Log 04: Germany in review

April 23, 2015

Log [n.]: Personal reflection

It would feel so good to say that my trip through Germany opened my eyes to an entirely new view of the support sector, and in Cartography: Germany II you can read to what extent that is true, but apart from that there were little surprising news, which can mean two things:

  • My experience in the sector had me well prepared for what to expect, and little else has changed since I left.
  • I was not eyes open enough, did not speak to the right people, and hence, confined myself to the limits of what I already knew.

For the first, and so far only, time an interviewee tried to sell me a concept instead of sharing program details and insights. I understand that being featured on Social Venturers has some marketing value, but really, with merely 250 followers on Twitter and less than 500 on Facebook I feel flattered at best. I consider us all in the same boat with no need to self-promote our programs. In this very case, my interview partner shared very few specifics and the value proposition made no sense to me. It felt like I was listening to an accelerator’s pitch for investment instead of gaining any actual insights into the program. I ended up not using the material.

If you read Log 03 about my field visits in the Netherlands and Belgium you will know about the humility that I sensed from their Social Venturers. I experienced the same in Germany and am starting to think that it’s less of a culture-specific phenomenon. Most Social Venturers I spoke to in Germany emphasized the importance of founder-friendliness and accounting for the stage social entrepreneurs are in. At the same time, I found many of my interview partners to be very eyes-open about the shortcomings of social entrepreneurship (read Spotlights of Bastian Mueller or Daniel Nowack at Yunus Social Business).

View of Hamburg's Hafencity

View of Hamburg’s Hafencity

But what stood out most to me was the lack of… it hurts to say… enthusiasm. Most of the time I feel inspired and motivated walking out of an interview. Getting a glimpse of a support organization’s vision for a better world is an inspiring and powerful sensation! Speaking to like-minded Social Venturers who share my passion for empowering social entrepreneurs makes me stride through the streets of Amsterdam, Brussels, London, Dublin, Copenhagen purposefully, with my head held high and a greater mission to strive towards. In Germany… well… not so much. There were few surprising or enlightening moments. And don’t get me wrong, I spoke to some brilliant people at great organizations, as I did in other countries. But Germany was different. It is entirely possible that running interviews in my native tongue German makes for a different experience. It is equally possible that we Germans just aren’t easily excited and express enthusiasm in a more subtle way (I’ve heard rumors that Germans only laugh in their basements). It may also be the case that systemic funding challenges and struggles of running support organizations in Germany has disillusioned some of the people I spoke to. Maybe it’s a bit of everything. Maybe it’s just the German way.

Speaking to German #SocEntSupport orgs was different. I can't put my finger on it. Click To Tweet

Fact is: I met many dedicated Social Venturers who do great work in supporting mainly early-stage social entrepreneurs all around the country. I would love to see the sector grow more integrated and spread the support over the entire process of venture development. I would love to see a German-wide network of support organizations to exchange best practices and provide peer-support to each other. I envision something that adds enough value for Social Venturers to take the time to step back from their programs and look at the big picture. The Global Social Entrepreneurship Network is one such networks – will we have a German chapter one day, or an initiative driven from inside the sector? Can support organizations like Social Impact or Impact Hubs leverage their Germany-wide locations and network to spearhead such an initiative? If you hear anything or are thinking along these lines, let me know!   

After a month in Germany, the next stop is London!

After a month in Germany, the next stop is London!

Log 03: Netherlands & Belgium in review

March 30, 2016

Log [n.]: Personal reflection

This trip was a great kick-off for Social Venturers. On the professional side, I learned about a great many different approaches to working with social entrepreneurs. I was fascinated by the stories of the Social Venturers themselves – their previous careers and why they care about the impact space. I ran anything from 45-minutes to 2-hour interviews with ten Social Venturers and one social entrepreneur within four days.

