Advice to future social entrepreneurs: "Go for it" (video)

social.insidemainBeginning in 2013, Harvard Law School’s new Public Service Venture Fund will provide $1 million per year in grants to support new and recent graduates who will be working for public service employers, and also to support those who want to start their own organizations. With this commitment, the School is enhancing its focus on entrepreneurship in general and social entrepreneurship specifically—to encourage current students to pursue their own ideas and to prepare students who might want to apply for support from the fund and other sources of assistance for public service enterprises.

As a first in a series of workshops and panels designed to foster an entrepreneurial spirit and provide students with the tools to pursue their visions, the Dean’s Office and the Bernard Koteen Office of Public Interest Advising  (OPIA) sponsored a November “Conversation Between Social Entrepreneurs” with Alan Khazei ’87, who co-founded the national service organization City Year, and Brooke Richie ’04, founder and CEO of the Resilience Advocacy Project, a New York City initiative tackling issues of intergenerational poverty by equipping young people to serve as advocates.

Watch the video of the panel.

Dean Martha Minow, who introduced the panelists, said the fund was inspired by alumni such as Khazei and Richie. “People come to Harvard Law School with dreams about how the world could be different,” said Minow. “We are committed to making it possible for students to pursue those dreams. “More and more,” she added, “I’ve seen students come with ideas about how to create their own organizations with different strategies for change from anything that exists already.”

Khazei praised HLS for starting the fund and said he hoped other schools would follow its example. Looking back to his own experience starting City Year with his friend Michael Brown ’87, he said the school had a huge impact on them. They had developed a business plan by their third year, and as they were pitching it far and wide, their Harvard Law education opened many doors. Intellectually, they were strongly influenced by HLS Professor David Rosenberg’s course on core theory, and the idea of civic republicanism as promulgated by Professor Cass Sunstein ’78, a visiting professor at the time, and HLS Professor Frank Michelman ’60. “It was the intellectual foundation for what we did in City Year.”

In the ’80s lots of people were talking about the idea of national service, said Khazei. “We decided to design a program that could really test the theory,” a grassroots program, “with the idea that if we could get people interested, we could inspire a larger commitment to national service.”

Richie’s program, located in New York City, is also a grassroots effort that is working to bring about systemic change. In the effort to fight intergenerational poverty, it trains low-income teens to go back into their communities and serve as advocates for other low-income youth. The organization’s advocacy around policy is directly informed by what it learns from the teens.

Richie came to HLS knowing she wanted to start an organization that would connect the law to the idea of resilience—“what kids in challenging situations need,” she said. “I wanted to identify concrete strategies for using the law to help bottle this concept of resilience, to make it concrete and to get it to every child who was growing up in poverty.”

It was HLS Professor Lani Guinier’s “Community Lawyering” class that helped her take the next step. Among other things, the class taught her to rethink the role of the lawyer and see “a facilitator and a problem-solver, an advocate who empowers his or her clients, rather than [the attorney as] the sole expert in the room. Those ideas really resonated with me in terms of redefining the relationship between law and children,” she said.

Although Khazei and Ritchie are at different stages in their careers—22 years after he founded City Year, Khazei now heads a coalition-building and advocacy organization called Be the Change—in many ways their advice to the room full of students was similar. Khazei advised finding a partner and building a team. Richie discussed the importance of networking and knowing where your organization fits into the existing world of nonprofits. Both stressed the importance of taking full advantage of Harvard’s resources, urging students to talk to as many people as possible about their ideas, to help to develop them before they leave and to find mentors.

When panel moderator Alexa Shabecoff, assistant dean for public service advising and head of OPIA, asked Khazei how he first raised money for City Year, he recalled that for the first six months they weren’t able to raise a cent. “At the beginning it’s a lot of reaching out to people,” he said. “It’s not easy. You’re going to have a lot of setbacks, but what I found was there really is a spirit of public service out in the community. And if you knock on enough doors, somebody is going to get excited about your idea, and you don’t know who it’s going to be.”

Three years after she launched the Resilience Advocacy Project, the most difficult thing, said Richie, is “the balancing act I have to engage in on a daily basis:” fundraising, managing staff, standardizing programs, building an institution. “Keeping all the balls in the air is really challenging,” she said. “But there hasn’t been one day I haven’t loved what I am doing.”

Khazei agreed. His advice for students who want to be social entrepreneurs was simple: “Go for it.” You’ve got to have a passion, he added. “But if you’re passionate about it, take the risk. It’s hard. But you get to be your own boss, and more important, you get to pursue your dream.”

The panel drew an enthusiastic and wide-ranging audience of students, such as Claire Valentin ’11, who was a City Year participant when she was 18, and was fascinated to hear Khazei speak again. Although she has no short-term plans to start a non-profit, she feels inspired by the panelists to “become more active with boards of non-profits” and “to keep the possibility of starting something in mind.” Then there were students such as Ashwin Kaja ’11, who is working on a start-up organization called Investours (www.investours.org), which will take “socially conscious travelers to meet micro-entrepreneurs in poor communities in developing countries and invest in their business ideas through microfinance.”

In general, Ashwin said, this sort of event is a great way “to get plugged into the entrepreneurial community, meet and be inspired by others interested in social entrepreneurship, and learn from the experiences of people who have been in your shoes.” In particular, at the November panel, he found especially useful the practical advice and dialogue between the two speakers who are at different stages in their careers. More broadly, he said he is happy to see HLS identifying and investing in the social entrepreneurial instincts of its students and is excited about the Public Service Venture Fund. “I think providing these kinds of events, support, and resources to students can have a significant influence on their career paths, especially because entrepreneurship can be riskier than many paths law students often pursue.”