Although the concept of social enterprise—harnessing the power of market forces to solve social problems—is not new, the ecosystem to support such ventures in New York City is not very robust. Recognizing this gap, four SIPA MPA-DP students are running a five-day social enterprise accelerator this May. In partnership with the Unreasonable Institute (which co-founder Nicolas Toro MPA-DP ‘17 called “the gold standard” of accelerators), the students have launched Unreasonable Lab NYC to help budding social enterprises get ready to pursue venture capital.

“This is for people with social enterprise ideas that have gone from pilot to concept, and now they want to take that concept to scale, and they’re looking for the appropriate funding,” said co-founder Joe Heritage MPA-DP ’17.

“One of the biggest problems that social enterprises face is that they feel like they’re ready to receive investment, but they don’t know how to do it,” added Veni Jayanti MPA-DP ’17, another co-founder.

The program’s fourth founder is Josh Jacobson MPA-DP ’17.

The five-day accelerator, which will take place at SIPA May 19 to 22, will feature the Unreasonable Institute’s investment preparedness curriculum, Unreasonable’s network of social enterprise mentors, and expertise from Columbia’s Start-Up Lab, the Tamer Center for Social Enterprise, SIPA faculty, and the four co-facilitators themselves.

“One of the best things about the lab,” said Toro, is “there’s a lot of exposure to other entrepreneurs that have gone through the process, that know how to deal with issues like how to create a funding plan, how to pitch, what type of investment you need.”

The program will culminate with a high-level capital investment session, where participants will have a chance to practice their pitch with actual capital advisers and investors.

The four students involved in the project all have strong backgrounds in social enterprise. Before attending SIPA, Heritage spent seven years managing a social enterprise in Kenya—a farm that employed refugees and used its profits to fund education scholarships for girls to attend school. Jayanti worked at Unlimited Indonesia, a social enterprise accelerator with branches all over the world. Toro was a serial entrepreneur with a penchant for social justice, having started a cosmetics retailer in addition to serving in the Peace Corps and working in economic development issues in Colombia. Jacobson founded his own social enterprise and serves as a mentor for Startupbootcamp, another social enterprise accelerator.

“We just are all very excited about the idea of creating sustainable solutions to poverty through best practices in business,” said Heritage. “That’s why I came to SIPA, and that’s what I want to gain, so I can leave and do that more effectively.”

Toro was drawn to pursue this project in addition to taking classes at SIPA and the Columbia Business School in social enterprise because “I wanted to make something bigger. I wanted to create a pilot, an experiment to see how these social enterprises can be supported to really grow and scale up, and become the new Warby Parkers, the new Toms, and really make amazing solutions, both in New York and across the world.”

“It’s going to be a great learning experience,” Toro said. “You’re going to meet great people, and it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

“And a lot of dancing,” Jayanti added. “There’s going to be a lot of dancing!”

— Lindsay Fuller MPA ’16