Echoing Green, the same fellowship program that boosted Teach for America and The Global Fund for Children in their early years, welcomed a new class of fellows last month. The organization trotted out these newest fellows--33 entrepreneurs, representing 28 businesses culled from more than 2,000 applicants--at its annual convening in New York City this week.
The biggest theme among this year's lot? For the first time in nearly 30 years of investing in early-stage, social good organizations, Echoing Green's fellowship class demonstrates a shift to majority for-profit or hybrid business models. Traditionally, founders have utilized the nonprofit model in starting social ventures.
While the transition has been happening for the last 10 years, the organization now says it's hit a tipping point. "This speaks to the growing interest and belief in the idea that companies can do good and make money," says Janna Oberdorf, an Echoing Green spokeswoman. "It makes sense for society, and it makes sense for businesses." (Oberdorf says the organization did not favor one model over the other when choosing this year's fellows.)
Founded almost 30 years ago by private equity firm, General Atlantic, Echoing Green chooses a new class of social entrepreneurs to help bring an early-stage project to the next level. This year's fellows will receive up to $90,000 of seed-funding over two years to further their missions.
Entrepreneurs who fall into the Global category are defending human rights in Uganda, nurturing innovation among black and Latina founders in Atlanta and teaching women in Kenya to be "eggpreneurs." Winners in the category of Black Male Achievement are increasing the prevalence of positive black male role models in media; fighting structural violence in the criminal justice system and fostering tech and design talent in underserved communities. Climate fellows are recycling CO2 emissions back into fuel; turning greenhouse gases into synthetic fibers to be used in clothing and bringing solar energy to rural India with a community ownership model.
Christine Su, a former private equity professional, says the Echoing Green fellowship money will allow her to pay herself for the first time. With this sort of security, she can start to think a little bigger than her current business plan. As founder of PastureMap, Su's focus has been on breaking even and using her digital platform to help ranchers make decisions to improve their grassland, soil and bottom line. But the Stanford MBA grad says Echoing Green is challenging her to think about how to move the market for responsibly raised beef forward, which will in turn increase demand for her product. "One of the things Echoing Green has been challenging us to do is think beyond our niche operational mindset," Su says. "The reason consumers buy grass fed beef is because they care and want to vote with their dollars. How can I help them do that?"
Zoe Wong started Cerplus, which serves as an online marketplace for farmers to sell excess produce. She works with a wide range of businesses looking to purchase produce--from bakeries and juice bars to baby food companies and tech companies with cafeterias. Until now, most of her funding has come from friends and family. Cerplus, a for-profit business, participated in Y Combinator Fellowship, but Wong says the Echoing Green funding is four times as much. She plans to use the money to bump up her current monthly volume of 5,000 pounds by 20 times over the next year.
But not every company will ramp up operations so quickly. For Amina Yamusah, the 25-year-old founder of Our Bloc, the fellowship money is going to allow her to focus on longer-term programming, rather than short-term selling. Her for-profit business hosts events where hiring companies like Google and Deloitte can meet black collegiate job seekers. She's in the process of creating a web platform with plans for a paid subscription model, and the fellowship will allow her to pause long enough to create something that's going to be crucial for long-term success. "These next hundred days are about slowing down," says Yamusah.