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.




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.



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.”