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.”



Mentor Capital Network

On the late afternoon of my first day in D.C. I found myself walking through Shaw, leaving the business-like city centre behind. Lots of people were on the street, school kids were roaming the sidewalk in their yellow uniforms – I was in the middle of the end-of-day buzz with one more interview to go. Arriving at WeWork Wonder Bread Co-Working space, I was welcomed by Ian Fisk – founder and long-time Executive Director of Mentor Capital Network, formerly William James Foundation. We sat on the terrace on the third floor overlooking the busy streets below. The sun was beginning to set while the WeWork staff were setting up for an event inside.

Mentor Capital Network supports for-profit social entrepreneurs in building their companies by matching them with mentors from their network of about one thousand seasoned entrepreneurs, investors and partners from other sectors. Their main program – the William James Sustainable Business Plan Collaboration – works with 100 to 150 entrepreneurs each year providing them with mentoring, feedback, and cash investment (for winners). Ian explains: “Out of approximately 500 applicants, we choose the best 100 to 150 for-profits that are driven by a social and/or environmental mission that makes their company stronger.”

Mission drives Margin: We focus on for-profit startups with a social/environmental mission. Click To Tweet

For each participating team, we assemble a mentor team of ten to fifteen experts from the entrepreneur’s field who we think can provide helpful feedback and experience. We choose professionals who understand the challenges the startup is facing and who are not competitors. The mentors have three options of getting involved once they have provided their feedback:

  1. Stay anonymous and not be contacted again (8%)
  2. Available to answer specific questions about their feedback (42%)
  3. Get more involved (over 50%)

Based on the feedback, the startups decide who they want to work with, then we connect them. During the last round, one of the mentors called me and said ‘I really don’t have time for this, but I will be their CFO until they find someone to fill this position.’ The mentors who decide to get more involved take this responsibility very seriously.”

Mentor Capital Network's Annual Gathering 2015

Mentor Capital Network’s Annual Gathering 2015

I ask Ian what he thinks a successful support program should have: “Most importantly, it shouldn’t get in the way of entrepreneurs running their business. It is important to stay connected and to help them think through the roles/positions that they will need to run their business. Beyond that, I believe support programs should focus on the company as a whole, not just the funding possibilities. It’s not all about getting that first funding.”

What about the social entrepreneurship landscape in D.C.? “There is a strong ecosystem for social enterprise in D.C. The Net Impact chapter, for example, has been active for 13 years and gives people in the industry a gathering point. A few of us supporters get together every two months or so at Impact Hub to talk about what’s going on, it’s informal.”

The advantage of Mentor Capital Network is that they have been around for a decade and have managed to build up a strong network of mentors around the world who like to support startups through their industry knowledge and entrepreneurial expertise. Ian gave a striking example: “If you are an entrepreneur who has built a solar plant in Uganda, we will bring you back as a mentor for an entrepreneur who wants to do the same in Pakistan. Entrepreneurs love sharing their knowledge. Plus, they have a good grip of what the challenges are.” The beauty of networks is that they grow stronger through personal connections and such positive mentoring experiences.

While mentoring is an immensely crucial support factor for evolving startups, I’m not sure that it is a stand-alone mechanism. It is less suitable for early-stage startups who haven’t learned their trade yet than for those who have been running for one to three years and are looking to refine their business model or scale up. In that sense, I think Mentor Capital Network provides a great service in enhancing social capital in the sector.