Social Innovation Fellowship Helps Stanford GSB Grads Make an Impact
The focus on social impact at Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB) led Ronnie Washington to do something bold. He applied to the most selective business school in the world—and nowhere else.
Originally from outside the District of Columbia, Washington attended historically black, all-male Morehouse College and interned on Wall Street while an undergraduate. But those summer stints at Lehmans and Barclays led him to decide finance was not really for him. Upon graduating from Morehouse, he switched gears and took a job in consulting at Deloitte, serving mainly health insurers and large commercial banks as clients.
In 2012, Deloitte sent Washington and some colleagues to tour various business schools, Stanford among them. “I was taken with Stanford and the culture at that point, but I wasn’t convinced that business school was right for me yet,” he recalls. Also while at Deloitte, he took part in a pro bono project in Panama with an organization called Global Brigades, helping grow a microfinance program designed to better the community by empowering its members to better themselves.
“I really fell in love with that work, and when I returned to the States I decided that was what I wanted to be doing,” he remembers. He put in his notice at Deloitte and moved to Ghana, to work for Global Brigades building out a similar microfinance program there. “Building community-based banks in rural Ghana presented lots of challenges, but also a lot of opportunity,” he says. He went on to lead the microfinance program with his Ghanaian counterparts, becoming program manager responsible for both microfinance and small business consulting.
Stanford Stood Out for Business School
Toward the end of 2013, Washington began thinking more seriously about business school, looking at it as a way to fine-tune his management skills. “Stanford stood out to me because it had such a focus on impact—the culture there was about improving yourself and then going out and improving the world,” he says.
In addition to the impression his early visit made on him, Washington also knew about the Stanford Institute for Innovation in Developing Economies (SEED) and had read about the Social Innovation Fellowship (SIF) program, which provides funding and support to recent graduates seeking to start their own socially or environmentally focused nonprofit. “It was clear to me that there was a lot of effort and money and resources put behind their focus on impact.”
“By the time it came to apply, Stanford was very top of mind,” Washington says. So much so, in fact, that he didn’t even bother applying anywhere else.
In Washington’s case, such a singular focus paid off. He was accepted, and when he arrived on campus he found even more opportunities to focus on social impact than he’d even imagined. For starters, he got involved with the Social Innovation Club, one of the largest student clubs on campus. “I knew I wanted to do something in the impact realm and that I was interested in financial services for low-income folks both internationally and domestically, but I didn’t know what that meant for me,” he says. The Social Impact Club exposed him to a lot, providing insights into what his path could look like.
He also participated in some of Stanford’s more entrepreneurial focused programs, including a program through the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies that allows students to complete their summer internship at small startups that otherwise wouldn’t be able to fund or host interns. Washington interned at Newport Beach, CA–based RevolutionCredit, a behavioral analytics fintech firm. “That experience provided me close and clear exposure to social enterprise and what it takes to be an entrepreneur,” he says.
Direct from B-School to Launching a Social Impact Organization
But it wasn’t until his second year as an MBA student that he decided to apply to the Social Innovation Fellowship program he’d read about during that visit several years before with Deloitte. “It became very clear to me that SIF would be a great way to launch a social impact organization right after business school,” he explains.
Stanford launched its unique Social Innovation Fellowship (SIF) program eight years ago and now counts 15 fellows among its alumni. “We are looking for students who are developing a new idea to solve a social or environmental problem and want to create a nonprofit organization to address it,” explains Bernadette Clavier, director of the Center for Social Innovation (CSI), which oversees the SIF program. Students come to the program with varying levels of advancement, she continues. “Some came really clearly for that—to create a specific organization they already had in mind,” she says. “But others discover the problem and solution they want to focus on while they are here with us. We take them where they are and help them get to that next level.”
The process to become a Social Innovation Fellow is a very competitive one. “There are a number of great ideas, but we are only going to give the fellowship to the best of the best,” Clavier says.
To be considered, second-year MBA students must first present their theory of change and business model as part of a written application. “They are being judged for both the merit of their idea and their potential as leaders,” Clavier explains. Everyone who submits an application then presents in front of a panel of judges, with a smaller group advancing to a final round. The best ideas—one to two per year—are awarded a generous $110,000 stipend and access to the CSI network and staff for the entire year after they graduate. There is an additional option for team entries—in those cases the stipend is higher, $180,000, Clavier adds.
A panel of judges representing the worlds of philanthropy, social enterprise, investing and academia helps decide who will win the coveted fellowships. Two separate panels judge the semi-final and final rounds, made up of 10 judges total, many of them GSB alumni. “It is really important to us to come up with the right composition on that panel to make the right decision,” Clavier says. Judges, supported by volunteers performing due diligence, carefully examine the merit of each idea, reading applications, conducting in-person interviews and listening to pitches. “At the end of the day we have a really robust, animated, passionate discussion and come to a consensus,” she says.
Hard Work Pays Off
“The application took more time than I expected it to,” Washington concedes. “One section is very clearly about the idea—what is the problem, what are you looking to solve, what is your solution, what would your fellowship year look like, what are the main milestones you want to have throughout that year,” he explains. “Another part was about the person—why you, why now.” Each part demands significant time and energy. “The models and the actual business plan took time—but I took an equal amount of time doing the self -reflection,” he says.
His approach proved the right one. Washington was selected as one of two 2016 Social Innovation Fellows. “That was one of the best calls I have ever gotten,” he says of hearing the news the same evening he presented to the final panel of judges. “Second only to when I got into Stanford,” he adds.
What Was Washington’s Winning Idea?
Washington spent the summer after graduation networking on Stanford’s campus before relocating to Washington, DC, to found Onward, a venture designed to help employers set up programs that will encourage their workers to save, protecting them in the case of unexpected expenses such as illness or car repair.
“The whole mission is to provide a financial safety network to every worker,” Washington explains. Low-wage workers, in particular, can be very vulnerable to financial shocks. “It can be anything from a parking ticket to your car breaking down,” he says. “In a lot of cases, these folks are extremely hard workers—providing for their families—and these financial shocks will really throw them off.” Onward seeks to help employers establish benefit programs that help employees build up savings so they don’t have to resort to payday lenders in the event of an unexpected expense. The programs also provide resources and education so that workers can feel empowered, secure in the belief that if something does come up, they will know how to handle it, he continues.
Thanks to SIF, Washington is now launching a series of pilot programs, including one with a Missouri manufacturing plant with 65 employees. Through the Onward program, these employees can opt in to save a portion of their paycheck in a savings account toward a goal of their choosing. “If an emergency arises, they can either tap into their savings or get a low-interest loan,” explains Washington. Throughout the pilot, Washington is conducting thorough surveys to determine the benefits for both employee and employer. Does the program help increase the workers’ sense of security? Do they actually save more? Can they successfully overcome financial shocks when they arise? Do employers experience lower turnover as a result of offering the program? Does worker attendance improve as employees feel more stable and can get to work in case of unforeseen difficulties?
“I feel extremely lucky to have this opportunity—this SIF year—to be able to test something like this. Being a Social Innovation Fellow, l feel really empowered to charge forward,” says Washington. He was really passionate about his idea and would have tried to continue building it out on his own over the summer without the support of SIF, he says, but he also had an offer in hand to return to consulting after the GSB. “The Social Innovation Fellowship gave me the security to not take that offer and to actually focus on building this out,” he says. Thanks to SIF, he has the luxury of taking his time and really doing the empathy work—interviewing workers at different employers to understand their needs—that he felt was absolutely necessary to success.