The term “social innovation” is a buzzy phrase that’s begun rolling off the tongues of more people than ever lately, and for good reason: the world has a lot of problems that need solving. The Center for Social Innovation at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business defines it as “a novel solution to a social problem that is more effective, efficient, sustainable, or just than current solutions” and explains that “the value created accrues primarily to society rather than to private individuals.” Perhaps unsurprising to those who live in Austin and love it for its empathic global perspective, the capital city has a greater concentration of social innovators per capita than most of its fellow boomtowns across the United States.
One such force in Austin is that of UnLtd USA, which works as a launchpad at the city level to find, fund and support the most promising entrepreneurs, and then build an ecosystem of support around them. Operating out of Impact Hub Austin, the organization draws its inspiration from UnLtd India and its greater network. First developed in the UK in 2003, the UnLtd approach has since been replicated and adapted in several other countries around the world. Appropriately enough, UnLtd USA’s founder, Zoe Schlag, was serving as an associate at UnLtd India when she was inspired to adapt its purpose and practice stateside.
Supporting Social Entrepreneurs
“My time working with UnLtd India challenged me to shift my understanding of tackling poverty -- each day as I worked with our UnLtd India investees helping them develop their ventures, I watched a new narrative of entrepreneurship unfold,” Zoe says. “This kept me wondering who their American equivalents were -- the entrepreneurs based in the US developing business models to tackle social problems.”
In the states, as in India, the UnLtd team seeks out, funds, and supports startup social entrepreneurs — or as Zoe calls them, “individuals with the ideas, passion and entrepreneurial skills to create long-term solutions for some of the world's toughest social, environmental and civic problems.” From there, the group invests directly in them, “launching their potential as change-makers — accelerating their progress, developing them as leaders and preparing their fledgling organizations for further investment and scale,” she explains. Through seed funding, hands-on coaching and training, and high-level connections with mentors, industry experts, the media, and more, UnLtd USA provides tangible, measurable support to help ventures not just get off the ground, but actually thrive.
Its first class of cohorts, accepted in 2014, includes Compost Pedallers, GirlsGuild, Mentegram, PelotonU and Ten Acre Organics. Subsequent ventures benefiting from its mentorship and support include BlueHub Health (now a part of Afoundria), Cooking Up Cultures, Open Arms, PenPal Schools, ScribeSense, Akumal Shop, Care2Rock, Meesh Meesh (part of Circle of Health International), La Flaca, and Prosodio. (Stay tuned to the Impact Hub Austin blog and newsletter for upcoming features on efforts like these).
Fueling the Fire
“Our pay-it-forward principle underlies nearly everything we do,” Zoe says. “We know from the tech world that successful, entrepreneurial ecosystems are led by entrepreneurs who reinvest their success into the next generation -- in fact, Techstarshas pioneered a version of this with their Give First principle. We believe that embedding this as a cultural norm is what will give this movement staying power, so we've designed pay-it-forward into everything from our seed funding to how we structure our program to how we work with our own partners.”
As for where UnLtd USA chose to headquarter itself, Zoe says the choice was a simple one with a twofold determinant, both of which had to do with sustenance.
“Choosing Austin was the easiest choice we've had to make. Austin is a city that has tremendous entrepreneurial talent, a hunger to apply that to do good in the world and a community that is eager both to replicate proven models and pioneer new ones.”
“Naturally,” she adds cheekily, “my favorite thing about working here (at Impact Hub) is the breakfast tacos.”
To learn more about Impact Hub Austin and its members, click here.