Interviews With Changemakers: Contemplating, Becoming, and Being


Eight years old with a flour sack cape
Tied all around his neck
He climbed up on the garage
Figurin’ what the heck

He screwed his courage up so tight
The whole thing came unwound
He got a runnin’ start and bless his heart
He headed for the ground

He’s one of those who knows that life
Is just a leap of faith
Spread your arms and hold your breath
And always trust your cape

All grown up with a flour sack cape
Tied all around his dreams
He’s full of piss and vinegar
He’s bustin at the seams
He licked his finger and checked the wind
It’s gonna be do or die
He wasn’t scared of nothin’, boys
He was pretty sure he could fly


Old and grey with a flour sack cape
Tied all around his head
He’s still jumpin’ off the garage
And will be till he’s dead
All these years the people said
He’s actin like a kid
He did not know he could not fly
So he did


“The Cape”

Lyrics by Guy and Susanna Clark; sung by Eric Bibb

Choosing a path in life is always challenging, even more so if you need a machete to clear your way forward without the benefit of a well-worn trail to follow. But even if a thick undergrowth obscures their footsteps, others have gone before you, overcoming uncertainties to design—and live—lives that fill them with purpose and create opportunity throughout all they do.

What follows is a series of interviews with five people whose paths we can take a look at. Each is at a different point on his or her journey and, of course, their journeys are all different. Let’s see how they spread their arms, hold their breath, and leap.

Gina Valo: Congratulations! You Did Not Win

“And the winner is …”

Gina Valo is a twenty-five-year-old woman with the world ahead of her. Two roads diverged in a yellow wood? It may seem at times that there are two million.

Graduating with a degree in organization studies (“the softer side of business,” as she calls it), and fresh off giving the student commencement address at her graduation, the question was, What’s next?

So, as any recent graduate might, she decided that the job she wanted was to be Miss Michigan (yes, that Miss Michigan). Competing (and succeeding) in pageants runs in Gina’s family. Her mom had been Miss Wisconsin World (which launched her career), her sister had competed, and her family was generally tied in with the Miss America system, which Gina respects for the opportunity it gives contestants to have a platform for their personal social cause. “We’d watch Miss America. It was like our Super Bowl,” she says.
She had already been the second runner-up for Miss Michigan as a college student. So another half year or so of grinding workouts in the gym, making food choices with the care of a crime scene investigator, becoming a fixture at public speaking and volunteer events, and polishing her musical performance skills—it all seemed to make sense.

So, she competed again … and came in second: first runner-up.

Again, the question became, What’s next? Get a job? Compete one last time?

As if by magic—the kind of “magic” that happens more often when you consistently apply yourself and approach life with passion—a job dropped in Gina’s lap. Google was about to open a branch office in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She was one of the first eight people hired at the site. Realizing that competing again might put her job in jeopardy, Gina quickly composed a letter stating her intention to withdraw her application from the next pageant she would need to compete in if she wanted to become Miss Michigan.

Google is considered avery “cool” company for smart, energetic young people to work at. And extremely competitive in terms of landing a position. And why not? You get to exercise your brain, work with cool technologies and alongside other talented people, and receive a handsome paycheck. Oh: there’s also the lava lamps, the exercise balls, the free gourmet lunches, and the massage stations.

But to Gina, what stands out the most is the opportunity to do good:   “I work for a socially conscious company. That to me is what I’m most proud of about working at Google  … [even though other] people cling to things they’ve seen on the news about how great it is to work there.” (Author’s note: Oops. Guilty as charged.)

A company whose motto is “Don’t be evil” would seem like a good place to do work that improves society. But you must internalize that message, make it fit you, and work to extend its range of application.

Gina’s official job—working with customers to help them develop effective AdWord campaigns (AdWords trigger those Google links that try to sell you products when you are searching)—wouldn’t seem to be a good fit for someone with her focus on social consciousness. But she found a way to create meaning from her work:

I’ve had the opportunity to work with a lot of small businesses that [have] built their business online. [One] woman that I work with makes handmade bath products, organic natural bath products. It’s a livelihood based out of her home [and she’s] doing the majority of her business online because Google AdWords brings her customers at an affordable rate with a good return on investment. And it’s my job to figure out that formula. That’s really satisfying because I know that I’m helping the small guy and that’s really fun. … What I love about Google AdWords is that it democratizes the advertising industry and it lets people compete based on what they offer, how good their websites are, and how good their businesses are—rather than how much money they have.

In addition to helping small businesses survive—and thrive—by working with them to help them create effective online advertising campaigns, Gina gets satisfaction knowing that her efforts help fund Google’s charity efforts. Google contributes 1 percent of its annual profit and equity to its for-profit charity. “I look at some of the big deals that I bring in and that I help up-sell and say, ‘That’s huge, that’s big money for,’” she says. “I don’t think everyone necessarily thinks of things that way, but I definitely do. I’m conscious of that and excited about it. When I look at our revenue numbers I think, ‘Ooh, that was a lot.’”

