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  •  GSBI Welcomes Pears Challenge

    Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014

    There are 3.7 billion people in the world living under $3 a day, representing a largely untapped market with an estimated $5 trillion in purchasing power waiting for quality products that improve their lives. Israel’s entrepreneurs are admired all over the world for their ability to innovate beyond their borders, and it is the marriage of this innovativeness and desire to serve others that has led the Pears Innovation for International Development Program at the Hartog School of Government and Policy at Tel Aviv University to launch the "Pears Challenge" in partnership with GSBI.

    The Pears Challenge seeks to identify, support, and nurture the talent of entrepreneurs devoted to alleviating poverty in the developing world through innovation. The Challenge will support up to ten teams of Israeli entrepreneurs addressing challenges rooted in the fields of health care, education, agriculture, water, energy, and ICT.

    Over the course of the three-month program in Tel Aviv, the teams of entrepreneurs will gain valuable insights on building a sustainable and financially successful business that will impact the world's poorest people. Then, select participants will win trips to the developing world to further implementation of their innovations.

    Rather than designing their program from scratch, The Pears Challenge decided to join the GSBI Network and leverage the proven GSBI Online curriculum and platform.  Thanks to the financial support of Grand Challenges Canada, the GSBI team has been working with the Pears Challenge to develop a program that will be delivered from March to June. GSBI Director of Strategic Alliances, Pamela Roussos, will travel to Israel in April to contribute as a mentor and subject matter expert.

    We are pleased to share our first-hand experience and in-person guidance to propel this noble effort forward.  Together, we take another step towards meeting the needs of all.

  • "Mentoring Global Startups in Silicon Valley"

    Monday, Aug. 20, 2012

    This OpEd was originally published on and can be found here.

    From August 12 to 24, a group of 19 social entrepreneurs from all over the world is in Silicon Valley for the Global Social Benefit Incubator (GSBI), of the Center for Science, Technology, and Society at Santa Clara University. The program combines months of online mentoring and exercises led by Valley executives and industry experts with a two-week “boot camp” of back-to-back classes, capped by a public business-plan presentation event.  The program is designed to help entrepreneurs expand and magnify the impact of their social ventures, and prepare their business plans for presentation to potential partners and funders.
    Some of the participants at the GSBI are sharing dispatches from the 10th annual GSBI with Dowser. Dr. Paul Meissner, one of the 70 mentors who volunteer their time to work with social entrepreneurs, shared his thoughts.
    Every year, I look forward to mid-August, when the cohort of social entrepreneurs comes to the Global Social Benefit Incubator.  This year I am privileged to work with Hugo Verkuijl, CEO of Mali Biocarburant who produces bio-oils and fuels that are generated locally.
    For mentoring to have its greatest impact, it must be a life-changing experience for both the mentor and the entrepreneur.  Whether the social entrepreneur is advanced in developing his business, or is just nucleating an idea, I find that mentoring is more than simply “giving back,” or sharing real-life experience from the Silicon Valley.  Let’s face it, many parts of the world are as innovative, as fast moving, and breakthrough-producing as we are.  
    For me it is an in-depth way to open my eyes to parts of the world I would never have known otherwise, and a path to relationships I would never have had had I simply decided to write a check to a worthy international aid organization.
    Maybe the easiest way to describe what I mean is to relate my experience with Global Easy Water Products (GEWP) back in 2005. Suresh Subramanian, the brilliant and hardworking board member of this for-profit offshoot of the non-profit International Development Enterprises India (IDEI), where he was COO, came to Santa Clara to get help create a business model to reach subsistence farmers who could use drip irrigation to provide food for their families.  It became clear right away that just like many Silicon Valley startups, he had trouble deciding on his target markets and didn’t understand how much money he needed to scale. 
    Suresh had a heart for subsistence small-plot farmers who desperately needed help but were expensive to educate and hard to reach given his limited distribution network.  We spent time together online and then for two weeks on SCU’s campus and found a new way to segment his markets. He realized in the end that to impact subsistence farmers he needed to first focus on more-established farmers who understood drip irrigation and could save a lot of money by using his much cheaper solution.  Once his distribution channel was in place, he could better reach those in most need of the social benefit of his product.
    Suresh then took this model and worked with agribusiness enterprises in India like sugarcane mills, which agreed to provide very short-term agricultural loans to farmer to buy the drip systems.  In exchange, they received price guarantees on the sugarcane produced.
    After sorting out the market, Suresh presented me and my fellow mentor, a Silicon Valley private investor named Bob Dench, with a financial model using quarterly and annual figures.  He concluded he needed just over $100K to launch his expansion.  Not having the least experience in agriculture, I completely missed a critical issue with the model that was caught right away by Bob, who has years of experience in agri-business.  The key to the financial model was MONTHLY cash burn, taking into account the seasonal planting and revenue cycles of the business.  This simple change to the calculation meant the real cash need was more than 5x larger than the quarterly model predicted. 
    Getting this insider’s perspective on rural markets, agricultural business and Indian markets brought me to a much better understanding of our small planet, and taught me how an idea and a relationship can impact many thousands of lives.
    The energy and excitement created during these late-night working sessions led to celebrations as Bob and I watched Suresh get $1MM in equity funding from Acumen Fund and successfully ramp his business to $4MM per year. GEWP is still a successful for-profit enterprise, seven years later.  
    Like anything that requires you to really understand something that is foreign or to step far outside your comfort zone, being a mentor to a global social entrepreneur is a thrill, an exciting way to challenge your creativity and innovation in ways even Silicon Valley never imagined. I’ve come away different as a human being, richer and more connected in a globalizing world that needs innovation and collaboration more than ever.
    Paul Meissner is a native of the Bay Area and a graduate of UC Berkeley.  After receiving a Ph.D. in engineering from Stanford, he spent nearly 25 years in Silicon Valley in companies ranging from Coherent Inc. to Applied Materials.  More recently he has held CEO positions in the telecom and renewable energy sectors.

  •  The Secret Sauce

    Friday, Jul. 6, 2012
    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 (GSBITM). 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. 


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