By Peter Shi T’16
Duke I&E kicked off Entrepreneurship Week 2014 with a social entrepreneurship panel at the Sanford School of Public Policy. The panel featured Donnel Baird, Daniel Kimberg, and Rachel Lichte –– three Duke alumni who have each founded social impact organizations. Matt Nash, the Managing Director for Social Entrepreneurship at I&E moderated the panel.
In 2009, Donnel Baird T’03 founded BlocPower, an NYC-based LLC that creates jobs for black men and offers a portfolio of energy-saving technologies, including solar panel installation, for underserved communities in the South Bronx. His motivation for launching BlocPower came during an Intro to African-American studies class taken while at Duke, in which Baird learned about an unarmed Haitian immigrant who was shot 14 times by an NYPD police officer – the officer was later cleared of all charges, saying that he believed the immigrant’s ID card was a weapon.
In order to change the existing system – one that Baird believes to be fundamentally broken – he focuses on the concept of “movement building,” which means gaining the support of both those in power and the public and gradually getting them to rally behind your cause. Sponsored partially through donations, BlocPower’s philanthropic mission includes serving inner-city charter schools.
Baird attributes BlocPower’s success with investors to its focus on providing impact capital to underserved communities and conducting financial analyses of energy consumption for individual community buildings. It saved one business over $1.2 million a month by installing solar panels for six office buildings.
In 2007, Dan Kimberg T’07 created Student U to facilitate a middle and high school to college pipeline for a class of 390 at-risk Durham public school students. According to Kimberg, Student U grew not because of any single moment of opportunity, but rather a continual movement that grew from over two years of listening, learning, and asking questions about the existing Durham school system. His process of understanding the Durham public school community involved engaging with students, parents, teachers, and the school administration.
Based on local graduation and retention data, just 14 out of the 390 students that Student U serves are expected to graduate from college. Kimberg’s goal is for every single student to not only survive, but to graduate from college and thrive. Thus, Student U’s programs focus on providing adequate shelter, health services, and education support, including making sure that students attend class regularly. Recently, Kimberg was offered $1 million in funding, but turned it down, refusing to scale in a way that hurts current participants. By valuing quality over quantity, Kimberg lowers the risk of fallout from the program and seeks to improve the existing Student U model.
In 2013, Rachel Lichte B’14 founded The Clarity Project, a nonprofit that provides elegant jewelry and promotes ethical diamond mining practices in Sierra Leone. When she saw her friend getting engaged at 25, she thought seriously for the first time about the negative impact of purchasing a diamond ring.
After conducting some research, she learned that over 20 percent of miners are independent artisanal miners, individuals slaving away with shovels, rather than large companies like De Beers. Little profit from diamond mining will ever reach the miners or benefit them directly, and the so-called “blood-diamond” trade, which is portrayed in the film Blood Diamond, has even spurred wars within Sierra Leone.
Besides investing in adult literacy and education and sourcing its diamonds only from fair jewelry suppliers, The Clarity Project focuses on improving the safety and health of artisanal diamond miners in Sierra Leone. During the process of creating her company, she mentions that she has had to shift her business model several times in order to adapt to rapidly changing global challenges and circumstances.
The three panelists ended with one piece of advice for anyone interested in entrepreneurship.
Baird: “Listening is the single most important skill to becoming a successful entrepreneur.”
Kimberg: “Discover your best self by doing new things, failing, and adjusting to failure.”
Lichte: “There’s no way to be perfect, so release your ego, and start learning. Just start. Starting is the hardest part.”