Today’s guest blogpost comes from Ian Fisk, who is executive director of the William James Foundation, which promotes responsible business. Ian also has been active for many years in Net Impact, leading both the Yale chapter and the professional chapter here in Washington, D.C. Over the years, he has founded or helped to found more than a dozen ventures, some non-profit, some for-profit, and some that, he quips, did not last long enough to have an official tax status at all! He’s writing today about the Foundation’s Socially Responsible Business Plan Competition–one of a growing number of competitions intended to promote and reward startups with an expansive view of their responsibility to the greater good.
Late on the afternoon of Friday, December 3rd, the team responsible for the William James Foundation’s Socially Responsible Business Plan Competition will find its email inbox full of socially responsible business plans from around the world. While we work with entrepreneurs of any age, educational level, and country, we are confident that one thing will be true for all entrants: a just-under-the-wire approach to deadlines. Typically, half of the business plans we all year come in during the hour before the deadline, and the WJF has an annual office pool as to how many plans will arrive at 5:00 PM eastern time exactly. (Last year’s winner was six.) Procrastination, it seems, is alive and well.
Maybe that’s because our competitors are spreading their bets. Multiple-bottom-line business plan competitions like ours are proliferting. Here is a list of about 50 of them.
But the WJF team has an unusual message for our entrants: don’t enter to win. Enter to improve your plan.
Sure, we offer a prize pool of around $100,000 worth of in-kind prizes and cash (mostly in-kind) that is divided amongst the top teams in the competition. But our primary focus is on helping the entrepreneurs get to their next stage through detailed and constructive feedback on their business plans.
The WJF’s goal is to support as many entrants as we can. So while last year’s winner Nuru Light, which makes LED lights to replace kerosene in Africa, received around 40 pages of feedback, as well as $7,000 in cash and $25,000 worth of professional services from such multiple bottom line thought leaders like BBMG and Free Range Studios, the team that finished 150th received around 20 pages of feedback as well. It came from such world-class judges such as our friends Mark Albion, author of Making a Life, Making a Living; entrepreneur Jigar Shah who now leads the Carbon War Room; and social enterprise pioneer Chuck Lief of Greyston Bakery and Intervale.
After eight years of watching the competition grow from DC-area to national to international, I knew that the Foundation needed to pick a niche. As an operating foundation, we didn’t have the financial resources to get directly in the funding game ourselves, or even award prizes at the level of Rice University Business Plan Competition, the Clean Tech Open, or the Dell Social Innovation Competition. And while we are actively trying to build a community around our competition entrants, we don’t want to compete with excellent fellowship programs like Echoing Green or accelerators like the Unreasonable Institute.
So the Foundation has taken its main asset, a reading judge pool of more than 450 individuals drawn equally from the ranks of senior managers and CEOs, subject matter experts, and on-the-ground entrepreneurs, and focused them on providing constructive feedback on the business plans. That way, the judges can help entrants build stronger businesses, before connecting them with customers, mentors, and collections of patient capital investors like Investors’ Circle to move the whole field forward.
“The reviewers spend a tremendous amount of time preparing the feedback. Instead of just saying this is good or bad, they give specifics,” says Jeremy Litchfield, who entered the WJF competition with Atayne in 2008. His startup, Atayne, is a growing Brunswick, ME firm that offers recycled clothing for running, cycling, hiking, climbing, paddling, yoga–and just being active.
Other entrants that have been helped by WJF include Sproxil, which helps people in poor countries avoid counterfeit medication (and has won praise from former President Clinton), and PowerMundo, which sells clean tech products in Peru.
Since I know readers of Marc’s blog are exactly the kind of senior multiple bottom line managers that we’re seeking for our judging pool, if you have the experience and inclination to support the next generation of sustainable business entrepreneurs, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Those of who are those entrepreneurs are encouraged to contact me as well.
In this contest, every entrant wins–and so do the rest of us.