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How to Change the World: PopTech’s School for Social Entrepreneurs

FrontlineSMS developer, National Geographic Emerging Explorer, and PopTech Social Innovation Fellow Ken Banks shares practical tips on what works when you want to use a simple idea to change the world.


By Ford Cochran

National Geographic is on Maine’s Atlantic coast for the 2010 PopTech Conference, which is being webcast live from the Camden Opera House. I spoke last night with Ken Banks, a National Geographic Emerging Explorer who helped lead a week-long workshop for 15 new PopTech Social Innovation Fellows. Banks created FrontlineSMS, software for creating mobile text messaging networks in communities–such as those in much of the developing world, combat zones, and regions devastated by natural disasters–where Internet use is impossible or impractical.

Ken, you were here two years ago with the inaugural group of Social Innovation Fellows, and you were asked back to help lead a retreat with the 2010 class. What did you want to impart over the course of the week?

The general idea of the Fellows Retreat is to take early stage but high-promise projects that could be accelerated by introducing these people to networks of funders, communicators, media, social investors and so on. It gives people an opportunity to fast-track what they’re doing, their high-potential projects.

What they come for the week for is to get a compressed program on a number of things: How to handle media, how to create a clear message, how to explain what they do in a short space of time in different formats, the types of organization that could be created and their advantages and disadvantages, the pitfalls of hiring staff, how you think about scaling and whether you want to scale, issues around financial sustainability, different business models.

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Presentation is essential. PopTech being PopTech, one of the things the new fellows get is this fantastic opportunity to present for five minutes in front of a really diverse crowd. I speak at a lot of conferences, but I don’t typically get this kind of audience. It’s normally very niched, and PopTech is very, very wide. So there’s an element of the week that also covers how you present, how you display information, how you transition, thinking about the pause and all the other stuff that can create impact, and thinking about the end. It’s about how you get the highs and the lows into your talk.

Media experts come in to do sessions during the retreat. People from graduate business schools come in and cover the financial stuff. PopTech brings communications experts: Michael Duarte came in–Nancy Duarte wrote the slide:ology book. They’re very much about how you break the numb, boring, terrible sort of thing that we sit through most of the time, Death by PowerPoint, and create something that’s exciting.

Eric Hertsman and I were fellows ourselves in 2008–guinea pigs, it was the first year–and we’re faculty now. What PopTech tries to do is have people back who have been through this already.

The idea was for me and Eric to be mentors. So if people were worried or concerned or had questions or wanted to share their experience with us, or wanted to hear how we felt about things, they could. There was a big session at the end, pretty much the last session of the Fellows Retreat, an hour and a half with me, Eric, and Gustav Praekelt (who runs Project Masiluleke–he was here in 2008 as well). And the new fellows were asking questions about our presentation, tips about how we scaled, how we’ve grown as organizations, because since 2008 Eric’s project, my project, and Gustav’s project have grown considerably. They were curious about how PopTech was part of that, the catalyst that it was, how we’ve handled hiring staff, how we’ve handled the media, how we’ve stayed on track.

And of course there were lots of questions about the five minute talks. It’s incredible how much time is focused on that, not necessarily in the program, but in people’s minds. The thing that matters most is that five minutes on stage. Business models and other things can generally wait, but we don’t want to screw up this five-minute opportunity.

It’s their final exam.

It is! Certainly for me, as well. You don’t want to screw it up for a whole bunch of reasons. One of the great things if you get it right, if you’re happy with it, is you can use it for all sorts of other things. It’s a springboard. You can point people to the video. People know about PopTech. And of course it’s filmed beautifully, it’s all wonderfully staged, and the Opera House is a fantastic place. It’s not your usual grainy video from a conference room, it’s actually something you can use. Donors like that kind of stuff as well, and the media like it.

It’s also a very good five-minute summary of what you do. You don’t usually have that. You normally present for longer, or you write long documents. So it’s a nice little elevator-pitch version of your project and where you hope to go.

