Social Innovation Fellowship Helps Stanford GSB Grads Make an Impact
SIF Allows Students to Focus on School, Founders to Focus on Building and Testing Concepts
Part of the beauty of the SIF program is that it allows MBA students to focus on their studies while at Stanford, secure in the knowledge that they will have a full year—complete with funding and support—to prove their concept before seeking additional funding. Without such a program, founders face a Catch-22 of sorts, Clavier explained in a November 2016 article on the school’s website.
“We want them to be focused on their academics while at school, and that doesn’t give them much time to be on the ground to really understand the problems they aspire to address, and to test assumptions,” she said. “Yet when you are looking for funding, foundations and other sources of funding expect the proof of concept.”
SIF Ventures Abound Both Domestically and Abroad
Though Washington may first have gotten a taste of the work he is so passionate about while abroad in Panama and Ghana, his own venture is focused stateside, at least initially. Classmate Rajan Patel (MBA ’16), who was awarded last year’s second Social Innovation Fellowship along with Washington, is in Bangalore launching an entrepreneurship and design thinking academy called SparkEd, geared toward helping Indian youth develop the skills they need to launch their own social ventures or embrace entrepreneurship.
Alumni of the SIF program likewise have used their fellowship years in widely different ways and in divergent parts of the globe—and their paths to Stanford have been equally as varied. Gayatri Datar (MBA ’14), applied to Harvard and Wharton as well as Stanford, recognizing that all three leading business schools had a social lens of some sort. Coming in with eight years of international development experience—including as a consultant at Dalberg Global Development Advisors, which she describes as similar to McKinsey or Boston Consulting Group (BGC) but focused on international development—she had always been set in her career path. In addition to her time at Dalberg, she also interned at the Ministry of Finance of Liberia and BCG and worked as a consultant for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the World Bank. But amidst all that, she hadn’t really had a lot of entrepreneurial role models, she says. “At Stanford, at least half of the class is working on something or dabbling in something—it’s really in the water.” And it drew her in. (To be fair, she didn’t exactly choose Stanford over Harvard, because in the end she completed a joint degree program, earning her MBA from the GSB and her MPA in international development from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.)
Design Thinking + Social Impact + Entrepreneurship = Stanford
Once she got to Stanford she took a class on designing for extreme affordability. Working on interdisciplinary teams drawn from the business, design, engineering and other Stanford schools, the students work to design a solution to a challenge, usually one from the developing world. “One out of every three teams’ projects became a real thing,” she says enthusiastically. “I had heard about design thinking and felt like everything I read about it would break my brain in a really good way—and it did.”
Datar only learned about SIF after she got to Stanford—and she frankly never thought that she was an entrepreneur at all. “I thought I was going to go back to Dalberg and get school paid for as a result,” she says. Plans change.
While at Stanford, Datar took a two-week trip to Rwanda as part of the designing for extreme affordability class. “Part of design thinking’s approach is to spend a lot of time empathizing with your customers,” explains Datar. “Day-to-day living with Rwandans in their homes, taking care of their children, really helped us develop an expertise of what it’s like to live in a home that has a dirt floor,” she says. Dirt floors cause significant health problems, and yet 80 percent of Rwandans can only afford to live on dirt because concrete is prohibitively expensive, Datar explains.
Partnered with a design group, Datar’s mandate during that trip was to look for something they could potentially create to improve quality of life. “The floor was so visceral and so obvious as a huge obstacle to health—I learned firsthand what it was like to try to clean it, do chores on it, live on it,” she recalls. And then she returned to Stanford to invent a new flooring technique.
After time spent pursuing no shortage of bad ideas—“fail early, fail often,” Datar encourages would-be entrepreneurs—Datar’s team discovered a type of floor in their own backyards that could work. “A lot of beautiful modern U.S. homes now have this type of floor—created using linseed oil—because it is so much more sustainable than other alternatives and looks beautiful.”
The summer between her first and second years was spent proto-typing an equivalent technique that could be done using an alternative to linseed oil, one that could be affordably manufactured in Rwanda. A biochemist team member from the group invented an oil—“the secret sauce that makes this whole thing work,” as Datar called it—and the rest is history.
