By Clare Leinweber
I manage the Wharton Venture Initiation Program (VIP), the educational incubator for Wharton and Penn student entrepreneurs. From my front row seat, I am continually impressed by their dedication. These are students studying full-time at one of the best universities in the world who in their “spare” time generate venture ideas, choose the most promising, write business plans, assemble teams, and ask alums, faculty, and anyone else they can think of for advice. They pull it all together in the hope that the venture will become a full-time job after graduation.
This thriving entrepreneurial community on the Penn campus is generating and sustaining a growing number of social entrepreneurs. These students are focusing their ventures on solving social problems about which they care deeply. Most use business models that simultaneously address the social problem and generate profits in the hopes that this increases the sustainability of their ventures and creates jobs. Although broadly termed “social,” these problems are diverse and may focus on the developed or developing world and on environmental, educational, civic, financial, or other issues.
Keya Dannenbaum, a Wharton MBA student (currently on leave) who is co-founder and CEO of ElectNext, followed a civic and political mission. She wanted to make it easier for voters to select candidates based on their stance on issues rather than the inflated rhetoric of political advertisements and speeches. ElectNext enables voters to respond to issue-based questions to help them identify candidates (at the local, state, and national levels) who best represent their interests. ElectNext helps cut through the confusion to help educate the electorate.
Two young companies with Wharton or Penn alumni founders were just featured this week in a Forbes article on entrepreneurs who have “turned service into a career.” Alex Mittal, a 2007 graduate of the Management and Technology Program (a Wharton and Penn Engineering dual degree), is a co-founder of Innova Dynamics which commercializes advanced materials technologies for positive environmental impacts and improved sanitation. Innova began by focusing on developing water pipes that have antimicrobial properties to reduce the transmission of water-borne disease. This talented undergraduate team placed second in the 2008 Wharton Business Plan Competition and moved out to San Francisco after graduation to continue with the business. Another company, Hydros Bottle, was spun out of Innova. In 2009, co-founders Aakash Mathur (Wharton ’09/College ’09) and Jay Parekh (Engineering ’09) joined the Wharton Venture Initiation Program just before they graduated from Penn. They worked full-time on Hydros to develop their fast-filtering, antimicrobial, individual-sized water bottle during the next five semesters and then moved into offices in Center City Philadelphia. In addition to providing a clean drinking water solution for people on the go, their mission is to help reduce the mounting problem of plastic waste worldwide. Furthermore, through Operation Hydros, they allocate $1 from every bottle sold to sustainable water infrastructure projects (currently in Cameroon).
Alejandro Gac-Artigas, a 2011 graduate of Penn’s Graduate School of Education, and Edrizio De La Cruz, a 2012 graduate of Wharton’s MBA Program were just named 2012 Echoing Green Fellows in a highly competitive process to select “the world’s most promising social entrepreneurs.” Alejandro has been building his venture, Springboard Collaborative, within the Wharton Venture Initiation Program since spring 2011. By engaging elementary schools and parents, Springboard Collaborative aims to eliminate the summertime losses in reading progress that so many children suffer. By closing this literacy gap, Alejandro hopes to give kids in underserved areas a leg up that carries them successfully into secondary school and higher education. Edrizio has launched Regalii to disrupt the current system used by US-based immigrants seeking to send money back to family members in other countries (for which they often pay substantial fees).
The four Warby Parker co-founders, Neal Blumenthal, Dave Gilboa, Andy Hunt, and Jeff Raider, all 2010 Wharton MBA grads, connected with each other early on as students, and met often to brainstorm business ideas. They decided to focus on disrupting the fashion eyewear industry and a social mission was part of their business model from the very beginning. Because Neal was a director of VisionSpring prior to Wharton, he knew what a profound difference a pair of glasses could make to a person’s quality of life and productivity in a developing country. From the very start, Warby Parker’s mission was to provide a free pair of glasses to someone in need for every consumer pair sold at a competitive price. Neal recently spoke about the importance of the Warby Parker social mission at the GrowCo (Grow Your Company) Conference in New Orleans and his interview is available on Inc. Live. Neal and his co-founders have frequently and graciously returned to campus to mentor and give talks about their entrepreneurial experiences and why an authentic, well-conceived, and well-communicated social mission is critical for social entrepreneurs.
Every one of these young entrepreneurs has received support from Penn in the form of their education, co-curricular program participation (for example, in the Wharton Business Plan Competition or the Wharton Venture Initiation Program), grants and awards (such as the Wharton Venture Award), and mentoring from dedicated Wharton and Penn alums and others in the Philadelphia entrepreneurial eco-system.
While this sampling of recent social entrepreneurs is not comprehensive, I hope that it provides a good idea of the diversity of venture concepts and the level of determination and energy of our student entrepreneurs. Wharton has a strong commitment to supporting an awe-inspiring group of student entrepreneurs through a wide array of programs and resources, including Wharton Entrepreneurial Programs and the Wharton Program for Social Impact. These students are intent on using their talents to solve some of the world’s most pressing problems and we want to see them succeed.