Social Entrepreneurship Takes Flight to Denver: Solutions Soar

Here’s a recipe for excitement: mix 17 entrepreneurs at 15 companies from 11 countries with over 100 Colorado innovators in Denver for 3 days of intense interaction. Now, imagine the magic!

PeakChange was invited to participate in the Flight to Denver, a solutions summit bootcamp, sponsored jointly by The University of Denver’s Project X-ITE, The United Nations Foundation, and the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade. Having graduated with my Masters in International Development from The University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies, I was thrilled to be invited back to participate in such a monumental event for the university and the greater Colorado social venture community.

Team REFUNITE

At PeakChange, we invest in and work with entrepreneurs around the world who are addressing systemic problems in innovative ways. PeakChange supports the impact investing ecosystem by encouraging public-private partnerships and emboldening changemakers to collaborate in solving our major societal challenges at scale. I was delighted to be placed on a team, Piloted by JB Holston and Co-Piloted by Keith Gehring, assigned to work with REFUNITE, an East African nonprofit organization that is applying a technology solution to help heal a massive social tragedy.

Team REFUNITE formal picture, but missing a few members

Team REFUNITE formal picture, but missing a few members

REFUNITE’s mission is to reconnect refugee families with missing loved ones across the globe. Today, over 65.3 million people have been forcibly displaced worldwide.  A large percentage of these folks have lost contact with family members or friends during their escape from disasters, persecutions, or conflicts. All too often, families end up in different parts of the world - afraid, alienated, and alone.  REFUNITE has set out to change the process of family tracing. By creating a user-friendly, online global database of over 600,000 profiles, users can now search for their missing loved ones with the click of a button. REFUNITE currently conducts projects in Kenya, South Sudan, Somalia, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). REFUNITE has also partnered with Facebook’s Free Basics service, which has made access to REFUNITE’s platform available without charge in 14 countries: Kenya, Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), South Africa, Niger, Rwanda, Liberia, Iraq, Pakistan, the Philippines, Malawi, Nigeria, the Republic of Congo, and Ghana.

Background a/k/a Why This is So Cool

In September 2015, the United Nations adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a set of 17 measurable goals that provide a framework to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity. On the day after their adoption, the first annual Solutions Summit was held at the United Nations headquarters in New York City.

The Solutions Summit was created with two goals in mind: support innovative entrepreneurs working to solve one or more SDGs and catalyze communities to support solution makers.

Project X-ITE’s JB Holston and Nina Sharma attended the Summit in New York and decided that Colorado’s innovation ecosystem was uniquely positioned to support, assist, and accelerate solution-makers on a global scale.  The Solutions Summit shined a spotlight on critical problems, and the changemakers focused on solutions. The next step was determining how to catapult these entrepreneurs into broader ecosystems of support. Thus, the idea for Flight to Denver: a solutions-oriented bootcamp inclusive of the Colorado innovator ecosystem.

BootCamp Takeaways

Approximately 175 Colorado innovators engaged in the Flight to Denver, including academics, public partners, private sector innovators, nonprofit collaborators, facilitators, and workshop presenters as well as the global entrepreneurs and their teams. Workshops included human-centered design thinking, fundraising and pitching, ecosystem mapping, marketing, and communications - to help solution makers approach their current challenges with new tools and perspectives.

Here’s what I learned in the 48-hour intensive Flight to Denver solutions bootcamp:

  1. The Colorado Community is Radically Generous. Almost 175 people came together over an intensive weekend in Denver to engage in a collaborative process to help global entrepreneurs solve some of our world’s most pressing problems. Colorado values are to connect, collaborate, and innovate with each other because we only succeed when our community does. Flight to Denver is the embodiment of the humility of the Colorado community and the deep passion we share to solve critical social problems together.
  2. Entrepreneurship is a Community Sport. Plus, it’s more fun to journey together than go at it alone. Coming into the bootcamp, all solution makers were at different stages of scale. Some entrepreneurs were still in the R&D process, others were looking for help to raise funds, and others were most interested in mentoring or marketing. By working together in interdisciplinary groups, with team members who are academics, for-profit industry veterans, nonprofit partners, and cross-cultural contributors, the process of digging into our entrepreneur’s organizational problems didn’t seem that hard or intimidating. With Hannah Lippe of Fidelity Labs' Design Thinking workshop, we learned about the importance of empathy; and we came up with connections and ideas that we probably wouldn’t have if we had remained in our silos, conducting business as usual.
  3. Build Your Ecosystem. Ideas thrive in dense networks. According to Jared Marquette of Village Capital and Andy Stoll of The Kaufman Foundation, we are living in the connected age where entrepreneurship has been democratized, networks are replacing hierarchies, and geography no longer has a monopoly on great ideas. Map your local ecosystem and industry specific ecosystem. Trust me. It’ll make a huge difference in the way you approach your business and network.
  4. Grit Takes Guts. Solution makers come from countries and environments where it’s extremely challenging to start a company, let alone build a startup ecosystem. Hearing from Jacqueline Ros of Revolar and Luis Duartes of Gary Community Investments, those issues can be just as hard in the United States for female entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs of color during the fundraising process. Despite coming from under-resourced and undercapitalized environments, the visiting entrepreneurs are succeeding in tackling our most pressing global challenges. It’s important to seize opportunities to build relationships and make connections outside of your comfort zone. Imagine what these solution makers are going to be able to do, now that they’re connected to our community!

Now What?

Ida Jeng and me posing together at the end of the Flight.

Ida Jeng and me posing together at the end of the Flight.

PeakChange will continue to work with Team REFUNITE to help them solve their biggest challenges. We’ve created an action plan with tangible goals to move the needle on organizational roadblocks. Over the next six months until the Solutions Summit at the United Nations in September 2017, our team will continue to collaborate to ensure fundraising success and ecosystem development for REFUNITE. Next steps are currently being determined. For more information on all the companies and entrepreneurs participating in the Flight to Denver and how you can get involved, go to http://www.projectxite.org/.