After raising $8000 from 212 supporters in 26 days, I got on a plane this June to Boulder, Colorado to attend the Unreasonable Institute, an incubator for high-impact social entrepreneurs. Below is a post-mortem of a summer I will never forget.
Life In A Chocolate Fondue
Donna Morton, an Unreasonable Fellow from Canada, summed up this summer pretty eloquently—she said it was like ‘living in a chocolate fondue’. It filled up your senses, it was heavenly and when it was over, you were left craving for more.
Imagine being put in a house for 6 weeks with 26 people whose ideas, experiences and passion will blow your mind and force you to think about the world in a radically different way.
I’m talking former child soldiers from Liberia who went on to form organizations that rehabilitate other former child soldiers. I’m talking entrepreneurs from Uganda who put on their first pairs of shoes at age 13. I’m talking 25 year olds who had already lifted over a thousand local producers out of poverty in Brazil. I’m talking recycling businesses that had generated over $1M in revenue in 18 months, and life-saving medical devices that had been recognized by the World Health Organization. I’m talking entrepreneurs who grew up in the slums of India and are now running the biggest bike-sharing system in the country. The first few days were spent being inspired by something new every single hour.
What a group, I thought to myself. How had they selected these people? What could we not accomplish together if we put our minds to it?
26 Fellows. 17 Countries.
There was this pressure that something incredible had to be squeezed out of every minute of every day. There was a fear that once the summer was over, there would be a big void in our lives.
Oh To Dream Big…
Perhaps the most enticing part of the Institute for me before I landed in Boulder was the mentors. The promise of living with and learning from the best of the best. Admittedly, it was slightly intimidating at first. I mean, how do you start a conversation with the CTO of Hewlett-Packard when you find yourself sitting at the dinner table next to him? Or when you run into Paul Polak in the hallway?
My first impulse: “Holy crap! You’re Paul Polak!” Knowing Paul, he would’ve responded with a witty quip of his own. When asked by Daniel Epstein (the Institute’s founding president) what he hoped to get out of being with the fellows, he replied with a straight face: “At least seven girl friends.”
The intimidation however, was extremely short lived for the reason that is the Unreasonable Institute’s secret sauce. You’re made to live and work alongside these mentors, to be in all kinds of situations with them. So you’re playing volleyball with a bloody-kneed Jigar Shah. You’re not sitting in an audience of a hundred, listening to him talk. You’re out having drinks with Kevin Starr. You’re having a bathroom-sink conversation with Kim Scheinberg. You’re hiking with Kamran Elahian. You’re going dancing with Kevin Jones. You’re sharing lunch on a sunny balcony with David Kyle.
And you realize what you’d known all along but found hard to believe—they’re human after all. But they have achieved what the Fellows all aspire to achieve. And the common denominator among all the mentors—they are not afraid, or ashamed, to dream big. They have audacious goals of changing the world. They share a sense of urgency at shaking up the status quo. Some of them are furious that the world is not doing more to tackle poverty. They have the willpower and determination to turn ideas into reality. And they’re just a little bit crazy. And unreasonable.
Back in April, I had been heartbroken by the Greg Mortenson controversy and had written a blogpost about it. I’d linked my post to Kevin Starr’s thoughts on the matter, citing him several times. He was someone I viewed as an admirable changemaker. So it all seemed a little surreal when I found myself at the Institute one day, sitting face-to-face with Starr as we lounged in the dining area, lost in a discussion about the controversy.
There was a lot to learn.
How do you build to scale? How do you hire and fire? How do you raise capital?
Influx of knowledge from people who had done it many times. 1-on-1 mentoring sessions. Ripping apart of business models. Workshops on impact, scaling, sustainable design, venture capital, communication, how to make the ask, improving the customer experience, legal structures, corporate partnerships, business modeling.
Session on impact with Kevin Starr
- And then there was the pitching.
We went from pitching to a few dozen people at the weekly ‘family pitches’ where the audience was other fellows, to pitching to a hundred or so folks at the ‘community pitches’ that were open to the Boulder community, to pitching to a packed Boulder Theater that seated more than 300 folks, at the Unreasonable climax event.
Tom Suddes told us we were all in the ‘selling business’ whether we liked it or not. “You’re in sales. Get over it!” he would say. If we could not show conviction and sell our idea to people, why would anyone invest their time or money in us?
Some of us, like Luis Duarte of Yo reciclo in Mexico, were not scared to get on top of the dining table and pitch their venture to everyone as many times as it took to get the point across.
Before the San Francisco Investors’ pitch, I found myself pitching in the shower, in the car, over dinner, every chance I got. My roommates and I would pitch to each other as we brushed our teeth. There was a strong sense of us all being in this together, of having a common goal—to change the f-ing world, as Daniel Epstein famously liked to say. And we had to convince everyone we were the right people, the best people to do it.
For myself and BLISS, it was the perfect time to be at such a place. We had just finished our pilot in Attock, Pakistan. After almost a year of designing and prototyping, we had launched our first line of handbags. In the weeks following the launch, we had sold out our stock, and had been approached by a top retailer in Pakistan, as well as two high-end fair-trade shops in London and Dubai. The girls were beaming with confidence and pride; many more wanted to join. It was time to go bigger!
I had gone into the Institute looking for help on very specific challenges—building the team on a shoe-string budget, raising capital, scaling. And while I did get help on these, I also came out with questions about things I thought were set in stone. Such as our legal structure. I went in defending a nonprofit model despite knowing that we had the financial structure to be a for-profit. It came up over and over again. At the Investors’ pitch, in meetings with mentors, in discussions with other fellows. Why were we not a for-profit? My simple answer was, the perception of the organization, especially within Pakistan. We were working with young girls, and it was easy to be skeptical of our mission if we were a for-profit. Our organization’s reputation was especially important because the marketability of our products partially rested on it. Plus, our mission was mainly social—the products were merely a means to an end.
