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Thursday, August 05, 2010

Social Entrepreneurship in Colorado, Part 1: Impressions from the Unreasonable Mansion

By Heather Fleming

Editor's Note: Today we feature two posts on the busy Social Entrepreneurship summer that is winding down in Colorado. The first one features the happenings at the Unreasonable Institute, while this afternoon's will profile the International Development Design Summit at Colorado State University. 

Last Saturday the Unreasonable Institute, a 10-week summer institute hosting 22 social entrepreneurs from around the world, wrapped up its first year with the Unreasonable Global Summit in Boulder, Colorado.  The Unreasonable Institute attempts to address a problem I wrote about recently in my piece titled "R.I.P Social Ventures?": the increasing number of promising organizations sitting in development limbo due to the lack of resources and support for budding social entrepreneurs.  

They tackle the problem by supporting early stage ventures with the tools and connections to carry out their organizational vision.  The qualifications?   "All ventures must effectively address a social or environmental issue, be financially self-sustaining within 1 year, have a model which can be scaled out of the country of origin within 3 years, and must eventually meet the needs of at least 1 million people."

That is a tall order, and having met several of the Unreasonable Fellows, I can't say that all of them will achieve those qualifications or even aim to do so.  Nevertheless, the 22 Fellows selected for the Institute's inaugural year are impressive and energetic -all between the ages of 20-30.  Two examples: Participatory Development Initiatives aims to stop the tradition of honor killings in Pakistan; Mosaic Ventures, on the other hand, is working on a micro-financing program for clean tech in the US. 

The most impressive undertaking, however, is the Unreasonable Institute itself.   The 20-something co-founders, Daniel Epstein and Teju Ravilochan, felt the pains of starting their own ventures.  Their experience inspired the launch of the Institute, which focuses on the two things any young entrepreneur needs the most in order to survive:  mentors and a support network of peers. 

The Unreasonable team assembled and garnered the support of a rockstar list of 60 mentors to spend one-one-one time with each Unreasonable Fellow.  The mentors - including the likes of Bernard Amadei, Hunter Lovins, and Paul Hudnut - live and dine with the entrepreneurs in the "Unreasonable Mansion" near CU-Boulder.   "I feel like I can call up any one of them," says Cesar Gonzales, founder of MiCasa Ventures in Peru.  Cesar's startup is one of the many that has shifted focus as a result of interaction with the mentors.  "A few mentors pushed back on my business model until I couldn't answer their questions.  Plus I've been exposed to so many unique models by the other Fellows."  Cesar took a two-week break from the Institute to return to Peru to re-think Mi Casa's structure. 

The scene in the Unreasonable Mansion (aka CU-Boulder dormitory) looks a little something like this:  a whiteboard in the dining area announces daily workshops, talks, and visiting mentors, a sign-up sheet for one-on-one sessions with mentors lingers near the kitchen, a mess of couches and extension cords clutter the Bean Bag room, and the Fellows are everywhere, hunched over their laptops re-working business models, setting up meetings, emailing team members, and drafting proposals.  They're a close-knit group.  And everyone - the mentors, the founders, the thousands of eyes watching the Institute - is excited to see what happens to their ventures post-Institute.  That, after all, is the true test of Unreasonable's success.

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