So it’s great to be back. And the fellows who’ve spoken so far in the program have been fantastic.

The skills you teach are the same, but the range of projects represented in the 2010 Social Innovation Fellows class is fairly diverse, yes?

There’s a renewable-recyclable theme with some of the projects: You have WE CARE Solar, and you have RecycleMatch, a trading marketplace for recyclable goods, and you have MicroMidas’s poo-into-plastic stuff. So there’s a bit of a theme there.

What’s interesting, though, is the different stages people are at. We found it the same in 2008. It’s quite a balance to make: Some people are quite advanced in their projects, some are prototypes. It’s one of the tensions you have to deal with.

Ideally, you want to try to get people who are pretty much at the same point so they all benefit equally from the different talks. But some people have boards, they have organizations, they have staff, they have a lot of that stuff sorted. So those sections of the fellowship retreat don’t really apply to some of the fellows as much as other parts do.

If there’s someone out there with a good idea to make their community or the world a better place, are there a few tips you could share to help them see it through?

Yes. First, don’t immediately think you need money. There’s this general reaction when people have an idea: We need $100,000, let’s go and get some money. It doesn’t work that way, and donors don’t tend to respond so well to people who just reach for money without actually showing they can do something first. Donors want initiative.

First, leverage all the social media tools that you can, which are free: Do a Facebook group, go on Twitter, start a blog, create a website. Start to blog and write about what you’re doing. Reach out and connect other people who are working in the same field that you’re working in. Start to create a name for yourself. Leave comments on people’s blogs when they write entries which are of interest to you and similar to what you’re doing. Link back to your project. Start to build out some good, strong Google links back to your site.

One of the things people tend to lose up on is that they don’t see what they’re doing through for the long term. Frontline SMS, for example, my project–it was unfunded for the first two and a half years. I did it in my spare time and on evenings and weekends. Start your idea as a hobby. Don’t think of it as a career, necessarily.

Another really important thing, before you dedicate your life to it, is try to find out as much as you can whether or not people really need this thing you want to make or do. You don’t want to start trying to raise money and build a project around something which is actually of no use to anybody. So before you get serious, make sure you’ve got something that’s useful. The best way of doing that is to get out in the field and work on it. Whether that’s weekends or evenings or holidays, do that kind of thing.

Then reach out for funding once you’ve got a little bit of a track record, once you’ve got some articles written about what you’re doing. You’ve got some blog posts, a history, people know who you are. And then you can leverage the networks you’ve built to help raise money if you need it. The longer you can go on and the more you can do before you get to the point of looking for funding, the less likely you’ll waste some people’s money on something that isn’t going to work. It also shows great initiative, and it shows you’re committed.

Right now, we’re living in a pretty incredible time. Innovation is accelerating at such a scary rate. And the Internet is a hugely powerful medium, which means that a kid with a software development kit and a mobile phone can write an application for a mobile phone, release it on the Internet, and it could be accessible to millions of people. You don’t need very much now to create an impact.

We’ve never had this opportunity before. In the ’70s, if you wanted to do development work, you’d have to go and build a dam. Not many people could build dams, or wanted to. Now you can get involved in development through all the digital avenues that are available to us, through using cell phones and leveraging all these new things, which is what we’re finding with FrontlineSMS.

The barriers of entry to innovation and social entrepreneurship are as low as they’ve ever been. And that’s fostering this incredible environment where people are really getting out and doing stuff.

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Photos from the PopTech Social Innovation Fellows Retreat by Ken Banks

Ford-Cochran.jpgFord Cochran directs Mission Programs online for National Geographic. He has written for National Geographic magazine and NG Books, and edits BlogWild–a digest of Society exploration, research, and events–and the Ocean Now blog. Ford studied English literature at the College of William and Mary and biogeochemistry at Harvard and Yale, with a focus on volcanoes, forests, and long-term controls on atmospheric CO2. He was an assistant professor of geology and environmental science at the University of Kentucky before joining the National Geographic staff.


More posts by Ford Cochran

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