‘Imagine the Executive Producer of ER and Law and Order SVU giving you insight into storytelling.’ writes the Unreasonable team in a Facebook post. ‘Or the former VP of Global Marketing from Coca Cola advising you on branding your organization to the masses. What about having dinner with the founder of Engineers without Borders?‘
This is what the 25 selected Unreasonable Fellows have in store for them in the summer of 2011.
The Unreasonable Institute is a prestigious accelerator for entrepreneurs tackling the world’s most intractable social and environmental problems. Founded in 2010, it unites 25 high‐impact entrepreneurs from around the world in Boulder, Colorado for six weeks. The entrepreneurs live and work with 60 world‐class mentors, pitch their ventures to hundreds of investors in Silicon Valley, obtain legal advice and design consulting, and form relationships with up to 30 impact investment funds, including Acumen Fund, Good Capital and Echoing Green. They prepare to launch financially self‐sustaining, globally scalable ventures that can serve the needs of at least 1 million people.
The Unreasonable Story
The Institute is named after Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw’s famous saying: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in adapting the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
The co-founders are four brilliant, enterprising 20-somethings who were college-mates at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Daniel Epstein, Teju Ravilochan, Tyler Hartung and Vladimir Dubovskiy shared experiences in developing countries that led them to believe in the power of entrepreneurship in solving the world’s most pressing social and environmental problems. It also led them to believe in the power of unreasonable people – those who are crazy enough to ignore the skeptics, who remain undeterred by persistent failure, and who, above all, are convinced they can change the world.
Epstein, the president of the Institute, also founded the Global Leadership Institute in 2008, which united 7 young leaders from 14 countries with 60 inspiring speakers and a training curriculum. It was a success, but feedback revealed that it lacked a key element – mentorship. Listening to an inspiring speech that made you want to change the world was all well and good, but the participants wanted to be able to take their ideas from conceptualization to implementation. They wanted experts who would sit down with them and guide them through the operational challenges of getting a social enterprise off the ground. They wanted access to other resources, primarily funding.
Meanwhile Ravilochan and Dubovskiy were traveling through India, seeing the work of various organizations serving the world’s poor, and discovering that most traditional, charity-based models had failed to impact, scale and empower their beneficiaries. At the same time, they saw the scalability and high potential of entrepreneurial solutions to poverty.
Over the next 2 years, all the Unreasonable co-founders attempted to start their own social ventures. All failed. In the process they discovered first-hand the challenges a young entrepreneur faces – lack of credibility, experience, mentorship, networks, capital and other ingredients crucial to the success of a start-up. They realized that while young people across the world were hungry to change the world, there wasn’t a space for them to come together and systematically learn how to implement this change.
A thorough exploration of the social enterprise space brought to the founders’ attention organizations like Acumen and Ashoka, that were doing brilliant work in using business solutions to lift communities out of poverty. But they were not focused on the young, inexperienced, high-risk entrepreneur. They were not focused on bringing these young people together and opening avenues of mentorship and funding to them. The best models, that the Unreasonable Institute was eventually based upon, came from the technology sector – TechStars and Y Combinator, incubators that bring together between 10 and 40 technology entrepreneurs and provide them funding, mentors, partners and contacts. Inspired by these, the Unreasonable team re-created the model for the social/environmental space.
What’s So Unreasonable About the Institute?
The Unreasonable Institute’s differentiating factor is having their entrepreneurs, mentors, consultants and capital partners live under one roof at the Unreasonable Mansion for the duration of the program. “That is a very powerful idea”, says Ravilochan. “We have this belief that business isn’t just business. Business is people. Fundamental to anything we do is human relations. The Institute is about forming these relations and seeing what magic comes out of it!”
Global thought-leaders, consultants, entrepreneurs and investors guide the fellows as they work toward milestones related to impact, messaging, financial projections and cash flow management, marketing and distribution, reaching global scale, and business modeling. And all of it is captured on the Unreasonable TV. A past Unreasonable mentor writes of the Institute: “Its curriculum reads like a mash-up of a 6-week MBA program and a “Real World” episode”.
“Fellows make omelettes with Kamran Elahian, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist and founder of 10 companies, several of which were valued at more than $1 billion.”, says Ravilochan. “Paul Polak, who has enabled over 19 million farmers to lift themselves out of poverty, drops by to host an impromptu workshop in the living room. Fellows sit by the fire, sipping hot tea on a rainy afternoon, and talk with David Bornstein, author of How to Change the World. They brush their teeth next to Gregory Miller, co-founder of Google.org. They leave the Institute with deep human relationships that translate to impact.”
As the fellows live together day in and day out, share meals, stories and intensive training, play volleyball and go hiking, see each other in pajamas and at odd times of the day, everyone is forced to eliminate pretense. The 6 weeks humble the Fellows, bring them together and facilitate great relationship building. Last year, the Unreasonable Fellows were calling each other family within the first few weeks. This year, one of the fellows is getting married in Dunkerque, France; at least 8 others are attending.