Gina creates as much social impact from her unofficial Google duties. “I’m very much a ‘yes person’ when it comes to community work,” she explains. And “yes people” are not too hard to locate when there’s a job to be done.

Gina co-founded the local chapter of Google Cares, an employee-driven effort to make it effortless for Google employees to find and participate in volunteer activities. She also developed Donate a Dollar, which helps coordinate the myriad fund-raising activities of her 250-plus office peers so that each effort receives concentrated support (plus a Google match), thus ensuring a decent donation for the cause and providing convenience for both the fund-raiser and the contributors.

Gina’s social intrapreneurial efforts are providing her the opportunity to learn important lessons of a social entrepreneur. Donate a Dollar “has caught on like wildfire across other offices”—the fondest dream of one implementing a social change program—in part by Gina’s participation in a global network of Google employeessharing ideas and best practices to create the largest impact from Google’s involvement in communities.

Gina also inherited Ann Arbor’s Google 101 initiative when a colleague left the office. Google 101 trains nonprofits and small businesses to become more tech-savvy and better Internet marketers by effectively taking advantage of free, income-creating Google products. The training also covers the use of AdWords (for which for-profits pay but nonprofits can receive grants). Gina then helped craft a more scalable version of Google 101 by developing a “train the trainers” model. Rather than reaching organizations in need one by one (as had been done), Google 101 now achieves leverage by working through other organizations that already support nonprofits and small businesses in their daily course of events.

As with Donate a Dollar, Google 101 is being adopted throughout the Google network. The results have already been an “incredible … scalable solution to the number of people and organizations we wanted to reach.” Next step: organize all training materials for more convenient use by “train the trainers” everywhere, an aim certainly in keeping with a company whose mission is to organize the world’s information. To get these materials to those who may need them—even if they don’t know they exist—Gina is working with people in Google headquarters, various Google data centers, and the “charitable for-profit,”

Pretty good “leadership training” for someone with the ambition to have impact on local communities, and next the world.

So, what’s next?

Down the road, Gina would love to be serving society in a larger, more direct way. Perhaps through, perhaps through organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation or the Clinton Foundation, or perhaps in some other way. She has special interests in community development, public health, and global poverty.

Yet, she has her doubts. She wonders: Does she have what it takes—the right education? The right skills? The “it” that defines the upper 1 percent of the upper 1 percent? Can she come up with her own powerful, original idea for changing the world? Maybe she’s just too old: “[There are those people who have already done such incredible things at such a young age” (remember she’s twenty-five). And how about giving up a Google paycheck—that would be difficult, too.

But maybe there’s also a lesson for each of us in Gina’s uncertainty about how to get from “here” to a more socially directed “there.” Among their greatest fears, people often list public speaking and being judged by others. If Gina—who addressed her university community as a commencement speaker, and who strutted her stuff in front of a panel of judges (where “stuff” = playing her violin and “stuff” = walking onstage in a swimsuit and high heels)—has insecurities  … then isn’t uncertainty something we all feel (and must deal with)?

Gina’s way of dealing with uncertainty is by practicing what we might call “patient impatience”: loving her company, even though things can get mundane day-to-day and she itches for more. Working to make the most of the opportunity she has, even as she creates openings for something unknown and new. She is laying the foundation for what lies ahead, even if she can’t picture it perfectly. Through her paid and her unpaid work at Google, she is gaining experience, becoming a leader, learning more clearly what drives her, and noticing where she is resisting.

She also trusts her internal compass. That letter that Gina wrote the pageant organizers, asking them to withdraw her application? She accidentally deleted it from her computer, and in the flurry of life’s events never got around to redoing it and sending it in—and all for the good: With newfound enthusiasm for competing, she again hit the weight room. In the studio, she created violin arrangements that accentuated her skills and hid her musical deficiencies, and practiced them until they sounded amazing. And then she competed, one last time.

And once again, she came in … second (a strangely proud and crushing experience).

And yet she didn’t feel like it was over. “It wasn’t supposed to end this way,” she says. “It didn’t feel right, but what choice did I have (the results were in)? My only choice was to accept what happened knowing I gave it my all and move on with my life.”
Then, six months later, she was watching the Miss America contest. The young woman who had recently defeated her to become Miss Michigan made the cut to the final fifteen, the top ten, the top eight … And when she became Miss America, Gina suddenly became Miss Michigan. Sitting in a friend’s living room, in jeans and a sweatshirt.

Her friend—herself a former Miss Michigan—crowned Gina, tears of joy and surprise streaming down her face. It was a fulfillment of a lifetime dream: winning at a “sport for the well-rounded person … of being a ‘good you.’”

And then, adds Gina, “Every time you’re so bold and so fierce in chasing a dream and it finally comes true … there also comes the moment you say, ‘Oh, crap, I actually have to do this. … I actually have to do something.’”

Could it be any other way?

Cynthia Koenig: Rolling Forward

How do you begin to change the world? Cynthia Koenig’s journey reminds us that by taking a step at a time, your path may become clear.

