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I started learning about social innovation about three years ago. At the time, I was advising the co-founders of a US-based nonprofit empowering youth in Southern Africa. How exactly they empowered youth was a challenging question to ask.

When I first joined the team, the organization had fulfilled its original goal of supporting the youth by giving them cell phones and what I’d call “seed minutes”. They were supposed to work for more minutes and could trade minutes for goods and services. By the time I was communicating with them, they all had email addresses and some were even on Facebook. Now we had to decide what to do next; the youth wanted to meet each other more often, get educational support, and generate income, and this organization had no way of doing that besides loaning money to the youth with no expectation of repayment.  

There were a lot of conference calls, phone calls, and strategic planning sessions. I offered many ideas and action steps for a model that would “graduate” the youth, who had been with the organization for over four years; recruit and admit a new cohort; and create a pool of employment, entrepreneurship, and enrichment opportunities for participants and alumni. What followed was a photography business that lasted one event.

The country the group is from is very small, so my aim was to create a leadership incubator that would prepare participants for their next steps in life. With a dozen “fellows” coming in every year or two, people in the country would notice if we were producing ambitious, engaged, and socially conscious leaders fairly quickly. I imagined our alums being given the robust foundational support that would propel them for success in business, civil society, or government. Maybe one of them could become prime minister. We’ll never know.

I wasn’t familiar with social enterprises at the time, so I didn’t know that a whole constellation of ideas, resources, and networks was emerging (or had already emerged) into a sector. I took it for granted that the businesses our youth set up would promote social good, but I didn’t have the language to explain that model or concrete examples of how that had worked.

I didn’t come to social innovation so much as run to it. When I left the organization, I was fed up with old-school nonprofits, these well-intentioned, resource-poor entities that were either too naive or too inert (sometimes both) to compete for a shrinking pool of funding from the same donors. I needed an option where the principles of social good could prevail, this time guided by operational/fiscal discipline and a wider array of funding options. I was looking for the bridge between the grassroots organization and the multinational corporation.

There still isn’t that one bridge. There are somanyconferences and workshops that try to address issues around fundraising and collaboration for social enterprises and the organizations that support them. There are a feworganizations that have emerged as a bridge between the boardroom and the field, but the sector as a whole hasn’t reached that point. How can it, when so many people have never heard the terms “social innovation” or “social impact” and even people in the sector disagree on the difference, if any exists, between a “social business” and a “social enterprise”?

When your goal is to reach the base of the pyramid, to design products and services that empower the poor and then catalyze those same people as producers of more good products and services, the day-to-day work can be draining. From funding gaps to cultural barriers to ignorance of what to ask, social entrepreneurs, social “intrapreneurs”, and the people who try to support them are doing hard work in the face of higher stakes. But what else can we do? Let the problems persist?

Startup Weekend can’t dictate the answers to questions around how to recruit and retain a team, whether to raise grants or seek impact investment, or how to engage large institutional partners like the UN or the government. While we can’t give you the answers, we can build small bridges for you to use: a room full of people who will hear your pitch without judgement, connections with mentors who have struggled and even failed at times, and concrete feedback that you can use to continue pursuing your vision on Monday morning.

What I’ve realized is that there can’t be one bridge for a social innovator. Social innovation is one field that can’t discriminate based on region or sector. A healthcare innovation in the Middle East is just as valid as an education innovation in Latin America and both demand a different set of ethical, financial, and operational considerations. And that’s what you will get with Startup Weekend: consideration. We will take you and your idea seriously and foster a space where all 54 program hours will be used to help you grow. If that matters to you, join us. All are welcome.

Karthik Shankar