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 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.  


Compass Fellowship

In December 2015, I had the opportunity to speak to Rebecca Ballard, Executive Director at the Compass Fellowship. As both of us are travelling nomads, we connected via Skype to talk about the program and Rebecca’s experience in the social enterprise sector.

Compass Partners was founded by Neil Shah and Arthur Woods who both worked on their first social ventures during college. They experienced first hand that “the university environment simply didn’t provide the support, knowledge or skills that they needed to succeed.” (website). Launched at Georgetown University in 2009, Neil and Arthur expanded to five schools in fall 2009, and doubled their program’s reach once more in the fall of 2011.

Introductory Session on Campus

Introductory Session on Campus

So what’s the program all about? The Compass Fellowship is the first and largest program in the U.S. using a mentorship-oriented approach to teaching social entrepreneurship on campuses. Applicants are first-year college students that want to launch a social venture and need support in doing so. Each participating campus has a Mentor team – older students with key entrepreneurial skill sets – that choose up to 15 participants each year. Once accepted into the program, Fellows

  • Take part weekly in the Fellowship’s curriculum through guest lectures, off-campus trips or group activities,
  • Create a venture through learning modules in personal growth and business skills
  • Benefit from mentorship through the Mentor team and – when necessary – external adviser
  • Have the opportunity of joining a regional Boot Camp to fine tune their ventures
  • Attend Shift Series, the annual national conference which gives all fellows the opportunity to present in front of a larger audience.

“The Compass Fellowship is different in that it is student-created and student-led. Each level of the organization – from Mentor teams to our National Council – is made up of students and alumni who have proven to be exceptional social entrepreneurs and want to give back to the ones who come after them. We take Fellows through extensive social entrepreneurship training and many stay on as peer-mentors for the next cohort(s).” Rebecca explains. “In focusing on first-year college students we hope to ingrain a values-oriented entrepreneurial mindset that is based on living consciously, participating proactively, committing unreasonably, and thinking adventurously.” The Fellowship’s is run on the basis of four fundamental teaching approaches:

  1. The N+1 Model: Each participant is guided by a mentor that is one step ahead, as Fellows or mentors within the organization.
  2. Experiential Learning: In small groups, learning modules and one-on-one mentor sessions, Fellows learn, observe, reflect and test.
  3. Differentiated Instruction: Part of the curriculum revolves around personal development to help Fellows recognize their values, strengths and weaknesses, to develop a plan for their future that fits their personality. Instead of classroom instruction typical for the university environment, Fellows engage in long-term relationships and discussions with their peers and mentors to foster their personal development.
  4. Student-based community: The program is run by students for students to create common ground for learning and collaboration.

As of 2016, the Compass Fellowship is active at twelve schools all across the US. To expand their program, Compass looks for

  • Universities that prove a campus-wide commitment to social innovation and impact
  • Students at those universities who embrace social innovation and entrepreneurship to tackle social challenges
  • Support of the university’s faculty and administration
  • Financial Commitment from the university ($40,000) and Fellows.

One of the highlights of the fellowship year is Shift Series – a two-day summit discuss socially conscious leadership of the next generation with students and alumni from leading national universities, social and tech entrepreneurs, thought leaders, and corporate executives. Compass Fellows have the opportunity to pitch their ventures and receive feedback from their peers and experts.

Workshop time

Introducing the Compass Fellowships mantra

I think it is incredible that Compass has scaled to a dozen schools across the US in six years thanks entirely to passionate and engaged volunteer mentors. I can only imagine what a strong network of social makers and shakers they have built up over the years. What I appreciate most about Compass’ approach – beyond this impressive community – is that they work with individuals during their “formative years” at college. Compass opens students’ minds to what it can mean to be an entrepreneur. In graining a socially entrepreneurial mindset this early-on, Fellows not only become aware of their role as change makers, but can tailor their university education according to their experiences and aspirations. While passion is not in short supply among first-year college students, I can’t help but wonder how structured and organized a program runs when led by students. Maybe I’ll come across a Compass Fellow some day and find out what it really looks like behind the scenes.


Spotlight: Rebecca Ballard

Rebecca long

What drives you?

“My faith and a yearning to make this world look more like the world I believe it should be. I have a vision which stems from my desire to promote social justice of how things can be much better in this world.”

How do you define social entrepreneurship?

“Having a product or service which generates the bulk of an organization or company’s revenue and also promotes social good, may be a for-profit, nonprofit, or hybrid model.”

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

“It is part of our generation, it helps define what it means to be a Millennial.


In her first career, Rebecca worked six years as a government attorney before deciding that “the train [she] was on was not headed in the direction she wanted to go on.” Together with her husband who works at McKinsey, she moved to Asia. “We told them we would go anywhere in the world as long as it wasn’t in a war zone. We were ready for a big adventure. Before I knew it, we were in Malaysia.” With a background in math, the arts, religion, and law Rebecca sees herself as a jack of all trades: “Having a law degree gave me the tools I need to make an impact in this world, it’s a good background to have. But these days, I am more passionate about ending homelessness and promoting responsible consumerism.” I ask her how she coped with leaving a secure career path and following her passions. Rebecca explains: “I made a lot of mistakes and the wrong choices along the way. But through trial and error I figured out where my passion lies. One of the things I got interested in while abroad was market-based advocacy and deploying market-based solutions to social problems, a nascent calling which had been in me for a long time. That’s how I learned I wanted to work in social entrepreneurship.”