Cynthia, thirty-one, has a Bachelor’s degree in anthropology and a Master’s degree in environmental studies. She thought her future might be as a conservationist, returning to Latin America where she had trained guides to speak English and given them interpretive nature skills so that they could conduct nature tours.  Or that it might be in photography.

But a post-graduation fellowship gave her the opportunity to spend several months in South Africa, where she lived in a rural community and learned about the challenges people faced on a daily basis. Economic opportunities were few and far between. With an unemployment rate hovering around 80%, many families survived on the pension of a single family member.

Rural areas, especially, often lack basic services like health care, higher education, electricity, and physical infrastructure. The community Cynthia lived in was typical—only a few water taps served the population, so access to clean water was very limited. Each family had two days per week when it could visit the tap—provided it was in working condition. Typically, one child from the family would line up with his or her containers early in the morning, and the other siblings and their mother would arrive later in the day to carry the containers home. On non-tap days, women and children collected water from open water sources that were shared with animals and often contaminated. During the dry season, surface water was harder to find, and even the wells ran dry as the water table dropped.

“Around the world,” Cynthia explained,  “an estimated one billion people lack readily accessible, clean drinking water.   Many of them, usually women, trek for up to eight hours a day to a water source to fill water containers to provide for their families.  Indoor plumbing, of course, is out of the question.  Community water taps often don’t exist, are broken, or don’t reach down to the level of the water table during the dry season—sometimes eight months.  So, they can drink nearby, dirty, disease-carrying water, as many do; or walk, and walk, and walk ….”

It was in SouthAfrica that Cynthia first learned about the concept of “rolling water.” Two businesses in the country manufacture and distribute 12 to 25 gallon drums that literally allow you to roll water as an alternative to carrying smaller quantities on your head. Rolling water eases the back-breaking work of transporting water, usually done by young girls and women, sparing them from spinal injuries and freeing them for other pursuits including attending school and contributing to the family’s livelihood.  Cynthia was immediately intrigued.

Conventional wisdom led her to believe that people needed products and services only to disinfect their water. Certainly this is the approach taken by the vast majority of the organizations that are focused on global water issues. However, people in South Africa repeatedly told her that they knew how to make their water safe enough to drink; what they wanted was more water. Cynthia saw the evidence of this firsthand.  Even with several family members collecting water, it was difficult to provide five gallons per person each day, the UN minimum for maintaining a basic level of health.

Several years before, Cynthia had lived in remote parts of Latin America.  She had seen young children fetch water from a lagoon.  They had to walk in far enough to get past the algae—far enough that they were encroaching on crocodiles’ territory.  “You never knew when you’d come upon one,” Cynthia remarked.

But it was during her experience in South Africa that something “clicked.”

“By the time I left South Africa,” Cynthia explained, “I was convinced that the concept of rolling water had the potential to make a positive impact on a global scale. However, existing efforts to distribute such tools were very localized and donor-dependent. I had a few ideas about what a business model should look like for this type of product, but not much confidence to back up my vision.”

Cynthia was committed to making a difference in the lives of those living without such a basic necessity as water and addressing the root causes of a problem that has impact on more than a billion people worldwide. But where to start?

“I launched Wello as a way for me to stay focused and motivated. It was also a result of advice I had been given by a professor who teaches a course on social entrepreneurship at [my university]. As my graduation neared, I asked him if he knew of any job opportunities in the field. I expected him to help me brainstorm a list of potential employers. Instead, he encouraged me to follow my North Star, and work to address an issue I really cared about. At the time, I didn’t think it was very helpful advice. Although I cared about a lot of issues, I didn’t feel as though I had the solutions to any of them. In fact, I realized later, when I launched Wello, how practical this advice was. No one launches a venture with a perfect concept. Most of the time, it’s just a vague idea, and, little by little, you do what it takes to keep moving it forward.”

Once she returned to the United States, she began the lengthy process to establish a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that could offer tax exemptions for charitable contributions from individuals or foundations. She was falling back on skills she already had from a few years of experience in the nonprofit sector.

“I wasn’t sure that nonprofit status was the right choice, but it offered the best access to patient capital.  In retrospect, I’ve realized that you never have all the answers. I made a lot of mistakes early on, and learned so much as a result. Yes, it’s probably taken longer to get where I am today, but the lessons I’ve learned along the way have been so valuable.In retrospect, I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Cynthia’s efforts started out small but snowballed into a much larger project very quickly. Initially, she envisioned raising money to improve living conditions in water-scarce communities. But before she felt comfortable launching a fundraising campaign, she felt it was important that her fledgling organization have a professional-looking website. But with no web design skills, and nothing in the bank, Cynthia was at a loss. After a few false starts, she was introduced to Freeworld Media, an Atlanta-based design and marketing firm that took on the task of website design.

In an attempt to grow her organization, she also used her web presence to attract those who wanted to support Wello by donating their time and talents instead of cash. To her surprise, responses came pouring in. However, she also quickly learned that pro bono support, although always well intentioned, sometimes created more problems than it solved. For example, she found that volunteers came and went, sometimes even in the middle of a project.

