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Investing Early to Impact World-Changing Solutions

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Jen Medbery didn't set out to become a hero of "social entrepreneurship" -- she only wanted to solve a problem. As a Teach for America Corps member and a founding teacher at a New Orleans charter school, Jen recognized the importance of measuring performance data in order to increase student outcomes, especially in the low-income, high-need schools in which she taught. A software engineer, she developed Kickboard, a basic software that helped her friends measure student performance, adjusting instructional techniques in real-time. It wasn't until she received repeated requests for her software from other New Orleans charter schools that she decided to start a company. Her thinking: by selling her software and earning revenue, she could scale a solution that worked nationwide. But it wasn't that easy. For over a year, Jen tried to raise money, build a team, and develop a network, without success.

Jen is representative of thousands of entrepreneurs worldwide who needs "impact investing," or investments made to generate profit as well as positive social impact, to build world-changing solutions to major problems. I run an organization called Village Capital, which operates business acceleration programs for entrepreneurs like Jen around the world, and makes investments in enterprises through a unique peer review model. We met Jen and 14 of her peers in 2009 through a partnership with the New Orleans-based Idea Village.

After three months of mentorship and intensive review, Jen was selected by her peers for her first-ever investment of $100,000. She used that to scale her solution nationwide, and Kickboard has since raised almost $1 million from pioneers in impact investing such as Calvert, Investor's Circle, and the New Orleans Startup Fund. Jen's solution is serving over 25,000 students, and has such high-profile clients as KIPP and Teach For America -- and she's just getting started.

To move forward enterprises like Jen's, the highest-need area is the "seed," or earliest, stage of funding. A recent survey of the impact investing industry outlined 42 investors with $4.5 billion under management -- yet fewer than five invest at less than $250,000/enterprise, and these investors cite "lack of investable opportunities" as their biggest barrier to deploying more capital.

But great enterprises are built by their teams and partners, not "found," and some catalytic organizations are investing in the Kickboards of the future. With philanthropic and investment support of groups in the U.S. (Rockefeller Foundation, Halloran Philanthropies, Blue Skies Foundation, FARM, First Light, and the Gray Matters Charitable Foundation) and abroad (Stichting DOEN, Sanghata Global, Potencia Ventures) we've been able to provide program support to over 250 enterprises like Kickboard and have made direct investment in 25 Jen Medberys, but thousands more organizations lack similar opportunity. We've been able to reach five continents worldwide and focus on specific issues or sectors ("civic engagement" ventures, in partnership with Points of Light; technology innovations addressing sustainable energy and poverty, in partnership with VentureWell). Friends such as Echoing Green and the Unreasonable Institute in the U.S., Artemisia in Brazil, and ECSEL in China are filling the gap globally, but there's far more work to do -- and tremendous opportunity for philanthropists and investors to get involved.

In our current Nairobi program, operated in partnership with GrowthAfrica, Tonee Ndungu, a Kenyan entrepreneur, has developed Kytabu, a $10 tablet for the poor that would revolutionize education more than any innovation I've seen. Yet Tonee has a long way to go -- he needs to finish a prototype, secure necessary contracts with strategic partners, and build his team. He's going to need risk capital and support to do it. I hope that in three years, I'll be able to tell the same story about Tonee as I do Jen -- and see 25,000 kids in slum areas in Kenya using tablet computers. Yet we've got miles to go before we sleep.