Co-authored by Dalila Wilson Scott, SVP Community Investment Comcast NBCUniversal
In the past few years there’s been a surge in the tech community’s motivation to do good. Whether that’s through corporate social responsibility, mentoring, entrepreneurship, or skills-based volunteering - the idea of leaving your mark on society is more important than ever. Fast Forward, the accelerator for tech nonprofits, and Comcast NBCUniversal, a leader in tech, media and community solutions, joined forces this March to heighten the conversation around tech for good through a sector-defining summit, Accelerate Good Global. The Summit brought together two communities that do not typically cross-over - technology and nonprofit. The two days featured conversations around the future of the social sector and new tech-driven solutions to the world’s most critical social problems. Leaders in the sector offered advice to the next generation of tech for good founders and the philanthropists who will help bring their visions to scale. We left the experience with four key takeaways that will prove a leg-up to anyone interested in getting involved in tech for good.
Diversity drives innovation.
People solve the problems they have. If only certain people get the opportunity to solve problems, many problems go unaddressed. Throughout the conference we heard from tech nonprofit founders from all over the world. From Bahrain to Richmond, Virginia, there are entrepreneurs building innovative technology solutions to some of the world’s most critical issues.
Lived experience is what shaped their missions and inspired them to build the products they wished they had. Rey Faustino, for example, created a Yelp for social services platform called One Degree after experiencing the difficulty of finding resources for his family growing up in the U.S. as a Filipino immigrant. Jess Ladd, founder of Callisto, shared the heartbreaking story of sexual assault that inspired her to create an assault reporting platform for college campuses. Esra’a Al Shafei, founder of Majal.org, came all the way from Bahrain to talk about her experience building a human rights platform to elevate the underrepresented voices of Middle Eastern youth - like herself.
Authenticity is a startup’s secret weapon.
James Slavet, General Partner at Greylock and Jacquelline Fuller, President at Google.org, are renowned investors. Slavet as a venture capitalist and Fuller as the head of the largest investor in tech nonprofits. Each described what they look for in the characteristics of a good founder. Despite their different markets, both agreed on what makes a good founder: raw intelligence, action orientation, good communication skills, and an ability to motivate others. They also need to believe that founder is in it for the right reasons. A brilliant idea does not always result in skillful execution. These investors needed to hear an authentic story about why the founders were doing what they’re doing. Without soul, companies, regardless of tax status, flounder.
The leading fundraisers from the tech nonprofit sector agreed that authenticity was a powerful asset. Lisa Hogan, Chief Development Officer at Kiva, urged the audience to be transparent even when it increased risk. She found her greatest success in fundraising occurred when she was transparent with investors on both opportunities and challenges for Kiva.
Don’t be afraid of using your community.
Jim Fruchterman, the avuncular founder of Benetech, the world’s first tech nonprofit, urged fellow founders to tap into Silicon Valley’s favor-trading network. “Karma Banking,” as Fruchterman called it, is a lesser known element of Silicon Valley culture. Technologists share advice, contacts, and even, their skills with fellow founders. It is an unspoken expectation in the community to share social capital. And it works. All tech companies that have scaled did so by calling in favors. This Silicon Valley-style social capital can be particularly helpful for tech nonprofits who may struggle to get early-stage investment when they are pre-impact. Favors can sustain an organization while you prove product-market fit.
Get a coach.
Nearly two-thirds of startups fail due to people problems. Team dynamics make and break startups. The good news is startups don’t have to figure it out alone. Executive coaches help establish healthy, generative norms to support teams as they sail through the choppy waters of startups life. Premal Shah, co-founder and President of Kiva, described the impact an executive coach had on his leadership team. The coach’s neutral, objective perspective helped build humility to blind spots. The insights generated helped Kiva “slow down to speed up.” Blind spots aren’t limited to founders. Shah recommend getting coaches for the whole team, because doing so can instill values of listening in your company culture.
Technology drives behavior change and increases impact.
Everything from vibrating wearables to calendar alerts has driven behavior change in consumer-facing tech for years. Twillio.org General Manager Erin Reilly described the power of nudging for increasing social impact. She shared the story of Camfed, an international education nonprofit, that was struggling to keep track of the progress of each classroom they supported. With the help of Twilio.org, a cloud communications platform, this organization was able to automatically text a thank you to teachers who reported their classroom outcomes. The results were profound. Not only did the reporting rate increase as a result of the text nudges, but the data showed opportunities for improvement in classroom ultimately increasing the nonprofit's impact.
Through the storytelling at Accelerate Good Global, we learned that community is a powerful asset for a founder at any stage in their entrepreneurial journey, that technology has tremendous power to scale, and that mission-driven grit proves your potential. If we want to see more diverse founders building innovative products for social change, they must have access to these resources. While authenticity can’t be taught, Silicon Valley is full of the best technology, mentors, and founder communities. It is the hope of Accelerate Good Global partners Fast Forward and Comcast NBCUniversal that more founders and funders will think about how they can use these skills and resources to achieve greater social impact.