The speakers for the inaugural Scaling Development Ventures (SDV) conference who had to travel from farthest away — from Nigeria, Tanzania, Saudi Arabia, Kenya, Indonesia, Ghana, India, Scotland and Nepal — mostly made it to Boston before last weekend's major snowstorm, but for others the trip became impossible. The conference — scheduled to have taken place Saturday, Feb. 9, at the MIT Media Lab, during what turned out to be a historic storm — had 250 participants pre-registered and 125 more on the waiting list.
Quickly, the conference organizers took action to convert the planned conference sessions to a webinar and a live reception at D-Lab for those close-by.
SDV was conceived by MIT forces committed to entrepreneurship and international development. Conference organizers included D-Lab's Scale-Ups program, the Public Service Center's IDEAS Global Challenge, the International Development Initiative, and the Media Lab's Entrepreneurship Program. The intention of the conference was to convene some of the world's most inspiring social entrepreneurs, at all stages of development, to explore strategies, models and resources that can help development ventures achieve scale for significant social impact.
Krista Donaldson, chief executive officer of D-Rev, a nonprofit product development company whose mission is to improve the health and incomes of people living on less than $4 a day, was the conference keynote speaker. The first panel session, "Drawing Inspiration," featured four speakers from relatively mature social enterprises, including Toshi Nakamura, co-founder of Kopernik; Kate Montgomery, director of global partnerships at d.light; Anand Narayan, director of SELCO Labs; and David Reich MBA '08, founder and CEO of Assured Labor. For the second session, "Applying Lessons Learned," panelists representing younger enterprises included Khalida Brohi, founder of Sughar; Kenfield Griffith SM '06, PhD '12, co-founder of mSurvey; and Jodie Wu '09, founder of Global Cycle Solutions.
A decade of progress for addressing global poverty at MIT
D-Lab founder Amy Smith, a senior lecturer in MIT's Department of Mechanical Engineering, welcomed the speakers and attendees to the webinar, and provided perspective on the years of hard work that laid the foundation for the conference, and the evolution of international development at MIT.
"Over the last decade," she noted, "things have changed a lot at MIT. We now have classes where hundreds of students are working to solve poverty issues with people from around world, not just for people living in poverty. We've got a number of entrepreneurial engines that have led to dozens of social ventures each year through the IDEAS [Global Challenge] competition, the Yunus Challenge, the $100K [Business Plan Competition] development track, and the Development Ventures class."
Smith continued with a rallying call to action: "Despite the changes at MIT, there are still billions who are living in poverty around the world, and more than ever, there's a need for innovation to bring about impact at a huge scale around the world. The Scaling Development Ventures conference is envisioned to foster collaborations and conversations that will build partnerships to tackle these problems at global scale."
Webinar take-aways: Focus on impact, due diligence — and tea drinking?
All but one of the originally scheduled speakers were able to participate in the webinar and 120 individuals were able to join. "It was amazing to see the dedication that the SDV organizing team had, ensuring that the effort they put into the conference did not go to waste. I was pleasantly surprised by how seamless the webinar was," said Bijal Shah MBA '13, founder of Lallitara, a relatively new social enterprise converting used saris into a line of clothing and other products, and one of the nine newer social venture teams featured at the conference.
Speakers addressed a wide range of issues, including: the challenges of moving from research and development into marketing and distribution; making important decisions about how to incorporate a business or non-profit (meaning it becomes a separate, legal entity); the need for — and challenges of — transitioning a founder-led start-up to a CEO-led organization; the need for local presence and credibility and for providing quality and appropriate products; and the bottom-line imperative that social entrepreneurs be passionately devoted to their work and to making a difference in the lives of people living in poverty.
Donaldson, in her keynote presentation, recommended that social entrepreneurs focus on impact, and encouraged her colleagues to address four crucial questions about any product posed by Kevin Starr of the Mulago Foundation:
- Is it needed?
- Does it work?
- Will it get to those who need it?
- Will it be used correctly?
And she noted that partnerships with customers and local organizations are essential, and that building these relationships can take time — sometimes years — and require a lot of tea drinking.
