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.”



Halcyon Incubator

I arrived in D.C. on the 9.35 a.m. Amtrak on a hot September morning. My first field visit of the day was Halcyon Incubator. I had only ever experienced D.C. in the rain and/or snow, yet that day I walked through Georgetown in sandals soaking up the sunshine. I spotted Halcyon House from a distance: a gorgeous dark brick mansion surrounded by lush green grounds. I rang the bell and was greeted by Ryan Ross and – in his hand – a much-desired cup of coffee (did I mention the 6 a.m. start that day?). The entrance hall to Halcyon is majestic yet simple and tasteful where you can see a staircase to the right and more rooms straight ahead. I dropped my bag and we began a tour of the house.

As we climbed up the white staircase, Ryan told me about the Halcyon Incubator Program which was launched merely one year ago and was getting ready to welcome its second cohort just two days after my visit: “We recruit eight ventures per cohort and work with them for a total of 18 months. During the first five months, they live and work here while participating in our core program.” That’s right. Halcyon runs a residential program in which participants live under the same roof while developing their ventures. “The core programming includes weekly pitch sessions and a set of skill series during which we help them build up expertise in areas that they need to run their ventures. These first five months culminate in a Demo Day where all Fellows pitch their ventures to partners and investors. Over the next seven months, Fellows still work out of Halcyon and make use of our mentor and partner network. After this first year in the program, we offer them work space at a reduced rate to further their ventures.”

Halcyon's 1st cohort

Halcyon’s 1st cohort

As we arrived on the top floor of the mansion, we were chatting in the center of a white sunlit room with windows on all sides – the library. On each side of the room a staircase leads up to mezzanine levels decorated with hammocks and cushions. “This is where most of the programming takes place.” Ryan explained. We walked into a smaller room next door: The walls were painted a light grey and with startup-notes all over them, a prominent “DO NOT ERASE!” above each section. Ryan walked me through a few more rooms: a dark-brown boardroom featuring a long wooden table with twelve chairs on each side. Everything here says Serious Business.

As we were overlooking the garden out back, taking in D.C. noon skyline and watching miniature cars speed across the bridge below, I asked Ryan what the ecosystem for social entrepreneurship in D.C. was like. “It is very underrated. By nature, a lot of people in this city focus on creating a positive impact: The government is here; people are concerned with the quality and efficiency of public service provision. You don’t usually think of D.C. as a startup hub, but universities are playing a big role and it’s really coming along.”

In the basement, we found ourselves in a long tunnel-like computer lab, and the event space already set up for their intake-celebration two days later. “As far as our application goes, we look for talented idea-stage entrepreneurs who want to create a positive impact in society. We scan for applicants who have demonstrated their ability to execute and who work on a relevant problem. Finally, we assess the level of innovation and sustainability of the solution they put forward.”

Students working at the top floor library during Halcyon's 2015 spring Hackathon

Students working at the top floor library during Halcyon’s 2015 spring Hackathon

The next morning I met with Amelia Friedman, Fellow of the first cohort and founder of Student Language Exchange. As we chatted over coffee in the hotel lobby at the Renaissance, she told me about her initial startup experience: ”When I first started working on the idea I didn’t see myself as an entrepreneur. But I fell into this community of social innovators at Brown University. Everyone was so warm and supportive; they cared about me as a person, and then about my venture. I think that’s what it comes down to: People who run support programs need to be genuine and transparent, and care about the entrepreneur, not just the venture.” Amelia was about to complete her Fellowship at Halcyon and was toying with the idea of starting her next venture. “Halcyon has been great. They have a good program and a great community; they are really good at finding the right people to be mentors, peers, and experts to help get your startup off the ground. Halcyon does an incredible job in selecting the right people for their program; there is only one person in the world I would start a company with, and I met him through this program.”

I have only come across one other residential support program – the DO School, where Fellows share an apartment for the first ten weeks while on campus. This cohort-approach – especially when sharing a roof – has its upsides. Participants get to know each other and each other’s ventures, they build trust and play on each other’s strength, often they remain friends long after the program ends. They build up their own support network with their peers within the Halcyon program. At the same time, it is crucial to constantly bring in new wind, new thoughts, and people from the outside that raise critical questions and challenge existing business plans. Amelia, for example, made an effort to connect with the D.C. startup community beyond Halcyon to stay inspired.

Halcyon’s advantage is its strong network of partners and funders. They are able to provide participants with a US $10,000 living stipend and, as mentioned before, accommodation for the first five months of the program – which is worth a lot in a city like D.C. Being able to connect their participants to relevant policy makers and winning corporate support for their skill series speaks for their networking success. I look forward to Halcyon’s impact report and seeing what their cohorts cook up!