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.


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