On the personal side, this trip tested my grit. Three to four interviews in one day may not sound much if you consider your work day to be somewhere between eight and ten hours. But four days in a row is ambitious and I had to realize that in order to be an open-minded active listener, I can’t cramp too many interviews into such a short time period. Noted. By the time I left Belgium, I had been on the road for over four weeks for contract work and Social Media Week in Hamburg as well as Social Venturers-related work in Scotland. In brief: I was exhausted. I spent the following week with friends where I locked myself away to gather my notes, follow up with interviewees, and sleep.

Amsterdam

I am no ethnographer but if I had to pinpoint what struck me most about speaking to Dutch and Belgian Social Venturers, it’s their humility. The team at Kennisland, for example, sees itself merely as a facilitator. They run social labs together with their target beneficiaries, co-develop solutions, and withdraw. Social Enterprise NL: I walked past their office twice because I couldn’t find a sign indicating that these was in fact their office. I had expected a small army managing their 230 members, trainings, collaborations, agenda setting and social media. Instead I found a chatty and cheerful group of four (out of seven), with whom I felt instantly connected. And even the social entrepreneur I spoke to – Jacquelien Bunt, head of Global Seller Activation at Discovered – explained: “I’m not trying to change the world; I’m not Mother Theresa. But if I can make life a little better for those who are worse off than me, that’s great.”

In summary

Here’s what I learned:

  • Streamlining and professionalizing processes in our programs reduces transaction costs, especially when we work with third parties such as corporate or governmental partners.
  • Let’s be precise and strict about the definitions and terms we use. Speaking the same language within the sector will allow us to better position ourselves towards external parties and potential partners in other sectors. This will pay off especially in the work of agenda setting and advocacy.
  • Inviting external views on an issue and collaborating with other organizations such as think tanks can mean higher costs. But if it’s well-facilitated, it can lead to more holistic and sustainable solutions.
  • We need to be aware of gaps in our support programs. Not all social entrepreneurs fit in the pre-defined stages of maturity and may need individual support parallel to our standardized programs.

One question remains

In line with what I heard at the GSEN-Learning week in London, a central conversation revolves around: What’s the right balance between generic vs. individual programs? Do we want to reach as many social entrepreneurs as possible and run them through our programs, or do we want to pick a few and work with them individually, at a higher cost? I have come across some examples along this spectrum on this trip: Enviu crowdsources innovative ideas that may grow into social businesses; Impact Hub Amsterdam, Social Enterprise NL and Social Innovation Factory offer structured programs with personal mentor aspects, and Oksigen Lab offers individual coaching. They cover the whole spectrum from working with an entire community of social innovators to individual one-on-one support.

After these field visits, I suggest generic programs for early-stage ventures and more specialized support as they grow more mature. That way, we open the field for many early great ideas and filter them as they continue to develop through testing and validation. If our objective as a support industry is to get viable solutions to scale, then we need to understand what those who enable scaling (impact investors) look for. When I spoke to Christophe Baudin at SI2 fund he said they’d prefer selecting from a small number of outstanding concepts rather than filtering through a large number of non-investment ready ventures. If this is a role we as support organizations can play in the pipeline – supporting ventures on their way to investment readiness – I think we are serving the sector as a whole. Thoughts?

 

Log 02: Feeling like a #SocEnt

February 2, 2015

Log [n.]: Personal reflection

Returning from #TheBigSocial in London I found myself facing a deadline for one of the rare funding opportunities I had come across. Working on a venture like this one without being a PhD student or academic and without business model means that funding opportunities are scarce. I had jumped at the opportunity.

Energized by an exciting week in London I arrived back in Cork at 7 p.m. on a Friday night and set myself up at the kitchen table ready to face my first proper funding application. And suddenly I felt the way a social entrepreneurs must feel when they apply to one of the programs I have worked for. The questions really forced me to put my plans into writing.

1. A clear detailed description of the Project, including particular outputs or products the Project will generate, any arguments and ideas the Project will put forth, and the need for the Project

I knew what I wanted but once I tried putting it into tangible, actual words – I was stuttering. Here’s the thing: Once you write it down, it means that you are committing to doing it. I was suddenly intimidated by the grandeur of my vision.

