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Social Enterprise Bootcamp in Seven Steps

   /   Nov 29th, 2011National, New York City, News

Directed at budding social entrepreneurs, Social Enterprise Bootcamp, a recent two day workshop organized by students at Columbia, NYU and the School of Visual Arts, offered practical advice from an impressive array of speakers. Here are a few of the key take-aways:

A social enterprise can change the world, but only a part of it.

Greg van Kirk, founder of the New Development Solutions Group and of the micro-consignment model, told participants, “Social entrepreneurship is when people tell you you’re crazy, that your idea will never take off, but you decide it’s important enough to do anyway.” With a lofty vision, deep conviction for your cause, and solid execution capability, almost anything is possible. At the same time, however, the best social enterprises know their limits. No business can change everything, van Kirk said, and businesses that attempt to do too much will inevitably fail. Instead, he advised participants to pick what they want to influence and do it well.

Expect bumps along the way.

Starting a business, especially a social enterprise, is not easy. The speakers, many of whom were social entrepreneurs themselves, had no qualms about sharing their past and current obstacles in getting their businesses off the ground. Joanna Opot of TerraCycle, for instance, discussed the challenges all businesses face as they begin to scale up, and mentioned some ways her business is currently trying to overcome them. Joyce Meng of Givology advised participants to “keep it cheap” for as long as possible, so as to survive the unavoidable growing pains. “Do you really need an office in the early stages?” she asked. Or will it make your business more likely to sink if something goes wrong?

Do what you love.

Keynote speaker Jeffrey Hollender, a co-founder of  Seventh Generation spoke to the importance of “doing what you love.” The process of opening a social enterprise is difficult, he said, and without a deep commitment to your cause, it will be easy to find exit opportunities. He also discussed the importance of developing a strong mission and set of values. In many cases, he said, these intangibles are more important and longer lasting than the product.

Design your business around your consumer.

Design thinking, or “human-centered design,” is important for almost any social enterprise. Jeff Chapin of IDEO explained how design thinking goes far beyond the aesthetics of a product or service, and often requires re-engineering entire business models and processes to focus on the consumer. He gave the audience examples from the water and sanitation world, where design thinkers made water filters, latrines, and mobile toilet systems with the consumer’s needs and preferences in mind.

Don’t undervalue your product/service.

It is common for social entrepreneurs, especially new ones, to undervalue the novelty of their offerings, and therefore undercharge for them. To illustrate this point, Opot of TerraCycle told participants her own story. “When we started making partnerships, we found that everyone was interested in partnering with us,” she said. It’s exciting in the beginning, Opot said, but after a point, she realized the real reason for the interest was that their prices were too low. “When we hiked up our prices, nobody even blinked,” she said.

Dot your i’s and cross your t’s.

Without basic logistical details in place, even social enterprises with rock star leaders and revolutionary business models can fail. To avoid this, some workshops focused on the legal, financial, and other backend processes needed to bring businesses to success. Speakers gave advice on how to register their businesses, how to forecast financials, how to engage good lawyers, and more.


One session asked participants to put everything away and spend the next forty-five minutes simply reflecting on what they had learned. Some rolled their eyes and left the session (“this isn’t what I paid money for!”), smartphones in hand, but I heard very good feedback from those who sat through it. “We’ve learned so much this weekend,” one participant told me, “and we never take time to just sit and consider what it all means.”

Photo Courtesy of Social Enterprise Bootcamp

2 Responses

  1. Thomas says:

    I developed a business model that can sell a product/service, and rebate 100% of the purchase, or make the monthly financed payments.


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