“The experience allows people to be vulnerable, to be comfortable failing in front of one another”, says Ravilochan. “That’s when the best learning occurs; mentors feel comfortable giving harsh feedback. Entrepreneurship is such a lonely profession – having this long-term support network, this family really helps!”
A video is worth many posts – if you want to know what the Institute is all about, watch this very well-made 3-minute trailer.
Like one past fellow puts it: “Going to the Institute is like when Luke Skywalker goes to the Dagobah system to meet Yoda – you come out with amazing skills you never knew you had. And you want to save the world”.
And of course money doesn’t hurt – last year, 60 percent of the Unreasonable Fellows seeking funding received capital for their ventures shortly after the end of the Institute.
The Unreasonable team has also been working around the clock to find new ways to facilitate investment for their fellows. In their first year of operation, they took their entrepreneurs on a road trip to pitch to Silicon Valley investors. Almost none of them secured investments.
Then, at the Institute itself, 7 entrepreneurs received investments from the in-house mentors, once again proving the power of the relationships that develop when people live under the same roof. The mentors and entrepreneurs got time to know each other; the relationships translated to the mentors serving on the entrepreneurs’ boards, and in this case, to providing them capital. Learning from this experience, this year the team has asked the capital partners and investors to also live at the Unreasonable mansion alongside the entrepreneurs.
How Did They Pull This Off?
The Unreasonable Institute has made it big in a single year. It has been called the “Social Innovation Game Changer of The Year”, the “leading social venture incubator”, featured in the Huffington Post, NextBillion, Forbes, JustMeans, and has partnerships in place with big players like HP. Ravilochan says the Institute owes its success first and foremost to the team and its fierce dedication – 16-hour workdays for the last 2 years. “They are working downstairs as we speak!”, he told me during our phone call.
Just as important is the timing; this is an ideal time for social startups and the incubators that are their backbone. Social media and better access to information makes it more possible today than ever before to bring together people from all parts of the globe. It also provides a window into the lives of those in less privileged parts of the world, motivating social impact enthusiasts to develop innovative ways to tackle poverty and socioeconomic inequality. It is a time when there is increased frustration with the work of traditional non-profits, and a hunger to experiment with new ways to solve old problems.
And the final ingredient for the success of this truly unreasonable team? Partners and mentors. Copying what works, partnering with what works, and bringing people who do what works to the Institute. The expertise of the Institute is provided by its mentors. The marketing, outreach, and the team’s journey to finding their 25 Unreasonable Fellows is led by 104 partners around the globe. They partners and mentors have shaped the Unreasonable model, guided the founders in initial setup, and are what make this program so valuable. The accelerator itself was modeled after TechStars and Y Combinator, while the Unreasonable Marketplace (explained below) was inspired by Kickstarter.
When asked what the Unreasonable team thinks of other incubators such as Hub, Sparkseed, and GoodCompany Ventures to name a few, Ravilochan says: “Like Mohammad Yunus likes to say – there is enough poverty in the world for all of us, so we don’t need to compete. Each of us is only able to incubate 25-30 entrepreneurs a year. That is a drop in the bucket.”
The Best Part – The Unreasonable Finalist Marketplace
As of Jan 20th, the Unreasonable Institute’s Finalist Marketplace is open! More than 300 entrepreneurs from over 60 countries are competing for 25 spots at the Institute, and they are picked by popular vote on the Marketplace. The 45 featured finalists include a Chinese engineer with a prototype for waterless composting toilets; a 2010 CNN Hero from Kenya who has distributed over 10,000 solar lanterns; and an American inventor with a water purification system that can roll up to the size of a ruler. But only the first 25 to raise $8000 through online donations will be accepted into the Summer 2011 Institute.
The 45 finalists must rally support from hundreds and hundreds of people to raise the $8K. In order to enhance the challenge, the Unreasonable Institute has imposed contribution caps, starting with $10 in week one and increasing to $50 in week 2, $100 in week 3, and so on. In addition to preventing single underwriters from providing full funding, the caps force finalists to mobilize the support of hundreds of people from around the world, mandating creative marketing, effective storytelling and the power of social media to garner support for their ideas.
“A huge part of being a truly exceptional entrepreneur is to be able to rally excitement and support for your idea,” says Epstein. “The Marketplace tests these entrepreneurs’ ability to do just that and, in the form of public support garnered, offers a real‐time measure of success.”
And how is BLISS doing on the marketplace? Quite remarkably, thanks to all our wonderful friends and supporters! We are in 2nd place out of 45 ventures, with over 150 sponsors in the first week, but we need hundreds more sponsors to raise the $8K. If you believe in the power of female empowerment in poverty alleviation, take 2 minutes of your time and $10 of your money and vote for BLISS. If there’s anything the Unreasonable founders and their fellows are proving – it is that each one of us is capable of making a difference.
So, go! Vote! If not for BLISS, vote for your favorite of these 45 entrepreneurs. Their stories are all very inspiring. Each one deserves the extraordinary experience that is the Unreasonable Institute.