09/25/2013 05:45 pm ET Updated Nov 25, 2013

Innovation Squared

Being part of one start up venture is exciting and all-consuming. Being part of two at the same time is unlike any experience I've had. Over this past year, as a member of the inaugural class of Fuse Corps Fellows, serving as the Director of Strategic Planning with the DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative, I've had the unique opportunity to support two nascent organizations during critical stages in their development. The lessons I've learned may prove valuable to others social entrepreneurs.

Fuse Corps -- modeled originally on the White House Fellowship initiative -- aims to bring top-notch talent from the private sector to work at the local level with mayors, governors or local coalitions on pressing social issues. Of our inaugural class of talented fellows, two were placed in mayors' offices, one with a governor, and one with an established non-profit. I was matched with the DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative (DCPNI), an organization entering its third year.

Cultivating huge ambitions with few resources, DCPNI's priority was to ensure that children from Kenilworth-Parkside, one of DC's most disadvantaged neighborhoods, would graduate from college and go on to be successful in their careers and communities. Their strategy was to develop a cradle-to-career initiative, based on the Harlem Children's Zone. My role was to develop a comprehensive five-year strategic plan. On day one, I found myself in the deep end.

From the beginning, I was juggling commitments. Fuse Corps provided me with a weeklong training at the Stanford Design School, focused on design thinking and leadership development. Although it was hard to find time to sleep that week, I managed to speak with Irasema Salcido, the charismatic and visionary founder of DCPNI, who told me that they were anxiously awaiting my arrival in D.C., and that the work was already piling up.

Irasema filled me in on some the history of DCPNI and the obstacles they faced. They had received a $500K Promise Neighborhood Planning grant in 2010, and, pulling together a coalition of over 40 partners, had written a proposal for nearly $30 million in implementation funds. However, on the day they were supposed to file it, they had made a clerical error and failed to submit the application on time. The fallout had been painful, with partners and funders questioning the viability of the organization, while the community pressed for needed supports and services.

When I arrived in D.C., I was in for a few more shocks. DCPNI had no senior staff and no office space. During my second week, Irasema told me that she had decided to return to her full time job managing four charter schools, and planned to hand over leadership of DCPNI to an Executive Director whom she hoped to hire shortly. A rundown of the DCPNI's finances completed the picture: I had joined an organization that had no programmatic staff, no office, no full-time Executive Director, confused and angry stakeholders and less than $1 million in the bank. Irasema then presented my final challenge. She hoped that I would be able to develop not only a strategic plan, but also manage the grant application process to secure primary funding for the organization going forward. It was April, and the application was going to be due in July.

Fuse Corps, meanwhile, was counting on the stories and accomplishments of the inaugural fellows to demonstrate the impact of the organization's initial vision. The hardworking, small staff was relying on us to act as ambassadors and fundraisers for the organization , as well as participate in our training. So, I worked regularly with the insightful professional coach provided by Fuse Corps, joined professional development calls, posted on social media about the fellowship, and tried to find time to take to heart my coach's advice to make time for "self care."

A week later, DCPNI hired Ayris Scales as the Executive Director of DCPNI. She'd never heard of Fuse Corps, and seemed confused as to why her Director of Strategic Planning was a human rights lawyer with no experience in the field of education. The change in leadership, shifting power dynamics, evolving agendas, and endless need for ideas and implementation were exhilarating, but stressful - and a feast for my leadership coach.

Fortunately, Ayris was the right choice for the job. Smart, strategic, focused and driven, she has a natural ability to create order out of chaos. We decided to divide and conquer. She'd focus on getting the organization established (staff, office space, bank accounts, insurance) and meeting with the dozens of stakeholders and funders who'd been assured that the new Executive Director was the answer to all of DCPNI's prayers. Meanwhile, I would concentrate on developing a strategic plan for the organization's programming, and turning it into a grant application to be submitted in three month's time.

First, I needed to get information and perspective from our community and partners. DCPNI had conducted focus groups with community members over the course of the planning year. I read through all of the feedback and solicited more. The needs were significant. Families in the community were facing challenges that ranged from the need for services to a concern over violence and access to healthcare. When I looked at a baseline survey of the community conducted by the Urban Institute, and a few striking statistics jumped out at me. Almost 90% of the heads of households in the neighborhood were single women, and, in a door-to-door survey conducted in the area, 87% of parents surveyed said that they didn't think school was important for their child's success in life. When I saw that the high school graduation rates in the area were barely at the 60% mark, and that two thirds of the students who graduated tested at below grade level in both reading and math, I realized that, if the parents had gone to these schools, they were justified in concluding that the education their children would receive there would not prepare them for success.

