Having worked in the public and nonprofit sector for 25 years, Sarah Holloway, a member of the SIPA faculty and Social Entrepreneur in Residence at the Columbia Startup Lab, understands what it takes to make a difference in the fast-changing world of socially responsible businesses. She teaches knowledge and skills essential for non-profit, for-profit and social enterprise management at Columbia and is often seen around the Lab at WeWork Soho West, answering questions and giving feedback to teams from the more than 70 alumni entrepreneurs.
Professor Holloway mentors students competing for the SIPA’s Dean’s Public Policy Challenge Grant, which awards a total of $50,000 annually to two or three innovative projects that use digital technology and data to improve the global urban environment. She has also helped launch a number of social enterprise startups in the New York metro area that focus on education and urban technology, including MOUSE.org and Computer Science for All (CSforALL).
Q. What is social entrepreneurship?
A. Social entrepreneurship is the practice of solving global social problems through market-based strategies. Social entrepreneurs are empathetic, adaptable, patient and “build with, not for.” They know and listen to their customer. Technology is a tool that can be used to support growth, scale and transparency.
Q. How does entrepreneurship work in different cultural settings?
The key is that the entrepreneur be authentic and, as a result, really know their customer. The most successful social entrepreneurs either come from the geography they are supporting or have experienced the challenge they are trying to solve. The skills are the same no matter where you are starting out. That said, I believe, it is slightly easier perhaps to be an entrepreneur in the United States as the ecosystem of support is broader and, at the moment, there are more sources of capital available.
Q. What are some of the critical social entrepreneurial skills essential for today’s business environment?
As mentioned, empathy is the No. 1 skill needed to be a successful social entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs also need to be passionate about their work, scrappy, resilient, open to change, and they should be able to wear many hats as social enterprises are often under resourced. It’s quite common in a startup environment for the CEO to play the role of COO, CFO, CIO and Chief Everything Officer.
Q. Share with us some of the best social entrepreneurship examples that make business sense.
I think Warby Parker, the glasses company and lifestyle brand, and their give one get one campaign is an example of a for profit social enterprise that is doing it almost perfectly. Warby is a multimillion dollar company that has built giving back into everything they do. They have successfully hacked the glasses industry by producing equal quality for a fraction of the cost and, in turn, have left room to be able to give back –to date over 5 million glasses have been distributed and for free. In terms of a nonprofit social enterprise, I love the work that Five One Labs is doing in Iraq. Founded by two SIPA alumni Alice Bosley and Patricia Letayf, Five One Labs is now a massive support network and incubator for refugee entrepreneurs living in Iraq. In less than two years, they have developed such a tight, well-oiled model that continues to pivot and pilot new ideas. As a result, they keep getting it right. They are so hands on and holistic in their service model that they are impacting every single person they serve. I think they are amazing!
Q. What are the biggest misconceptions about social entrepreneurship?
That it is easy to get something off the ground. It takes years and years. You have to be persistent and patient. Another myth is that if you have an amazing, unique and innovative idea, it is easy to sell and raise money. Sometimes the best ideas never get funded. Those that know best how to market themselves and tell the best stories usually have their ideas get funded.