Montgomery from d.light, a for-profit enterprise that designs, manufactures and distributes solar lights and power products in low-and middle-income countries, cautioned that the skill set required to start a company is usually different than the skills required to take a growing company global. She added that the most successful companies recognize this and are proactive about making the transition. But Montgomery also looked at the bigger picture in her remarks. She encouraged the audience to dream big, because through big dreams come big achievements, which are followed by donors, investors and customers.
Combining the efficiency of the private sector with a social mission, SELCO Labs is a nonprofit entity working to develop energy solutions for underserved households in rural communities. Director Narayan raised the importance of distinguishing how soft money, such as grant money, is used and where hard money is required. He recommended reserving soft money for research and development.
Narayan's comments resonated with Wu, the founder of Global Cycle Solutions in Tanzania and a current D-Lab Scale-Ups fellow. "The panelists kind of confirmed my thoughts and experiences ... Anand talked about how R&D should be grant funded and that's why I've been looking at a hybrid structure," Wu said.
Prior to the conference, panelist Nakamura described his hopes for the conference: "This is a great initiative that is bringing together the most creative minds and hands-on practitioners in the intersection of simple technology and international development ... Kopernik focuses on distribution to the last mile and we are looking forward to working together with the Scaling Development Ventures community to exchange learnings and solve some of the biggest challenges facing the developing world today," he said.
And were Nakamura's expectations met? "Absolutely," he replied, "I think it is a huge value this conference has offered ... I heard pitches from nine different groups and I'm really excited to see how they develop in a year or two. Hopefully we'll be able to work together in disseminating these technologies."
A live reception following the storm
Following the webinar, and after the storm had drawn to a close, about 25 hearty souls within close walking distance braved the snowdrifts and hiked over to D-Lab to share refreshments while discussing the lessons of the morning’s online sessions and making valuable in-person connections.
Among the brave, was Alistair Horton, who had traveled from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to open the conference, as an ambassador from the Abdul Latif Jameel Community Initiatives (ALJCI), the lead sponsor of the conference. Horton congratulated the conference organizers for succeeding in the face of adversity and provided background on ALJCI's commitment to funding job creation, arts and culture, in addition to poverty alleviation programs at MIT and around the world.
As the gathering wound down, Kate Mytty of the IDEAS Global Challenge and Daniel Mokrauer-Madden of the International Development Initiative, both key conference organizers, presented all those in attendance with a small bottle of highly prized Moringa oil, courtesy of D-Lab Scale-Ups fellow, Kwami Williams, and his social enterprise team, MoringaConnect.
Mentoring the newest generation of MIT-affiliated social ventures
The conference originally planned to showcase nine teams of rising MIT social ventures who were to have received mentoring sessions with conference participants. This session was rescheduled for Monday and additional follow-up online is being planned to ensure these newest social ventures reap the full benefit of advice from the mentors hand-picked for them by the conference organizing committee.
One team who connected in person with their mentor on Monday was the Practical Education Network (PEN). PEN empowers teachers around the world to engage their students in hands-on science and real-world design projects. The team designs locally relevant science practicals and provides training for teachers, among other services. Their mentor, Gordon Adomdza, originally from Ghana, is an assistant professor of entrepreneurship and innovation at Northeastern University. "It helped a lot that he is from the country we're working in so he completely understood the context ... he really helped us think of our business model in more of a design context, designing for who our customers are," explained Grace Kane '11.
Grace described her appreciation of being included in the conference: "It was great because we were in the IDEAS [Global Challenge] competition two years ago, and it's fantastic to be back at the next stage of our development ... I think now is really the time people need a lot of support, when they have more questions and don't think they have all the answers anymore."
Opportunities dressed in snowsuits
Smith closed her conference remarks with a quote from Thomas Edison: "'Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.' Well, today we may put on our snowsuits rather than our overalls, but there are plenty of opportunities and there's plenty of work. So let's get started."
And getting started, in part by building on the momentum of the conference, is very much on the mind of Saida Benhayoune, program director D-Lab's Scale-Ups program and a SDV conference organizer. "This first experience confirmed the relevance and timeliness of the conference theme and the need for more opportunities of cross-learning and networking among the growing community of development ventures around the world to achieve social impact at a global scale," Benhayoune said. "We will be back next year! But next time we will make sure to invite good weather."