In San Francisco, I met Scott Leonard, the CEO of Indigenous Designs, which sources premium fair-trade and organic clothing from artisans in the poorest regions of South America. The questions he asked as he argued for a for-profit model stuck with me. As a non-profit, could we really rally the kind of skills and build the kind of team we could as a for-profit? Could we pay smart, motivated young folks enough to stick with us? Had I seen any examples of successful global businesses built by a non-profit? Did I really need to worry about the organization’s reputation if there was financial transparency? Could we raise enough capital and scale fast enough as a non-profit? I found myself digging deep to answer these questions.
But along with the questions came validation. The feeling of walking away having learned how powerful my story was, how compelling the model, and how mind-blowing the potential of the work.
What struck me time and again in my time at the Institute, was how incredibly valuable the collective knowledge of the fellows’ pool was. Every week, at the family pitches, where a few of the fellows pitched and got feedback on their models from the others, I would realize as we went around the room, that we had people present there whose collective geographical spread and knowledge base was so vast that the feedback was amazingly comprehensive, the ideas shared disruptive, the contacts offered game-changing. In our last week, the Unreasonable staff scheduled a session to brainstorm just how to capture and harness this collective genius in the medium and long term.
Peer-To-Peer On Crack
The takeaway from the Institute that will last me my lifetime is the friendships.
And when these friends are as obsessed with changing the world as you are, the energy and inspiration you draw from each other is just as valuable as the next round of funding.
These friendships were built over shared meals—3 times a day every day. They were built on the dance floor as we would unwind after a long day, on breath-taking hikes through the Rocky Mountains, over games of volleyball and foosball, over late-night guitar sessions, at quaint little tea-shops, gelato places and sushi bars in downtown Boulder, around campfires as we sang. They were built over celebrations like Gaurav Manchanda of OneDegree Solar getting engaged to be married, and sometimes, they were built over sharing deep grief—when Donna Morton learned that she had to leave the Institute mid-way because of potentially life-threatening health issues (she is well now!). They were built at the pitching events, as we whispered much-needed words of encouragement to each other before facing an audience of investors. They were built over 4am conversations atop hills overlooking the gorgeous city of Boulder. They were built sitting on the patio—reflecting. Dreaming. Laughing. Talking.
Sometimes these friendships were built over a single shared moment of vulnerability. The kind that you allow with someone you have known for a very long time. I’ll never forget the lunch I had at the Trattoria in downtown Boulder with George Deriso, one of our mentors and a professor at University of Boulder, Colorado. As I talked about my work, the girls, their dreams, my dreams, I was on fire. Very normal when I start talking about BLISS. But as he prodded me more and I started sharing more stories, my eyes welled up with tears. As I glanced up at him I saw him shedding a few as well. We laughed at ourselves through the tears, and it felt like we had known each other for years, not weeks. It just didn’t make sense. It was unreasonable. Like so many other things this summer.
There is no substitute for being part of a network of extremely smart and motivated people who really and truly understand what it means to be a struggling entrepreneur. Some fellows, like Tiago Dalvi of Solidarium are where I see our business in 3 or 4 years. We would often sit and discuss our businesses; I would confide in him about our struggles, and learn how he had coped with the same.
Everyone had a sense of humor. Nothing was politically incorrect (a theme that was tested often with a group that came from 17 different countries). As Luis (from Mexico) and Mohamed (from Mali) helped lift some furniture into a truck, they would joke about how the Mexicans and Africans were doing all the dirty work. We would imitate each other’s accents, even do role-playing games that left us in fits.
My roommates—Shivani Siroya of Inventure Fund and Cynthia Koenig of Wello—and I often stayed up till the wee hours of the night talking about our businesses, about the mentors, about what we hoped to get out of the Institute. Sometimes we would dissect the whole day. Sometimes we would just ramble, or gossip, each perched on her own bed. In many ways, it was like being a freshman again. I lived in a triple, slept on a bunkbed, was learning new and amazing things every day, living with people that had come together from across the globe. And the first day kicked off with a scavenger hunt!
Capturing all of this was a TV crew that was pure, unadulterated creative genius. The cameras that surrounded us at all times were distracting at first, but by the second week everyone was used to them. The experience of living and working at the Institute is still making its way to periodically-released episodes of Unreasonable TV.
Reasons to Dance
Every week, the fellows gathered to share reasons to dance—things that our ventures were accomplishing through, and while at, the Institute. Emails from dream funders, a stellar contract, coverage in the country’s biggest business magazine, a new board member.
Four weeks after the Institute is over, the excitement has not withered, as the 26 of us share notes, thoughts, pictures, lessons, opportunities, and of course, reasons to dance. Yes, thank you Facebook. Thank you, Twitter. And thank you, good old email.
We are still helping each other make some of the biggest decisions of our lives. I recently gave up two offers to work at places I would’ve jumped at a year ago, and the first people I turned to when making the decision were the Unreasonables. Some of them had faced similar decisions many times over. And they were quick to tell me that over time, the opportunities that would present themselves to me were only going to be more enticing. That what I decided to give up defined me as much as what I decided to pursue.
In some ways, it was a summer of extremes—extreme inspiration and optimism, extreme emotions, extreme amounts of Red Bull, extreme sleep deprivation, extreme fun, extreme learning and extreme friendships.
But above all, these 45 days of summer have given us all many reasons to dance.
Fellows after the Unreasonable Climax, with George Bernard Shaw looking on. Photo by Ryan Martens