I spoke with experts in the field, including the Ascend program at the Aspen Institute, which focuses on a dual generation approach, and looked at research which showed that, when mothers of children under the age of eight were provided with additional education, increased financial stability, and wrap-around community supports, their children performed approximately four times better in school than did children whose mothers didn't receive those inputs. So, I proposed to Ayris that we re-frame DCPNI's approach, and create a two-generation program. She agreed.

Ayris had managed to secure office space for us on the third floor of a local elementary school, so, sitting in chairs sized for kindergarteners, I managed the process, designed the programming and wrote the application, while Ayris, and Lauren Dunn, a bright young woman who joined our core team, re-negotiated all of DCPNI's 40 plus partner agreements, pulled together over fifty pages in appendices, and prepared the documents for submission. After weeks of intense writing and wrangling, and several frantic nights of editing and revising, we submitted our proposal to the Department of Education. The wait began.

I turned my attention to a new round of planning for both Fuse Corps and DCPNI. Fuse Corps was beginning to recruit for the next round of fellows, and I strategized with other fellows about the types of people we wanted to attract and reached out to my networks to find suitable candidates. We weighed different visions for the organization going forward, and debated how quickly it should and could scale up across the country. At the same time, I helped DCPNI develop a contingency plan in case we didn't win the federal funding. It was a nerve-wracking time on both fronts, as I waited to see whether my efforts to build up each of these fledgling organizations would pay off.

By December, spirits were flagging and nerves were frayed at DCPNI. We struggled to keep up with our workload, unable to hire additional staff until we were sure of our funding. Our partners and private donors asked for news, and the community pressed us for additional services. The Fuse Corps fellows as a group were excited, but drained from the strain of working full time for their host organizations while also dedicating hours each week to Fuse Corps business. I wondered whether I might have gotten in over my head.

Then the call came. The Department of Education informed DCPNI that we had been selected from a pool of 60 applicants as one of six recipients of the Promise Neighborhood Implementation grant, which would ultimately be in the amount of $28 million dollars over five years. Our shouts of joy, relief and excitement quickly gave way to the frantic business of re-vamping our website, hiring staff, communicating with the community about the impact of the award, attracting new partners, expanding our office space, and ramping up our existing partners to begin collaborating over programming and data.

Over the next several months, Fuse Corps received a dramatic number of outstanding applications, and conducted a competitive screening process, in which I and the other fellows played an active role. We selected a cohort of deeply impressive new fellows, which was twice the size of our initial group, and placed fellows in new cities and states, working on a broad range of social issues, from community development to education to healthcare. Our class, which had been a pilot experiment, ended the year at the White House, where Fuse Corps led an innovation lab on cross-sector collaboration in conjunction with the White House Office for Social Innovation - not bad for an experiment. Currently, Fuse Corps is recruiting for next year and branching out to more cities.

DCPNI has over 20 staff members who occupy two floors of the building where we once had one room. The organization just completed a successful summer program for students, and is launching a comprehensive two-generation model with a focus on mothers of young children. If successful, the initiative will serve as a national model for breaking the cycle of generational poverty.

As I look back now, I'm stunned by the accomplishments of both, and I'm overwhelmingly proud to have been a part of each. Going forward, I'll hold close a few valuable lessons that I hope will be of use to others in the early stages of social ventures:

Bet small: Focus on what you can do right away to ramp up, and know that you'll need to iterate, scrap things, and make changes, and that it's OK to fail along the way. The trick is to find ways to make the losses affordable ones so that you learn what you need to know to scale up successfully.

Work in spurts: Conventional wisdom says that you should pace yourself and try to keep a regular schedule. That never worked for me. What I found effective was bursts of intense activity around specific goals, followed by a day to crash and a few more for relaxation during which I inevitably saw new aspects of the big picture and was able to recharge before diving in for the next burst. When you're in start-up mode, don't expect much in the way of a regular schedule.

Pick the right people: The people on your team will make you or break you, and specific skill sets are only a small part of the picture. Any organization that is going to do big things will inevitably go through a number of iterations, so job descriptions are only useful to a point. Smart, adaptable people can learn new things and wear many hats, so when hiring, focus on integrity, cultural fit, and the ability to embrace change.

Communicate often and well: The sum of people's interaction with you and your organization will become your brand, so make sure to manage that process carefully. Stakeholders will require different types of information, and everyone likes to be kept in the loop. No matter how overwhelmed you are internally, make it a priority to communicate with to the right people in the right way, and make them feel valued in the interaction. This applies to job applicants as well - whether you hire them or not, the impression you make is important, and treating people with respect goes a long way. People are more likely to understand and overlook your missteps when they understand your process, so do your best to be transparent, and manage expectations.

Think Bold: Imagine where you'd like to end up, and work backwards from there. Don't start scaling back out of fear before you've even begun. You'll be amazed at what you can accomplish, so be brave and allow yourself to the grand vision.