Eventually, Cynthia began to consider how she could more sustainably provide water to those in need, instead of exclusively relying on charitable donations.  She explored a business model where Wello would purchase water transport devices from existing manufacturers and then work with community-based organizations to educate end users to employ these WaterWheels to generate revenue. However, exorbitant shipping costs on top of already high manufacturing costs for these products made Cynthia reconsider the viability of this approach. “Shipping is one of the major costs of water rollers.  It’s astronomical to move them around.”

To overcome this difficultly, Cynthia did research to see where there was both a great need for rolling water devices and an appropriate infrastructure to manufacture them.  She concluded that it was India.  She also did what any anthropologist-photographer-conservationist with no background in engineering would do:  She began thinking about how to re-design the WaterWheel.  An ardent environmentalist, Cynthia hoped to manufacture WaterWheels from recycled plastic litter.

“In most parts of the developing world, recycling and trash collection isn’t available. As a result, there is a tremendous amount of waste everywhere. Plastic bottles, like the kind soft drinks come in, are especially prevalent. People often reuse them several times, but once cracked or broken, they end up littering the streets. I had this crazy idea that we could have people gather up this trash, then bring it to a mobile manufacturing unit where we would mold a WaterWheel for them on the spot.”  

She recruited a team of volunteer engineers and designers to investigate the possibility.  As it turns out, it isn’t possible to reengineer soda bottles in this way, but the idea of manufacturing and distributing an improved water transport device stuck with her.  She continued to work with these volunteers to optimize the design of the WaterWheel.

“Ultimately, my lack of engineering expertise was a good thing, because it meant that I often asked silly questions that the designers weren’t asking themselves. So while I often drove the designers crazy by insisting on things that weren’t technically possible, there were a few instances where my insistence led to great breakthroughs. People all over the world were writing to me to ask about how they could get WaterWheels. I knew that if we could make an affordable, durable, high-quality product, we could meet this need and have a tremendous impact on the health and well-being of millions of girls and women and others in their communities.”

In truth, not only was Cynthia not an engineer, but there was little in her academic or work background to suggest that she might one day become a social entrepreneur.  But she did have the temperament.

“I think the ability to stay committed in the start-up phase is a good test of the viability of the business, and of yourself. Creativity, adaptability and patience are important skills early on. Of course, this changes. You can’t stay patient for too long, otherwise you never make any progress! Getting started was the hardest part for me. Wello didn’t have any funding—or even any real funding prospects. In order to cover my travel expenses and our state filing fees, I took advantage of a promotion my bank was running—$250 for each new account you opened… I opened several.”

Cynthia throws herself into her work with the Wello, typically spending 25-45 hours a week without any compensation.  (She also works full time and is now pursuing a business degree in the evening.)  She is far busier than at any other point in her life, but finds her life invigorating.

“If it wasn’t enjoyable, that’s when I would question [my investment of time in Wello].   At the end of the day I’m learning so much—including how to start a non-profit company, how to create a board of directors, how to network, how to raise funds, and how to motivate an international cast of volunteers. I’m getting so much out of it personally.  It’s been pretty fantastic.”

The woman who as a young girl loved her lemonade stand is quite entrepreneurial again. “Even six months ago,” she explained, “I wouldn’t have said I was a  ‘social entrepreneur.’  Now that I’m going off in new directions, really taking more control, and seeing more of the business opportunity, I feel the term does apply.”

The rewards are as exciting to Cynthia as when she made herself a small fortune from the lemonade she mixed herself.

“It’s amazing to see people come out and be so excited about rolling water.  I visited a community that was not a very easy place to live at all. Their water situation was horrible.  People were collecting rainwater from muddy puddles and bringing it home.  … Wello opens up all these possibilities that were never there before.  For a lot of people who are living in complete poverty, with no hope of that ever changing, I think that glimmer of ‘Wait a minute, maybe something can be better, things can be different’ is amazing.  It blows me away.”

And to those who are teetering, sticking a toe in the social entrepreneurship waters, not sure how to go forward or even if they should?  Cynthia would like to tell them:

“If you had told me six months ago what I’d be doing right now I wouldn’t have believed it.  A year ago I certainly wouldn’t have believed that I would be doing any of this.

“You just have to go and do it.  It really helped me to just jump in with both feet and learn about something.  I didn’t really have a sense of where I was going or what I wanted to accomplish.  Even now I tend to think really short-term with this because otherwise I might miss some of the shorter-term possibilities, and I think I need to be really agile.  I don’t want to commit to anything that would prevent me from seeing opportunities. 

“I was just reading about this woman who wanted to see wildflowers in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn and wrote about it in her blog.  [She attracted] about 100 to 150 people on this rainy day a couple weekends ago to start throwing seeds and plantingseeds everywhere. Now it’s become this thing that everyone’s talking about and [nearby neighborhoods want to imitate].  If her idea had been that half of Brooklyn should be planted with flowers, she probably wouldn’t have gotten anywhere.  The fact was that she just said one day ‘I want to see some flowers.’  You never know where you’re going to end up.”

