Veterans of Silicon Valley may differ in style and personality, but they tend to have in common a certain business DNA—the kind coded for fast growth and rapid scaling, for promoting innovation and bringing ambitious ideas to fruition.
If that’s what made them successful in the corporate world, it’s also a big reason for the success we’ve had working with social enterprises around the world through our signature program, the Global Social Benefit Incubator
). Indeed, ever since its inception in 2003, that program has been built around our network of volunteer mentors—currently some 60, mostly Silicon Valley executives, financiers, consultants and VCs who share their entrepreneurial expertise with each GSBI cohort. In addition, they share their humanity, their ability to listen and coach, their humility and respect for others, and their admiration for fellow entrepreneurs attempting to create solutions for those who don’t have what we take for granted.
Our GSBI alumni tell us that the unique qualities of these mentors are our “secret sauce.” And as we celebrate the GSBI’s 10th anniversary this year, it seems a fitting moment to talk about who they are, what they do and what’s in store for the future of the program.
But first, some context.
Launched in 2003, the GSBI came about just as many seasoned business people were reaching a stage in life when they were eager to give back. Having forged highly successful careers in software, electronics, and other fields, they were looking for an opportunity to share their experiences and insights and in so doing help make the world a better place.
With its aim of empowering entrepreneurs with a social mission to build and scale up financially sustainable organizations, the GSBI offered the entrepreneurs experienced guides to help analyze and refine their business models. And with this, gave them a chance to channel their passion for positive change in everything from education and healthcare to clean electricity and agriculture—and to do even more of it.
It was a perfect match and, for both parties, it has had a palpable impact. Of the program’s 139-award winning alumni, 132 (nearly 95%) are still working in their social ventures. More than half are expanding, growing revenues faster than expenses. And when asked to rank the various features of the program, nearly all of them put interaction with their mentors as the most significant element.
So what makes GSBI mentors so good?
For starters, they’re a supremely successful lot. They’ve founded NASDAQ companies, funded famous start-ups, and run major divisions of well-known Silicon Valley firms. They have, on average, more than 25 years of entrepreneurial experience, and many have been involved in multiple Silicon Valley start-ups. They are experienced in all the things we teach in the GSBI curriculum—value proposition, business models, operations, growth plans, presentations to potential impact investors--and they do them very well.
But there’s more to it than their business bona fides. Mentors must also be great listeners-- people with the humility to acknowledge that there’s much they don’t know--people who care more about finding the best way forward than about asserting their own ideas.
Indeed, as former mentor Hardika Shah puts, “the best tool you have may be that you don’t know anything.” That ignorance of the issue, she says—be it clean cookstoves in Haiti or refrigeration in rural India—“allows you to ask the questions everyone else forgot to ask along the way.”
Being a GSBI mentor also requires the ability to establish rapport and trust. “A lot of social entrepreneurs, when you have that initial conversation, they’re very wary of sharing information,” says Shah. “They’re thinking, Who are these people? Do they want to steal my ideas? Who are they sharing this with? They keep their cards to themselves.”
But once that trust has been established, the information comes pouring out. “They realize it’s a risk-free relationship,” she says, “and they tell you about some of their deepest concerns, about their venture’s biggest weaknesses and problems—the kinds of things they would never tell a paid consultant—because they know that you’re someone they can trust, that you have no agenda but to help them.”
Shah, herself a former consultant at Accenture, joined the GSBI in 2004, shortly after a trip to her native India. Having spent the previous ten years in the US, Shah was shocked to find a yawning gap between the country’s educated classes and “those who were being left behind.” Despite the liberalization of the Indian economy and its rapid growth over the previous decade, little seemed to have changed for the country’s poor.
“And I thought to myself, What have I done to help?” That question led Shah to the Tech Awards that Santa Clara University judges and, later, to the Center for Science, Technology and Society, where she met GSBI founding director Jim Koch. “I asked him how I could help, and he told me about the mentor program.” Over the next seven years, Shah served as mentor to 12 social enterprises before quitting her job at Accenture to start Kinara Capital
, a for-profit venture that provides capital access solutions to small businesses across India.
Shah credits that move to her experiences as a mentor. “That gave me the opportunity to learn along with the entrepreneurs, but it also gave me the confidence to go out and do this,” she says. “You know, we go to business school and talk about being an entrepreneur, but to see folks with so much stacked against them and yet doing amazing things—it’s so inspiring.”
Indeed, GSBI mentors routinely remark that they learn more from the social entrepreneurs than the social entrepreneurs could possibly learn from them. That was the case as well for Steven White, CEO of Svaya Nanotechnologies, who began volunteering last year as a GSBI mentor to a social entrepreneur working in Haiti.
“I probably learned a lot more than I could teach him,” White says of his work with Sebastian Africano, the international director of Trees, Water and People
, a social enterprise that designs and builds fuel-efficient cookstoves and delivers them to poor communities throughout Central America.
“Sebastian is a very capable guy. He already had a design he’d developed, and he had a very clear value proposition: if you could produce a more efficient cookstove, you could reduce the consumption of charcoal, saving people money, helping them live healthier lives, and potentially reducing deforestation.”
The challenge, White recalls, was finding the cost point that would incentivize people living in poverty to invest a bit of money in the product. “We came up with a workable model to use carbon credits to offset the cost of manufacturing, which meant that they could effectively give these things away. So we did some research and helped him figure out how that would work from a cash flow perspective. And it all came out very nicely,” he says. “By the end, there was a really clear path to success, and now Sebastian is off doing it.”
In short, mentoring has worked. The ingredients, the personal and professional characteristics of the individuals selected for the job, have been the same since day one. And we believe that consistency has generated a kind of brand-name appeal; to social entrepreneurs around the world, the name GSBI stands for quality.
At least that’s the message we get from the hundreds of applications we receive from social entrepreneurs every year for just 20 open slots in our Silicon Valley program. Now, with the plan and funding to scale the program to serve potentially hundreds per year through GSBI Online, a completely virtual version of the classic GSBI program, the mentor’s role becomes even more important. And several changes are on the horizon.
For one, enrolling more social entrepreneurs means bringing on more mentors. Many of those new mentors will come from outside Silicon Valley and even outside the US, and some will begin to advise social entrepreneurs on the ground in the places they operate. We hope that these in-country mentors will provide greater local insight, much needed networking to partners, and ongoing support after the formal GSBI program has ended.
Of course, even as we expand our mentor ranks—our current cadre of 60 represents a ten-fold increase over the last ten years--we have a mandate to maintain our rigorous standards for involvement in the program. We continue to seek exceptional individuals with that uncommon blend of leadership experience in fast-growth businesses and the human qualities critical to a genuine two-way exchange.
Looking ahead, we know that with the new changes come significant challenges. And while we are firm believers in the power of personal, face-to-face interaction, we’re confident that GSBI Online mentors will be every bit as helpful to, and inspired by, the SEs with whom they work.
For all of us who have had the privilege to serve as mentors, the last ten years have been full of wonderful experiences. We hope that the next ten years will be no less rewarding. And as we go forward, we’d like to hear from you. If you have ideas about how our mentors can amplify their impact on social ventures around the world, don’t hesitate to let us know.
Michael Looney, Ph.D. is the GSBI Mentor Network Director at the Center for Science, Technology, and Society.