Aspen Urban Innovation Lab

Located within the famous Aspen Institute at D.C. Dupont Circle is the Aspen Urban Innovation Lab, an accelerator for so-called second stage social enterprises, originating from the network of Aspen entrepreneurs. The program being less than one year old I got a chance to catch up with Eric Lavin, Founding Manager of the Lab, and learn more about its mission.

Founded in 1950 as the Aspen Institute of Humanistic Studies, it promotes leadership and dialogue around today’s most critical issues through workshops, seminars, conferences, policy and leadership programs. One distinct characteristic of the Urban Innovation Lab is that participants are selected from a pool of innovators that have already gone through one of the Institute’s programs. Their social enterprises are already up and running; they join the Lab to scale urban innovation solutions. The upside to the Lab’s close affiliation with the Institute is the extensive network of professionals and seasoned entrepreneurs that are connected to Aspen through its variety of programs. The Lab leverages this network to recruit experts and mentors for their scaling social entrepreneurs. The cornerstones of the Lab are wrapped around this very network:   

  • Peer-learning (Aspen specific methods of facilitated discussion, workshops, team building, knowledge exchange)
  • Mentoring (from the Aspen network)
  • Connectivity (alignment with existing Aspen policy programs; facilitation of local communities of practice)
  • Elevation of the cause and work (highlight participants’ solutions using the Aspen platform, connections to policy makers)

Another distinct characteristic is that the agenda of the Lab is largely driven by its participants. “90% of what we do and work on is driven by what the entrepreneurs need and want at that point in time. We will not hold a two-hour accounting session for the whole cohort, simply because it is not relevant to all of them. The other 10% is made up by Aspen methods of value-based leadership.” says Eric.

Urban Innovation Lab Launch (August 27th, 2015)

Urban Innovation Lab Launch (August 27th, 2015)

All in all, the Innovation Lab runs for one year. As mentioned earlier, the Lab has been in operation for less than a year so it’s too early to start speculating about its impact or success quote. But that’s exactly why I’m excited about it – it’s new, it takes a different approach to founder-friendliness with their participant-driven content, and being located within the Aspen Institute it has great potential of plugging into the policy arena around its participants’ central challenge: urban innovation.


Spotlight: Eric Lavin

Eric long

What drives you?

“Doing the most I can with what I have.”

How do you define social entrepreneurship?

“In essence, social entrepreneurship is any project that – at the core – has the mission to have a positive impact on society. To me, social entrepreneurship has a certain set of integrated metrics that cover its social impact and financial sustainability. These metrics should be at the forefront of your strategic plan. Every social entrepreneur should have a baseline metric that benchmarks his/her impact.”

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

“The number of social entrepreneurs and support organizations have gone up. The topic is more and more out there in the ether.


“I was a teacher, then a merchant banker and startup CEO. At Aspen Ventures, I bring all these skills and experiences to the table.



Spotlight: Ryan Ross

Ryan long

What drives you?

“When I go to bed each night, I want to know the world is a better place because I got up that morning.”

How do you define social entrepreneurship?

“A sustainable venture that is prioritizing intentional social impact, and is measuring and transparently reporting outcomes toward this goal.”

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

The actual growth in capital coming into the space: Obviously, a lot more needs to happen in that space. I feel as though even our government takes it seriously, they provide more funding for innovation than ever before. At the same time, foundations are more willing to do program-related investments and more and more people are concerned about doing work with purpose.”


“I hold a Master in Public Policy from the Kennedy School of Government and I am currently the Program Manager for the Halcyon Incubator. Over the past year and a half, I’ve helped 32 social enterprises develop in our program, creating over 110 jobs and impacting over 70,000 people. I was a State Champion in… Debate back in Florida in High School. Which made me one of the coolest kids at school.”



Spotlight: Chris Cusack

Chris long

What drives you?

The opportunity to create novel solutions to address growing problems in our society.

How do you define social entrepreneurship?

“A social entrepreneur is a person who tackles a problem in society using, in the context of our work at Village Capital, a for-profit, scalable solution.”

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

“Over the last few years, we’ve begun to see an accelerated convergence between impact and traditional business, in large part driven by growing evidence that you can make an impact AND a market return. We’ve seen lots of recent evidence: Bain Capital just established their impact arm, led by former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, and Goldman Sachs bought Imprint Capital, a leader in impact investing.”


Prior to Village Capital, Chris was a Venture for America Fellow with the Cleveland Cavaliers, where he worked on special projects for the executive team. Previously, he helped accelerate small community businesses in Northern Ireland with Lisburn People’s Support Project, where he also created an oral history database of individual experiences from The Troubles. As an undergraduate, he served as sports editor of The Chronicle, Duke University’s independent student newspaper. Chris holds degrees from Duke in public policy and economics



Spotlight: Ian Fisk

Ian long

What drives you?