Patrick Donohue: Solving Problems

Patrick Donohue is a problem solver—an inventor in the broad sense of the term.

Now thirty-five, his first job out of college was as a software engineer working for organizations including Apple Computer, Rockwell International, and NASA. He developed solutions to problems such as making planes safer by creating cutting-edge artificial intelligence software.

His interest waned when corporate pressures began to steer software development away from well-crafted, elegant solutions toward garden variety, just-get-it-done-quickly development. The kicker was that the “beautiful” solutions he had developed also weren’t being widely deployed. “I was driven by a desire to start having an impact and to work on problems that were a little outside of the realm of computer science,” he says.

Patrick wasn’t the kind of guy who had stayed up late at night thinking about how to solve society’s problems.

I thought for example that most environmentalists were tremendously impractical. Of course they wanted to save the planet, but were they having an impact? … Were their activities going to have any impact on business? Why would business ever listen to them unless they were forced to?

But when I started seeing how business could start being an ally or a driver on some of this, I got really interested in it because it seemed more practical to me, and more within my reach, because I wasn’t going to chain myself to a tree.

He changed career directions, returning to school to learn how business could contribute to sustainability and society.

Patrick had also been deeply affected by his first visit to Vietnam, his mother’s birthplace. He saw the type of deep poverty he hadn’t seen in the United States. There, and elsewhere as he continued to travel, he noticed poor children creating soccer fields from any unoccupied (or lightly occupied) patch of earth or stretch of pavement; making soccer goals out of bedsheets, milk cans, or light posts; and playing with every kind of soccer “ball,” including those they’d make out of discarded twine or plastic bags. They were equally creative in creating their own toys.

While he was living in Brazil, he thought about how he could tap into children’s ingenuity, at once working with them and somehow also partnering with large toy manufacturing companies that “were stagnating in terms of innovation, waiting for the next movie to come along before they launched an old toy with a new name.”

He started a company called Brinq—a shortening of the Portuguese word brinquedo, meaning “toy.” In trying to grow Brinq into a viable business, he began feeling that he lacked “corporate cred” with the companies he would want to attract as partners, and “street cred” with those children in the communities he saw as central to his efforts.

He got what he was looking for with Enterprise for a Sustainable World (ESW), a nonprofit that was implementing the Base of the Pyramid (BoP) Protocol (about which you will read much more in an upcoming chapter).

Brinq was an interesting idea. But I didn’t think I had what was necessary to do some of the things that I wanted to do. I was looking for a vehicle that could build up [my entrepreneurial background and] especially my experience in poor communities. When I considered the BoP Protocol and ESW, it was an opportunity to have some of those experiences and build not only my capability but my reputation as a pioneer.

It was an opportunity that sent him to Kenya, India, and later Flint, Michigan. In each instance, he gained more experience and more responsibility. In Kenya Patrick was a member of an on-the-ground team whose job it was to improvise a set of methods to understand, in ways that companies truly hadn’t before, the lives and worldviews of the very poor; to gain their trust; and to teach them the rudiments of business so that they could become business partners with an innovative corporation.

Patrick found the experience exhilarating. Long days, sure. Uncertainty, everywhere. But a way to learn and grown. To begin to create practical methods to address poverty alleviation through business, practical methods that others could use in the future. And he found deep engagement with the community.

In India, Patrick took on additional responsibility, helping train a new group of individuals, working in slums and the countryside, to understand, extend, and apply the same methods whose development he helped shape in Kenya.

As his involvement in India was winding down, Enterprise for a Sustainable World offered him a bigger opportunity: to lead a new effort in applying the Protocol—this time in Flint, Michigan, a poor community—where the ideas that had been created and tested in the developing world could be adapted for the United States and adopted in an effort to improve health. In Flint, Patrick’s responsibilities ranged across almost every aspect of the project—from helping propose the project to the sponsoring organization, to helping identify and train a new team, helping find local partners, and shaping all aspects of business development on the ground.

Patrick’s experiences trying to invent new kinds of businesses that can serve society—especially while living in Brazil, Kenya, and India—are the envy of some of his former classmates. His advice to others who would like to follow a similar path: create your own opportunities and confirm your passion.

The key to getting somewhere—even if you don’t know exactly where it is—is to always be producing. Find opportunities, whether it’s doing some research, coming up with little reports, or starting a blog. It might mean volunteering. It could mean going out and trying things on your own. You’ll see if you really are interested in them, and you’ll start developing a body of work [that will help you take your next steps]. Know what you’re really passionate about because that will sustain you.

You have to create your own opportunities, but [recognize that] it’s step by step. Break up your vision into different pieces. You may not get [to your ideal position] directly. Ask yourself what vehicle you can use you to build the skills and credibility that you need.

Patrick heeds his own advice. He thrives on “looking around the corner just to learn things. And even better to be creating something that hasn’t been there before.”

Having worked in for-profit and nonprofit companies, big organizations and small, he understands the strengths of each, and is now looking at how they might be combined to create something better.