2. An explanation of how the Project builds on existing efforts or charts new terrain

Having just spent a week with support organizations for social entrepreneurs I nailed this one. That week had been a great source of positive feedback that left no doubt that what I was doing was worthwhile and much needed in the sector.

3. A description of the Project’s expected impact and how you might measure it.

I have been teaching social impact assessment, and knew that it was going to be a long time until we could actually speak of impacts. But I was confident in my ability to track some of the outputs of Social Venturers and set myself goals that I would use anyway to track my process. If you have read my earlier Log 01: LH426 you know I am a geek when it comes to goal setting and process evaluations, no problem.

4. A detailed account of how you will achieve your goals, including a communications and/or outreach strategy. Please describe the specific audiences you hope to reach, your reasons for focusing on them, and how you intend to influence them.

Now this was one big question. I was starting to repeat myself in parts. You don’t know how many Theory of Change models I have seen in my career and still – sitting down and writing your own can be intimidating. That said it was probably the most useful process I went through in terms of getting my ideas straight about what I wanted to achieve in what order. I decided on specific outputs such as guidelines and toolkits, a book summarizing my experiences. And the humble mission to create dialogue, exchange and maybe even collaboration among Social Venturers across the world.

Theory of change

Social Venturers’ Theory of Change (SVSO: Social Venture Support Organizations)

5. The reasons you are especially suited to carry out this Project.

Passion, experience, skills, character, time and devotion to run this project. Next.

6. A description of how you expect the Project to fit into your career trajectory and future work.

This is my career. I want to turn Social Venturers into source of exchange and information for all the professionals working in the sector of social enterprise support. I am Social Venturers. I found more eloquent ways of stating the obvious. But here it is.

7. A Project timeline.

Again, the project management geek I am, no problem. It was too ambitious, no doubt, but receiving full-fledged support and not having to work part-time I could have pulled off a more aggressive and stringent timeline.

8. An explanation of how you might engage with our organization while resident in our office(s). Please specify how these interactions could add value both to us and to your Project.

Where there are social entrepreneurs, there are support structures in place. The organization I applied with has a great number of offices around the world. They would make great starting points, in conflict zones in particular. Open your doors!

9. Estimated fellowship expenses (in US Dollars) including travel and hotels, research assistance, conference fees, health insurance, etc.

Time for dreaming. All the conferences I could finally attend, the trips I could take (and sleep in a what… hotel?! Oh the luxury…) and, most importantly, no more worries about how to pay my bills. Being able to focus on nothing BUT Social Venturers. I wanted this SO much!

After 48 hours of working on this application with my much-appreciated (native speaker!) editor-at-large, I sent it off. You cannot imagine the relief and pride of hitting send. I had given birth.

Update May 20

It has been north of three months since that glorious moment. I still haven’t heard from them except for one email in early April “We are still reviewing applications but hope to start informing at least some applicants of their status within the next few weeks.” That was six weeks ago.

I have worked with enough institutions that run searches and selection cycles, I know how intense these times can be, and how important professional communication is. I hope that means they got a number of great applicants and have some world-changers among them. Even though I did not get into the program, this application forced me to nail down this project and write a blueprint for what I was setting out to do. Intimidating but incredibly helpful in getting serious and starting to hold myself accountable.

If any of you dear readers come across potential funding sources, do let me know. I am doing most of the things that I set out to do on a shoestring budget and I’m proud of it. Yet, many countries are on my wishlist and can’t be conquered without proper funding.

Log 01: LH426

January 12, 2015

Log [n.]: Personal reflection

When I left Hamburg, Germany, in July 2014, I had taken all possible measures I could think of to make sure I was set for success. Organization, discipline, SMART goals – all in order to make sure that I would not fail. I had lists and spreadsheets for different sections of my life to make sure I got a paid job in no time and the H1B visa. I was going to be an independent strong 21st century women (read Amazon!) who would take the US in a storm.

