay for it, perceived market size
  • Profitability/Financials – how does the company make money and/or create predictable and scalable revenue streams, achieve margins
  • Social Outcomes – does it address our design challenge, measurable results, embedded in venture, how well they understand their cause
  • Civic Engagement – leverage human capital, unique platforms/services to engage people at scale

“Our focus on Civic ventures sets us apart from other accelerators, but that’s not the only differentiator. We took a page from Village Capital, and let the peers decide which two teams receive a $50,000 investment using investment criteria applied over the course of the program. We are legally agnostic and recruit and support diverse entrepreneurs from across the country. Half of the founders and co-founders we work with are women and 1/3 belong to ethnic minorities. Last but not least, we have strong corporate relationships – our partners from different industries bring their many assets to support these teams by serving as mentors, sharing content expertise as faculty, helping to market and shine a light on the teams, and providing grants and vendor opportunities,” says Ayesha.


Participants at Innovate Atlanta

Civic Accelerator’s headquarters are in Atlanta but their programs run in cities around the country such as Chicago, San Francisco, New York, Seattle, Detroit and Washington, D.C. Ayesha and her team are on the road A LOT. Megan comments on the role of any given location: “Networks are key. Not just in terms of individuals and organizations that make great partners for our program, but that can benefit our entrepreneurs. The startup business is relationship-driven. You need a healthy quantity of those connections.”

With Ayesha I talk some more about measuring program success: “We partner with a third-party evaluator – the Goizueta Social Enterprise Institute at Emory University — to help us assess our results.  A strong indicator around the effectiveness of a program is whether or not participants would recommend it to their peers. At Civic Accelerator, more than 90% of founders say they would. We have in place long-term measures to assess to what extent participants learn new skills in areas such as business planning and financials. We look at whether the ventures are growing their customers, revenue and investments over time. They share progress on social outcomes and the number of citizens they are engaging as part of their impact.  Lastly, we assess the return on investment, be they non- or for-profit.”

Innovate Houston

Innovate Houston

What I like about Civic Accelerator is that they do not only play in the big arenas of New York, D.C. or San Francisco, but also look at mid-tier cities such as Detroit and Seattle, which is where I believe the next wave of social innovation lies. The team around Ayesha has over 60 partners across the U.S. to help identify the next opportunity to bring social innovation to fruition; among them are Impact Hubs, local accelerators, universities, their network of nonprofits and affiliates, Black Girls Code and Teach for America to name a few.

Going forward, Ayesha aims at increasing the Accelerator’s impact. “We aim to support 550 social entrepreneurs in the next 3 years that are directly engaging ten million people to solve these complex social problems. We want them to raise 100 million dollars in follow-up funding, engaging 100 million people indirectly.”