The major business opportunities from moving in a direction [to address societal problems] are of a size that match smaller organizations right now. [Large] multinational companies, by nature, need larger opportunities whereas an entrepreneur or a small nonprofit will be able to grow along with a small opportunity. For sustainability, for the base of the pyramid, [and for similar efforts] it’s early enough that the opportunities are still small.

Yet large businesses are equipped to act on a large scale—something that is crucial in effecting significant change. Patrick wonders how their advantages can be exploited by smaller entrepreneurial or nonprofit efforts.

I have tremendous respect and admiration for the systems [large businesses] put in place. Often when you’re working in a large company you take for granted what’s there, but someone had to build it up in the first place. Now, small organizations are looking at these types of issues because they have to if they want to grow.

I’ve been helping ESW try to build some of the internal systems that are necessary for it to be able to apply the type of experiences we have had in implementing [a few projects] to a much larger set of projects. The greatest impact we can have is to enable more of them.

As a freshman at Stanford, Patrick was an avid participant in the Big Game bonfire, a century-long tradition aimed at igniting students’ passions the night before the football game against Stanford’s archrival, Cal-Berkeley. Despite the threat the gigantic blaze posed to the rare California tiger salamander, “All I cared about was crushing Cal.”

And now? “I’m pretty sure I’d be on the side of the salamander.”

And what of the software engineer who was frustrated by the demands of producing everyday, “production” software, and who craved impact?

He now sees himself designing systems embracing the most intricate and important of details—social systems with the potential for altering people’s lives.

[Capturing and applying] knowledge and capability will determine if a business is going to be a vehicle [for societal impact]. You need on-the-ground knowledge and you must turn it into a kind of business system.

That’s a fascinating and difficult challenge.

Sachin Rao: It’s Fun to Serve

Sachin Rao, like Patrick, is in the process of finding where he fits best. Born and educated in Bombay, India, Sachin’s biography illustrates how we are a part of our upbringing and yet retain our freedom to make pivotal choices about our lives.

Now thirty-five, Sachin received a degree in software engineering as India was emerging from many years of a socialist tradition. The sum of his technical skills, the demand for talent by the emerging Indian software industry, and the opportunity for security and prestige led to a predictable outcome: a job as an entry-level software engineer, with ample opportunity to advance.

When I graduated, it was the first year of really big campus recruiting [by the Indian software industry]. They called all of us “accidents of time.” We were pretty much absorbed into the software industry’s very large human resource requirements.

We were all children of a “scarcity mentality,” which means job security and income security were really big in our lives. [We were offered] a salary that was obscene—$800 a month. During the scarcity mentality, India also really respected going abroad and traveling to other nations, because it was considered a huge symbol of status. You were considered a “big man,” which added glamour to the whole thing.

Sachin worked in the software industry in offices around the world—first in Asia, then New Zealand, and finally the United States. His responsibilities increased from basic software development, to leading projects, to specialized work with new software technologies. “The first three years were really amazing. I was this twenty-one-year-old kid coming out of college, and I couldn’t ask for anything more—to be put on planes to different parts of the world, earning and spending money. A lot of prestige and a lot of financial return. All of it was just a daze, not much thought in it. All that was good.”

Good for seven years, until it became dissatisfying in a variety of ways—especially Sachin’s sense that his life really wasn’t what he wanted. “I was just caught in the current,” he says. “I was doing what circumstances dictated. And I just stopped and wondered why. … I decided that I needed … to get out of this flowing stream that I was part of, and figure out what I really wanted to do.”

He went to business school—not simply to study business, but because it was one of the biggest ways he could imagine shaking up his life.

I needed a really big change. … I was brought up in a conservative family. The MBA was the most accessible instrument of exploration to me. For me to have gone back to school to receive a degree in psychology or sociology or social work [or something else that might be deemed less practical] was not as accessible from the point of view of my life’s situation. To do something absolutely “crazy” like that would have rocked the boat too much at that point of time. And I don’t personally think I was ready for it.

In his two years of business study, he began to experience more authentically what made him happy and began his quest to design a life built from those elements. “I broke out of my little cocoon and asked myself what made me tick, what really satisfied me. I unshackled a lot of preconceived notions that my upbringing and circumstances had [created]. I was willing to really look at myself and answer the tough question about what would make me happy.” He also expanded his awareness of what was occurring in the world around him. As part of a business school project, he traveled to a part of India with which he was not familiar, studying how poor Indian farmers’ lives were being improved by giving them access, over the Internet, to the market price of the produce they were growing. He gained minor fame by recording the comments of village farmers who expressed disappointment that local sanchalaks—who are, more or less, information brokers—were not connected to the highly sophisticated Chicago Board of Trade. “I realized that the world of making lives better, contributing to humanity, is not just a bunch of people working in slums giving vaccinations; it’s much larger. It incorporates a number of people, a number of domains, and it’s truly a rich discipline. A lot of things can be done to help the world, and a lot of things can be done to satisfy oneself.”

