The founders of the Unreasonable Institute in Boulder, Colorado, are fostering intense camaraderie among entrepreneurs who hope to solve the world's problems.
I'm not sure which of the following is the most crazy:
• A company that uses bicycles and motorcycles to power mobile-phone chargers and corn-shellers for the rural poor;
• A company that sells environmentally sustainable toilet paper and uses the profits to fund water sanitation projects in the developing world;
• Two young American women launching a reality TV show in Afghanistan to profile Afghani start-up entrepreneurs; or,
• Presuming that you have what it takes to "accelerate ventures that future generations will remember as having defined progress in our time."
It goes without saying that the founders of the first three ventures I describe—Global Cycle Solutions, Who Gives a Crap, and Bamyan Media—are some pretty audacious entrepreneurs, but the folks mentioned in Example No. 4, who brought the rest of them together last summer in Boulder, Colorado, are without doubt four of the most unreasonable entrepreneurs in the world.
Daniel Epstein, Teju Ravilochan, Tyler Hartung, and Vladimir Dubovsky are the founders of an organization called the Unreasonable Institute and, as Donna Fenn has previously written on Inc.com, they have an absurd proposition: They think they know how to "give high-impact entrepreneurs wings." Led by philosopher-entrepreneur Epstein, the five twentysomethings justify the ridiculousness of their intention by quoting George Bernard Shaw: "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."
Their particular unreasonable proposition? At the core of the Institute's work is the idea that you can actually empower and accelerate not-just-any fledgling company, but fledgling companies that purport to meet the real needs of no fewer than one million of the world's poorest, most disadvantaged, and excluded people. Now entering its second year, this audacious program is building a global network to scout and attract the attention of the world's most promising entrepreneurs.
The requirements to qualify are three: You must have an idea that is "unreasonable," financially sustainable, and scalable to at least a million people. From this group, the Unreasonable Institute selects about fifty finalists to enter into "The Unreasonable Marketplace" — a website through which each candidate must prove his or her entrepreneurial muscle by attempting to raise the $10,000 it will cost to attend the Institute. But, it's not quite that simple. To avoid what Epstein calls the "rich uncle problem," finalists are limited to fundraising in $50 and $100 increments. The first twenty people to reach $10,000 get to go to Boulder.
From there things don't get any more normal. The twenty qualifying entrepreneurs are shepherded into a vacant sorority house where they eat, work, and live together for eight weeks. There is no formal program, although a stream of more than fifty mentors, including Neal Baer (executive producer of Law & Order and ER), Marc Mathiew (founder of BeDo and former head of global brand marketing at Coca Cola) and Paul Polak (founder of D-Rev and author of Out of Poverty) will come to visit and teach the entrepreneurs for varying stretches of time. The entire experience is videotaped and disseminated to the world via "Unreasonable TV," and the project culminates with a 36-hour bus ride to Silicon Valley where the entrepreneurs "pitch" their ventures to a room full of potential funders. (To watch the trailer, click here.)
What could an exercise of this degree of ridiculousness possibly accomplish? Surprisingly quite a lot. For starters, more than 60 percent of the entrepreneurs to attend the program to date have received backing for their companies — some of them have raised as much as $400,000. In addition, all of the entrepreneurs have left the Institute with a new network of close personal relationships with several of the most influential thinkers, funders, and doers in the world.
The Unreasonable Marketplace has so far engaged more than 3,000 sponsors from more than 130 countries who have pledged and paid to support these start-up entrepreneurs. And, perhaps most important, all 20 now have among each other a "family" of comrades in entrepreneurship. The intensity of these relationships is perhaps best captured by the fact that, before leaving, five of the fellows got tattoos of the Institute logo — sober. Now, that's serious.
Why does this all this matter? For those of us who puzzle over what it takes to catalyze the potential of promising start-up entrepreneurs, the Unreasonable Institute offers an impressive pilot case. Its experiment has unequivocally demonstrated the power of an unlikely mix of factors—seclusion, immersion, authentic mentoring, and intense personal bonding—to yield profound individual and organizational transformation during a relatively short ten-week period. The open question, of course, is whether this impact will endure over the long run. Does the Unreasonable Institute generate sufficient "push" for these entrepreneurs to hit escape velocity? We'll have to wait and see.
A second important provocation of the Unreasonable Institute is its intentional shedding of the qualifier social in social entrepreneur. Although all of the participating businesses are chosen because they address an unmet social or environmental need, Epstein prefers to call them high-impact rather than social entrepreneurs. He believes this qualitative change sheds the soft, do-gooder association makes mainstream investors and partners less skeptical about the businesses' prospects for success.
At a deeper level, the Unreasonable founders are also implying that social impact will not be a meaningful differentiator for much longer, and what will really count is simply whether a business can deliver both meaningful financial and social returns, end of story. It's a bold proposition and one that remains uncertain.
What I know for sure is that the Unreasonable Institute does hold an enchanting possibility: that a carefully crafted and deliberately amorphous intervention of precisely undefined parameters can actually yield rapid acceleration and permanent transformation toward the creation of serious, viable businesses that just might deliver sustainable, scalable social impact around the world. It's absolutely unreasonable and incalculably improbable. And if it works?Undeniably phenomenal.
SUZI SOSA is the associate director and senior fellow in social entrepreneurship at the RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service at the University of Texas at Austin. She is also the founder and president of the MPOWER Foundation through which she oversees RISE Global, an innovative international program that inspires and empowers thousands of entrepreneurs.