Promoting Social Entrepreneur Ventures

New York, N.Y.  People often ask, “what is the difference between a social entrepreneur and a regular entrepreneur?”  The basic answer is what they do with their profit.  Traditional entrepreneurship is about providing goods or services and making a profit on the transactions.  A social entrepreneur uses part of their profit, such as the company followed here, Level Up Village, to improve society.  The “social” aspect can also be in the business model itself, such as an eco-resort, who would use a portion of it’s profits to maintain the costlier operations required.  They are a new breed of business, a hybrid of profit and non-profit

DSC_1400 - Version 2Neesha Rahim and Amy McCooe.

No insult intended to standard businesses, many bring something much needed to society, “hello sanitation engineers!”   Many of these businesses support charities too through foundations or in-kind donations…”so what is the difference again” you may ask?  The social entrepreneur model seeks to improve their community, society or world beyond their own customers.  According to a Harvard Business Review article, ‘What Makes Social Entrepreneurs Special,’ these businesspeople want to put themselves out of work by fundamentally solving “the problem that their solution is designed to address.”   A challenging paradox- wanting to be good businesspeople who will eventually go out of business.

In following a growing social entrepreneurial venture, Level Up Village, it is easy to see the draw for those who want to take on that challenge.  Level Up was founded by two accomplished working mothers with graduate degrees and backgrounds in non-profit and finance.  Neesha Rahim has experience working with groups such as Unicef, Global Fund for Children and Seeds of Peace.  Amy McCooe has consulted for Pricewaterhouse Coopers and has experience launching a new business in her role as VP of Marketing of a start up that was part of Entrepreneurs in Residence at Warburg Pincus.  The meld of their respective experience creates a force for social change, through education, that will support its own expansion.  McCooe says they chose to do this because “we believe that giving education is more valuable than giving money.”

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Students at People Improvement Organisation in Cambodia learn how to make a solar lamp with their 3D printer from Level Up Village.

Level Up has not entered the arena to oppose traditional humanitarian giving.  They are building a business around the knowledge the international development community has long known- education is the way forward for any society.  In the poorest communities this means the establishment of schools to teach basic literacy and numeracy.  Developing countries with some schooling are best served through programs that offer students an education that will allow them to live healthier lives and participate in their local economy beyond a subsistence level.  In a country like the US, with a well established school system, the goal is to continually improve upon the standards in a way that helps students become better learners, better creators and better thinkers.  In the case of Level UP the goal is to combine the latter models.

Level Up Village offers a range of innovative STEM after school programs for third to sixth graders in the US.  The classes are fun, for example Global Doctors in Training that includes dissections, Global Inventors in Training to promote creativity, innovation, 3-D printing or physics via Mine Craft.  Other companies offer 3D printing and Mine Craft, the difference is that for every class LUV offers in the US the same class is given to a partner school in a developing country.  This is the key to what makes it a social entrepreneurial entity, the US portion is serving a growing industry in after-school programs like a traditional business while the international part is serving a desperate need in poorer countries.  In addition all the children learn about their international partners, especially important in the US where we may lack a global focus in school and have a standard of living that leaves us ignorant of how much of the world lives.  The children interact via weekly video exchange and collaborate- for example a class in Austin, Texas is helping their Cambodian partner build solar lamps that really work.

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Global Doctors in Training students learn dissection in a New York classroom.

The programs are well crafted and the social aspect is a major difference from their competitors.  The business has grown 400% since being founded in late 2012 and the founders have chosen to forego a pay check for the first two years.  Now LUV has reached the point of seeking outside funding with help from a program by The Refinery, an accelerator- or new business assistance program- in Westport, Connecticut that brings experienced entrepreneurs together with female led start-up companies. Level Up Village were chosen to be part of fall 2014 class and worked for twelve weeks alongside other social start-ups including Planet Fuel, an organic low sugar juice for tweens, and Ware, a game platform designed by a Harvard mathematician to engage children with ADHD.

LUV participated in a Refinery presentation event to angel and VC funders who were impressed.  Who wouldn’t be?  Some.  Event speaker, and potential investor, Adam Quintan shared that the positive impression does not mean traditional investors will come.   They are put off by the extra baggage.  Despite the number of social entrepreneurs in the program, Quintan was clear that these businesses have a harder time looking for investors because profit is not their only bottom line.

He was there, in part, because he follows investment greats such as Warren Buffet who has been “a contrarian”.  This is what needs to change in the market.  Investors must begin to think putting money in a social enterprise is normal, not contrarian.  We, the people who give investors our money, must communicate our interest in it and our desire to look for opportunities in that marketplace.  Lynne-Marie Paquette, who studied Social Entrepreneurship and Finance at MIT-Sloane, points out  that “a well-run, sustainable social enterprise can be very attractive to investors who share the same ideals, as demonstrated by the emergence of funds purely focused on socially responsible investing.  Whether through entrepreneurship or by making a financial investment, savvy business minds can come together to make the world a better place.”

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3D printer at People Improvement Organization in Cambodia.

Investors know they are sharing a bit of their profit with Level Up Village overseas.  How else could these schools offer a class in 3-D printing or any other STEM subject?  LUV is helping build a world of future entrepreneurs, doctors, engineers, mathematicians and even philanthropists across the globe.  It seems that would raise the bottom line for everyone in the not too distant future.

The Refinery Ct. event was a great idea.  The backgrounds of the women company founders read like a Nobel science or economic prize casting call.  If all ventures started out with talent like this the future economic success of the US would be assured.  There were many “a-ha” moments in the audience followed by a host of “why didn’t I think of these things?”  All of the ideas were marketable and scalable.  All of the start-ups were relevant to someone.  The important next step is for the rest of us to understand and bank upon the knowledge that social entrepreneurship is relevant to all of us.

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Susan De Rafelo
Susie De Rafelo is a humanitarian worker who divides her time between the US and overseas. She is the founder of S3 Works sustainability consulting and Hands In fair trade marketplace. Upon joining the non-profit world she earned a B.A. In development and an M.A. Humanitarian Services and has worked with groups in Afghanistan, Cambodia, Nepal, Nicaragua, Rwanda, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

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