Sachin landed a highly coveted consulting job in the United States with the firm Booz Allen upon receiving his MBA. But he knew that someday he wanted to return to India to explore the world of contribution to which he had been exposed. “Literally, on the first day I graduated, I pulled out my ‘Indian Rolodex.’ I called [everyone on it] and said, ‘Listen I’m graduating and going into [consulting] for financial reasons, but I plan to come back given the right kind of opportunity. Please keep me in mind, keep me posted, and let’s stay connected.’ That’s actually the first thing I did when I finished business school.”

In a year’s time, he returned to India—turning away the riches and perks that a consulting path held in store for him for the intellectual and heartfelt wealth he knew was available in India.

He spent one year with a nonprofit think tank, officially supporting their education mission, and less officially journeying to rural India and into inner-city slums to better understand those environments and to study different for-profit, nonprofit, and government-led efforts at serving them. “What I really wanted at that point in time was to influence lives of people in a very large way, and I was sold on the argument of BoP businesses,” he says. He explored several opportunities for creating entrepreneurial, for-profit businesses that offered increased dignity to the poor by providing essential services such as affordable housing and sanitation. “After a year [of exploration] I had thought I had figured it out.”

But, as Sachin discovered, even when you design your life, your life continues to present new options to consider.

I got an opportunity, a very interesting opportunity, from the office of a young Parliamentarian in India. He asked me if I wanted to join him and help do [economic] developmental work in his constituency. So I joined him at that point in time, doing grassroots developmental work in a Northern Indian state. That transition eventually led to political organization work. And these days I’m helping with restructuring political organizations for youth to make them more accessible to the people of India.

What has guided Sachin’s decisions to fluidly move from one opportunity to the next?

It sounds a little silly, but a big deal for me is to have fun. I just ask myself, “Is what I’m doing fun?” And there is a huge amount of fun in what I’m doing right now. Part of that is simply the BoP [approach]. You’re taking a brand new way of looking at a problem [of serving the poor] and designing a whole, brand new solution for a space where no one even talked about innovating before.

[I enjoy] thinking innovatively, thinking differently, thinking with a stronger moral fiber about some of the things that we do. Is there a more dignified way of doing something? A less corrupt way to do it? A more transparent way? Is there something that preserves human dignity a whole lot better?

[Another] level of fun is going to un-served people—people who have never been served [by businesses, nonprofits, or governmental institutions] before. [That] sense of service really drives me. The focus on service comes from my need, not from any sense of patronage or altruism. [It’s] service for the joy it brings me. It’s a very big [motivator of] what I do today.

Sachin used to describe his motivation in terms of acting with a sense of relevance, with a desire to impact millions of people. Though he no longer chooses this description—now focusing instead on the enjoyment he gets from his deep involvement—in the most fundamental ways, nothing has changed:

You may not even be able to articulate what you really like and want. I [had an answer to] this question when I graduated business school. You asked me this question again today, and I gave you another answer. Believe me, in five years’ time it’s probably going to be a completely different answer. But intuitively that answer has never actually changed for me. The way I have learned to articulate it, what I have learned about my answer, has evolved. But the answer to me has not changed, and I hope it doesn’t.

Yet change is a constant in our lives in other respects, and must be embraced. Staying true to your roots doesn’t mean rooting yourself in one place forever:

 You’ve got to be willing to change [according to] what you discover about yourself—to face what you enjoy doing, and have the courage to go after it. [But] don’t ever grow attached to a vehicle. Booz [the consulting agency for which Sachin worked] was a vehicle. My current position is a vehicle. It’s a blast. [But if it turns out that this is] not an appropriate vehicle or an appropriate position, I will shake hands and, with my head held high, walk away. You can’t ever forget to do that. The moment you do that is when you stop in your path: when your current position becomes too good for you to follow your calling.

Frankly, [walking away] is not easy. I’ve been through this two or three times, and it’s a difficult challenge. Make sure your conscience is clear, but when the time comes, have the courage to move on. And I don’t think it ever ends. The moment in which you demonstrate courage is nothing if you don’t demonstrate it in the next moment that comes. There is really no substitute for that.

And remember: “Nothing is bigger than a sense of fun.” Even if it’s our life’s work to find it.

Steve Mariotti: A World of Entrepreneurs

Steve Mariotti has taken a twisty, sometimes difficult path to end up exactly where he belongs.

Born in Flint, Michigan, the birthplace of General Motors and the subject of the film Roger & Me, Steve wrote his ticket for the business fast track, earning a business degree at the University of Michigan and landing a key position at Ford Motor Company before founding his own successful import/export business.

Then, about three decades ago, his path took a sharp turn when he was mugged while jogging. The experience forced him to confront his own fears and made him want to understand the mentality of people like the poor young men who had mugged him because he wasn’t carrying the ten dollars they demanded: he turned to teaching.

Not just any teaching—teaching in the worst inner-city school in New York City—and possibly anywhere. It was the location he requested.