Finding ideas that have both social and business value (e.g. the diversity of perspective) and bringing them to scale.”

How do you define social entrepreneurship?

“I very specifically don’t. Mentor Capital Network works with companies whose social, environmental, and/or cultural mission strengthens their financial margins.”

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

Support systems that help entrepreneurs solve problems in their own communities, rather getting advice from outsiders.”


“My background can be described as building tools (serve-a-thons, computer networks, mentor networks) that help people strengthen their communities for 25 years. I served as the  first internet coordinator for a US presidential candidate and – in the 90s – was on the founding team of the largest all-volunteer serve-a-thon in the USA​. To date, I have engaged than 1,000 mentors to support and advise more than 300 operating social enterprises.”



Village Capital

Day two in D.C. started with a glorious run around the Mall. I had heard that the city had been built on a swamp but unless you have tried to run five miles at 6 a.m. at 97% humidity, you haven’t had the full summer-in-the-city experience.

Between its founding in 2009 and 2013, Village Capital has delivered 40 programs across the US, Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America.  A fan of their peer- and problem-based approach (learn more below),  I was eager to talk to Chris Cusack, who is in charge of VilCap’s Special Projects, including its newest initiative: VilCap Communities. It struck me that you will only ever meet two or three team members in their D.C. headquarters, located within Impact Hub. The rest of the -people-strong team is dispersed around the world preparing the next program on the ground, recruiting experts, mentors, partners and entrepreneurs, or sharing their expertise at another conference.

First up, I owe Chris an apology: I peppered him with so many questions, I think he had to talk for an hour straight. Not even a chance to take a sip of that water. Sorry Chris! We had 60 minutes and I needed answers.

Monitor Deloitte, p. 27

Monitor Deloitte, p. 27

Village Capital has been running their most recent programs using a problem-based approach. Now, I know we like to throw that term around like a hot potato. After all, we are all in the business of solving problems, right? After my conversation with Chris, allow me to enlighten you: Village Capital first works with sector experts and investors to identify a social and/or environmental problem that entrepreneurs are well-suited to address. Once they’ve determined their problem statement, their local teams begin to seek out relevant stakeholders that are affected by or interested in solving the issue. That way, the program manager on the ground builds up an ecosystem around the issue and identifies entrepreneurs that address it from different angles. Village Capital facilitates connections and relationships with suitable partners and mentors, develops a curriculum aligned with the issue itself and entrepreneurs’ needs. A review “of its first 400 impact enterprises revealed that the most consistent reason enterprises failed is that they were ‘solutions looking for problems’” (Monitor Deloitte, p. 28). When I ask Chris for an example of how Village Capital builds communities to support entrepreneurs, he shares some insights from their agricultural program in Kentucky: “Once you look beyond Silicon Valley, New York, or Boston, entrepreneurs face limited resources to grow and scale their businesses. But Louisville, for example, has a series of unique resources that make it the best place in the country to start an agriculture or logistics business. Our goal is to help communities come together around their unique local strengths to support a group of entrepreneurs–and Louisville has more to offer to agriculture entrepreneurs than anywhere else in the US.”

Monitor Deloitte, p. 28

Monitor Deloitte, p. 28

Secondly, the decision which two entrepreneurs of any given cohort receive investment to move their ideas forward is taken by no-one else but the cohort itself. In the aforementioned report, VilCap states “Giving entrepreneurs investment decision rights encourages a more critical, honest, and candid assessment of business models.” Chris adds: “There is a different dynamic in the room when participants know that they as peers have a say in who receives investment to take their venture to the next level. Their feedback is critical yet fruitful and they work hard because they all know what’s at stake.” The selected two enterprises receive $50,000 as investment based on six criteria:

  1. entrepreneur and team
  2. product
  3. customers and competition
  4. financials
  5. outcomes (impact and scales), and
  6. investor liquidity

According to VilCap this democratized model of investment “gives a fair shot to all entrepreneurs, regardless of background, ZIP code, or prior access to opportunity. The best solutions, not the best pitches, resumes, or connections, tend to get funding.” (website).

Thirdly, Village Capital doesn’t speak of social entrepreneurs. Chris: “We work with problem-solvers, impact has to be at the core of the business. In some cases, the term ‘social entrepreneurs” sends a negative signal to traditional investors. For that reason, many of our entrepreneurs would never identify as “social,” even though their businesses are aimed at solving problems that are incredibly important to the future of society.” I have had a lot of controversies about the usage of and need for the differentiation of the term ‘social entrepreneur’; I wish that I could refer to “problem solvers” and be understood by anyone outside the space. I still think they work with social entrepreneurs, call it what you will.

Some other fun facts about Village Capital:

  • They work with for-profit ventures only. Prerequisite is that they have not raised more than US$ 1 million in outside capital.
  • Their enterprises have a survival rate of 93%, have served over 6 million customers, created some 6,000 jobs and raised about US$ 80 million in funding.
  • They are constantly growing.

Village Capital has been performing well and is engaged in some really interesting research. Pick up Bridging the Pioneer Gap, Accelerating Impact or this article on Management Innovation Exchange to learn more about their approach.