Fast forward 5 months and I am writing this on the plane back to Germany,  no job, no visa. When I first had to admit that my professional superhero scenario was not going to come true, I was mortified. I had failed. And you know what? It didn’t matter. I didn’t even care all that much. It occurred to me that the only one who was beating herself up over this supposed “failure” was myself. It dawned on me that I had set the wrong kind of goals, that I have been striving to return to the system as quickly as possible. Social security number, pay taxes, and – God forbid – make sure my LinkedIn profile showed an employer under “current position”. Now don’t get me wrong, I still look forward to having a US social security number  and I think it is important to pay taxes. But I realized that I was focused on ticking those boxes rather than creating my own. I had had this idea for a project of my own which would later turn into Social Venturers. I have been putting it off for a year now. The first six months I didn’t have time to work on it because I was full-time employed in Germany, the second six months I couldn’t possibly devote any time to it as I clearly needed to find a full-time job first. Which in turn would have pulled me away from this project again. I had created this perfect little vicious cycle which would never allow me to just try it out and see what happens. And so the Social Venturer was born – after a year of contemplating, not daring, and finding excuses.

By Dominik Schroeder

By Dominik Schroeder

Of course it wasn’t all this black and white. The idea needed some time to mature. I needed time to mature and convince myself that I can do it. Also, I have managed to get some freelance work with my old company and of course you never really go back to square one, you are wiser and more experienced than you were the first time around.

As I am writing this, the plan is to go back to Europe to find professionals who devote their careers to supporting entrepreneurs with a social mission, and learn what it means to be good at it. There is plenty of buzz around social entrepreneurs, they are being studied, awarded and hyped – and that is ok in its own right. What we don’t hear so much about, however, are the support organizations behind these individuals – all the incubators and accelerators, summer schools, university programs, even angel investors that search for this talent around the world to nurture it. There is an entire industry of professionals that devote their careers to training and educating, mentoring, coaching and financing start-up entrepreneurs with a social mission. These are the people I want to meet, talk to, and learn from.

I joined the Managing Directors conference of the Global Accelerator Network in New York in October 2014 thanks to one of the contacts I had made during my first weeks in the States. The MD’s came together in New York for three days to discuss their common challenges, their individual challenges, good and best practices, industry trends, you name it. I was baffled to see how openly every leader spoke about what was really going on in the space and how they respond to these pressures. While these were supporter from the conventional start-up space, one thing holds true:

When it comes to supporting start-up entrepreneurs – social or not – a dialogue about how we as an industry can best address their needs and nurture their talent is tremendously helpful in designing better programs and creating higher social impact. I am setting out to find fellow Social Venturers and listen to their ideas, opinions, concerns and forecasts for the social entrepreneurship scene. I want to gain and share insights into their career paths as individuals and their work within their organization.

Global Accelerator Network Conference in New York, October 2014

Global Accelerator Network Conference in New York, October 2014

Why all that? I want us to start talking about good practices, valuable lessons and common challenges encountered when designing and implementing support programs for social entrepreneurs. I want us to start learning together, sharing our experiences and deciding how we can move this industry forward as a whole.

The plan is to document this journey and the Social Venturers I meet to learn and share these learnings.

Update May 17

One week until the website goes live. Looking back, I can tell that the first four months (almost exactly!) have been a great experience in giving it my best shot because I have stopped making excuses. Even though my freelance work keeps me busier than I want a lot of the time, and the funding is still nowhere in sight, I have worked on Social Venturers as my first priority. Confronting the person who wrote these earlier lines meaning to check in with myself about what I have achieved. I am currently visiting country number 5 to talk to the 23rd and 24th support organization. I am not as nervous as I thought I would be. That said, I still have a week to go, I don’t know what I don’t know about the launch of a website yet.

All in all, I can say that I am chuffed to see how many people I have met and how much I have learned from the over the past four months. Now it’s time to roll it out and see what you all think.