To pretend that Steve taught “happily ever after” would miss his story’s arc completely. Steve’s teaching was anything but happy at the start, and it seemed destined for anything but “ever after.” Steve had worked for one future Nobel Laureate, Milton Friedman, and studied with another, F. A. Hayek. Which counted for exactly nothing with his students, who called him a “midget” to his face and locked him out of his own classroom.

But an entrepreneur by nature, Steve’s response was to view this as a problem to solve—and one clearly worth the effort. His approach? Getting his students to hunger for learning. His vehicle? Teaching his students how to run a business.

Students did become interested. And as their interest increased, Steve created more meaningful learning experiences for them. Not only did he teach them business principles, but he also had them read the Wall Street Journal, pick stocks, and, finally, start their own businesses.

Yet his success created its own difficulties. Administrators frowned on his emphasis on business over “real” academics. They complained that his class discussions were “too money oriented,” that in class there was too much role-playing. Never mind that attendance in his classes was soaring, as was academic performance.

Steve was also picking up all the out-of-pocket expenses that went along with his unconventional teaching style. “I was paying all my classroom costs because the program doesn’t really work if the kid doesn’t have some money to buy things to sell,” he says. “So I funded that. I don’t know how teachers do it, because the school never funds [creative expenses]. … I was suffering the last four years of high school teaching.”

After six years of public school teaching, Steve started a nonprofit organization, the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE), to gain control over the educational experiencehe was providing students and to relieve some of the financial pressures. Still, it was a tough decision to leave: “It was scary. I had a tenured position, I was engaged, and I was scared. But I’m so glad I did it.”

Steve’s educational philosophy was shifting, too. He had begun teaching about business because that was the only thing he could talk about that students would listen to, and he was there to make them learn.

Yet, he began to feel that business, especially entrepreneurship, represented something more. He saw the uncanny fit between extreme poverty and entrepreneurship. Both were surrounded by uncertainty, risk, and ambiguity. “It became clear to me that my mission was not just to teach in the inner cities, but to teach entrepreneurship there. I came to believe, very strongly, that entrepreneurship was a more promising way out of the economic dead end of these neighborhoods than entry-level jobs, or more welfare, or other wasteful and unproductive government spending.”

Yet NFTE—Steve’s own entrepreneurial effort—wasn’t doing too well financially itself. “We’d gone insolvent. I remember lying awake one night and thinking, ‘Oh my, God, you failed.’ How would I explain that I wasn’t going to be able to pay [my debts]? … I was going to have to pay, and that would have totally wiped me out.”

Happily, NFTE and Steve got through it because of the generosity of a donor. It wasn’t the last time that NFTE faced financial difficulties.

Throughout his career, Steve has always paid close attention to his intuition. More than once, his gut told him he was doing his life’s work.

His abilities at Ford, where he was known as “Stevie Wonder” for his finance skills, had been noticed by others. Several times while he was teaching, he received offers to return to the automotive industry, some for more than three times the salary he was making when he left. He could have left teaching in a heartbeat and become quite wealthy. “I remember thinking about [one offer] for a couple of days, and my inner voice said, ‘Don’t do it. Stay where you are.’“

As his conviction to help people out of poverty through his educational programs deepened, his ideas about how his programs worked their magic kept evolving. He now views entrepreneurship as a means for the poor to gain control of their lives, and as a stimulus to get them to view their lives differently.

We try to raise the consciousness level of children in poverty toward the skills and habits of thought that create the potential for owning. Everything we really do is aimed at helping someone control how they will spend their time in the future. … NFTE’s business really is activating the subconscious minds of children that are having a tough go of it. [Through business] we awaken their subconscious minds to potentially think, “I can go in this direction and actually have a big impact on where I’m going to be.” …

Helping someone be aware of markets and their role in markets—“Am I a consumer, seller, owning part of the profits, or providing labor?”—is [how we do that]. … I like to say that NFTE’s work, like the great theorists who awakened society to the role of women in society, or great civil rights leaders who talked about the role of different minority groups, is bringing global attention to the issue of poverty and youth, and how it can, at least in part, be alleviated by people thinking how [to take more ownership].

Steve explains that the same forces that he hopes to influence in the students he reaches have shaped his own life and career:

All my dreamsare coming true. I always wanted to have a career that I loved. I always wanted to be able to travel around the world, and I always wanted to feel that what I was doing had a greater good socially.

Subconsciously I believe that where you are at a moment is based on your prior subconscious thoughts. Somehow my subconscious saw [the kind of opportunity that NFTE could provide] and created the world that I now live in. … When your subconscious gets aligned with what you really want to do consciously, almost every [dream] comes true. That has been my experience.

Steve has won numerous awards for his work at NFTE, including America’s Top High School Business Teacher, Entrepreneur of the Year, and Social Entrepreneur of the Year.

Details of NFTE’s approach to education are covered in an upcoming chapter.


PLUS stay updated with news and tips from my latest book, Becoming a Social Entrepreneur: Starting Out, Scaling Up, Staying True, which explores lessons learned from more than 100 social entrepreneurs. 
Learn how to create social impact in these trying times.