StartingBloc Institute for Social Innovation – Boston 09

TCI had mentioned the StartingBloc fellowship earlier, and this past weekend, I had the opportunity to attend the Greater Boston institute at MIT Sloan and Tufts Fletcher School.  To provide some background on StartingBloc, the organization holds three institutes in Boston, New York and London, whose goal is to bring together a cadre of 150 young leaders with a passion for social innovation. The institute’s focus is on providing training and networking opportunities. The mission and vision of StartingBloc according to their website is:

Our Mission
StartingBloc educates, empowers and connects emerging leaders to drive positive social change across sectors.

Our Vision
As StartingBloc fellows ascend to positions of influence, they will use the StartingBloc network to launch organizations, guide policies and effect cross-sector partnerships that address social, economic and environmental issues around the world.

The 2009 Boston institute was held over four days and featured speakers, workshops and networking sessions.  One of the highlights of the institute was a talk by Tom Szaky of Terracyle who has built a multi-million dollar enterprise that upcycles garbage.   Upcycling refers to the process of re-using waste material such as juice pouches or plastic bottles to create new products likes bags, purses and spray bottles.  Terracyle is an excellent example of how you can do well while doing good for the environment.

Another inspiring speaker was Elizabeth Scharpf, an Echoing Green fellow and founder of Sustainable Health Enterprises.  After an MBA from the Harvard Business School, Elizabeth set out on a mission to provide low-cost sanitary pads to women in developing countries.  I had a chance to speak with her later and discuss the challenges of the hybrid (for-profit/non-profit) model for a social enterprise.  One of the advantages of this model is that the non-profit entity is eligible for grants and donations while the for-profit entity can simultaneously generate sales revenue and scale up like a normal business.  However, there are a number of legal and accounting issues associated with this model and anyone considering it is advised to seek help from a good legal team (which as we were told at StartingBloc can be gained through many of top law firms’ pro-bono work divisions).

Amongst many great workshops, the most popular one was on the Theory of Change.  TOC provides an organization with a framework to organize their mission, achievable and measurable goals and the activities and assumptions needed to reach these goals.   Such a framework is imperative for the success of any social enterprise, and anyone interested in such ventures is strongly advised to utilize such frameworks.

One of the exciting aspects of StartingBloc Boston was the large number of people either from India or currently working on a project there.  Some of the attendees from India included the founder fellow of Engineers for Social Impact and others who are working in areas ranging from emergency preparedness to entrance exam coaching in rural areas to water sanitation and polio vaccination.   The fact that so many people flew thousands of miles to attend StartingBloc is a testimony to the commitment of social innovators in India and around the world.

Overall, StartingBloc was an absolutely amazing experience and I would enourage anyone interested in this field to attend next year.  The advantages extend far beyond the four days of sessions – you also become part of a network of extremely high-achieving individuals who are working in countries ranging from Ecuador to Rwanda to Vietnam, on issues as diverse as climate change, road safety and women’s healthcare. Feel free to email me at if you want to learn more about StartingBloc.

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