Datar applied for and won the Social Innovation Fellowship for 2014-2015 to launch EarthEnable, which sells and installs earthen floors in homes in Rwanda using this patented technology. After two and half years in Rwanda, EarthEnable now has a staff of 116, a customer base of 1,000 that’s expanding by 100 to 200 new clients a month, and a complete management team, Datar says. “We are in a great spot right now—I feel like we are just about to explode.” The coming year will be pivotal, she says, as the firm experiments with scaling its model and expanding to new markets and countries.
Invaluable Coaching and Advising Support
Beyond the stipend—which, as for Washington, gave Datar that incredibly valuable year to prove her concept before needing to seek funding—SIF was also invaluable in terms of the coaching, advising and support network it provided throughout the fellowship year and beyond. Indeed, Datar recalls it starting before she’d even been selected as a fellow. “Throughout the competitive selection process we were able to get coaching along the way—they spent an hour with each of us on the startup pitch—it is the most valuable pitch advice I have ever received.” Clavier notes that the advisory board now spends as much time on the pitch as any individual or team needs, even more than when Datar was applying.
And once the fellowship year begins, the support and advice is even more involved. Washington is incredibly grateful for the quarterly calls he receives from his advisor, checking in to see if he’s on track to meet his milestones or, if he’s off track, how CIS might help. The SIF advisors also connect students on campus with fellows in the field when there might be overlap in interest or ability. “They refer me to people working in similar spaces or who are interested in supporting nonprofits,” Washington says. “It’s not just about the regular stipend checks—it’s about the support we receive throughout the year. Even if it’s not check-in time with my advisor, I can always call or email,” he adds. “Everyone involved with SIF goes out of their way to make the connections, be in the room, provide support wherever they can,” Washington continues. “Even if at times I feel like I am by myself in a sense on this journey, I always know I have support.”
Vote of Confidence, Vetting Also Huge
Datar, for her part, also points out the emotional benefits of the SIF program. “Beyond the financial support that came with the fellowship was a vote of confidence in our idea and our ability to execute on it,” she said as part of the article on the Stanford GSB website.
Washington agrees. Having just the day before received an additional list of potential funders from his advisor—all in the social impact ecosystem—he noted that being part of SIF goes a long way toward just getting you in the door. “A lot of people have great ideas, and there are a lot in the social impact space trying to do this work,” he says. “Funders may be overwhelmed and can’t possible answer all the requests they receive, but I’ve had an amazing response rate,” he continues. “Having been vetted through the Social Innovation Fellowship program—that’s an amazing signal to be able to send folks.”
Social Impact Only Poised for Growth at Stanford
Interest in social innovation has certainly grown over the years. Clavier notes that the CSI, launched in 2001, was itself build on an older public management program that had been around for 45 years. “We can look back that far. In the 70s, you really had just a few students who were trying to raise awareness around issues of public good,” she says. “Today, no one answers no when we ask students whether they are interested in social innovation, and 30 percent of the incoming class says their interest in social impact is part of what brought them to Stanford.” A full 90 percent of students take at least one course in social innovation or social impact during their MBA.
“Now, that is intent coming in—but we all know that when you spend two years investing in your education it costs money. For many it is a mathematical issue—they have to pay back their loans before they commit to that kind of career,” she says matter-of-factly. Even so, when Stanford looks five or 10 years out after students graduate, they find that one in three alumni have engaged in some social innovation capacity, she reports.
Thanks to SIF, Washington and Datar got to take the plunge immediately. “Stanford allowed me to develop the confidence and knowledge to the point that I am actually now executing on my passion,” Washington says. “From start to end in the process, Stanford played a role in getting me where I wanted to go—it catapulted me into this next stage of my life where I am today.”
“For people who know that they want to transition to social enterprise or start something from scratch, the amount of resources that Stanford has to support you in doing so continues to blow my mind,” Datar says. “It is really very impressive what the school is able to do for social enterprise entrepreneurs—EarthEnable would not exist without it.”
Click here for more on Stanford’s Social Innovation Fellowship, including information about past fellows and their ventures.