As a young boy, Saul Garlick traveled to Mpumalanga, South Africa. He was shocked by what he saw.
"This small rural village had nothing--no classrooms, no electricity, no water," he says. "I pledged to do something to help."
So when Garlick returned home to Denver, he started Student Movement for Real Change, a nonprofit that managed to raise $10,000 to build a school in that village. He returned there a year later. The school had been built, but Garlick still felt he hadn’t done enough.
He continued to work on the nonprofit through high school and college. In 2007, while attneding graduate school at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, SMRC took 18 undergrads for a five-week trip to Mpumalanga to raise funds for the organization.
Again, he was shocked at what he saw. "The school I had sponsored was shuttered and the classrooms in disrepair," he says.
It was then that he realized that throwing money at a problem wasn’t enough. He was determined to come up with a sustainable, scalable fix. His interest in social entrepreneurship and his belief in market-based solutions to reduce poverty honed his efforts toward enterprise creation through creative processes.
In 2010, Garlick began rethinking the role of SMRC. What if, he thought, I took the brightest students from all over the world to Africa and had them put their heads together with local people to prototype products and services that solve the continent’s most pressing problems with truly innovative thinking? Garlick took his idea one step further--buying out his nonprofit to create a for-profit social enterprise. Thus, ThinkImpact was born.
Unfortunately, the company was born deeply in the hole. Garlick borrowed from friends and family, because he had no savings, and a few private investors, to raise $200,000. The following year he received another $250,000 from angel investors. The money helped to fund more trips and allowed Garlick to develop a growth strategy.
Garlick’s ability to turn this idea into a money-making enterprise didn’t go unnoticed. S.A. Ibrahim, CEO of Philadelphia-based Radian Group, says, "To launch any new business is challenging, but to launch a high social-impact business is even more challenging especially when it is a pioneer in a challenging new field and develops a model of using 'socially minded for profit investors' as the funding source."
That model paid off. Today, ThinkImact, which is based in Denver, has 10 full-time employees, four of whom are in offices in Africa, and 2012 revenue of $370,000 in sales. Garlick expects to reach $1 million in sales in 2013. The company now shepherds students as well as corporations, conference communities, and enterprise incubators to Ghana, Kenya, Rwanda and South Africa. For $4,750, the eight-week program, called the Institute, challenges participants to solve social problems.
For example, one team developed a rainwater catch system in Kenya--a system that’s since been duplicated more than 100 times. Another team created a process for cleaner charcoal use using maze in Rwanda.
Students who go on the program come away with new skills and perspectives; executives gain business insight, professional development, and networking opportunities in emerging markets.
Meantime, ThinkImpact has created a course to help university faculty and administrators develop experiential education in social entrepreneurship. The curriculum can also be supplemented by ThinkImpact’s mobile app and other merchandise.
Can the company scale? One investor, Jim Davidson, thinks so. "It was incubated in the context of international development but can be applied to other domains--management and executive coaching, domestic entrepreneur boot-camps," Davidson says. "Saul has some clever ideas to use technology to accelerate the impact."
Adds Garlick: "These other platforms help people develop a fresh entrepreneurial mindset and a new way of tackling significant problems here and abroad. I want to become the best in the world at delivering this process."
NICOLE MARIE RICHARDSON is the executive editor for special projects at Inc.com. She manages the website's largest projects, including the Inc. 5000, an annual list of the fastest-growing, privately-held companies in America. @nicole_marie79
2012 Jeremy Johnson of 2tor, Ben Milne of Dwolla, Lucas Buick and Ryan Dorshorst co-founders of Hipstamatic, Zach Sims and Ryan Bubinski, co-founders of Codeacademy, and Amy Jain and Daniella Yacobovsky, co-founders of BaubleBar join our illustrious annual list. Plus the start-up stories of Pinterest, Spotify, GiveFoward, and Back to the Roots.
2011 Read about Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger of Instagram, Matt Mickiewicz of 99designs, and Hayley Barna and Katia Beauchamp of Birchbox. Plus the start-up stories of Quora, Onswipe, Dropbox, Foodspotting, and Gemvara.
2010 Meet Alexa von Tobel of Learnvest, Naveen Selvadurai of Foursquare, Jack Abraham of Mint.com, plus the founders of Rent the Runway, Airbnb, Crowdflower, Posterous, LivingSocial, and Urban Escapes (now part of Living Social).
2009 Pete Cashmore of Mashable, Elliott Bisnow of Summit Series, Danielle and Jodie Snyder of Dannijo, Jamail Larkins of Larkins Enterprises were included on our 2009 list, as were the teams behind ModCloth, Thrillist, IdeaPaint, Foodzie, and Justin.TV.