Getting In the Arena: Good Ideas and Innovations Often Come From Unexpected Places

Through the first 20 years of the Case Foundation, we’ve covered a lot of ground and been to a lot of places. Along the way, we have found that innovations come from people and places that might surprise you. While news reports focus on the power of Silicon Valley or financial centers like New York and London, we have found numerous great ideas and passionate innovators in places policymakers, funders and trend watchers have often overlooked.

Three U.S. cities are great examples of the excitement and innovation that we have found:

Pittsburgh: In Pittsburgh, we found a unique combination of incubators, accelerators, universities, tech companies and investors, driving this former steel town to experience a resurgence in the form of a technology boom. While many still think of Pittsburgh as the Steel City, the engineer and technology ecosystem that has sprung up in the aftermath of the collapse of the steel industry in the 1980s is one of the reasons that Ford pledged in February to invest $1 billion over five years in a Pittsburgh-based company specializing in artificial intelligence and autonomous car engineering. This community of innovators, incubators and educators is creating a wide range of interesting projects. Pittsburgh innovators we met ranged from Courtney Williamson, founder of AbiliLife, a biomedical company that engineer’s devices for Parkinson’s patients to Vaish Krishnamurthy of CleanRobotics, whose Trash bot uses artificial intelligence to sort recyclables from waste, to Matthew Stanton and Hahna Alexander, cofounders of SolePower*, a technology that uses a foot-powered energy generating insole that can be used to charge portable devices—something of particular interest to the U.S. Army. Even the accelerators in Pittsburgh like AlphaLab Gear bring a unique vision that reflects the best of the region where they are located, supporting hundreds of innovators, expanding understanding of the excellence of the companies in the area and attracting significant outside capital to the region.

Durham: On our recent visit to Durham, we found a renaissance is occurring in the city. Yes, there are tech stories to tout, but the real story is of citizens, companies, institutions and Duke University coming together to invest, expand and reclaim downtown Durham for growth while ensuring that all that defines this community as a thriving, American town includes those who have stayed and those that played a role in making Durham, well…Durham.

At American Underground hundreds of entrepreneurs—from single person startups to ventures like Fidelity Labs, Fidelity’s R&D and innovation catalyst unit—sit side-by-side, creating new companies and pursuing new business ideas in a space where they can also receive the training, accelerator classes and support from Google for Entrepreneurs that rising startups need to take their great ideas to the next level. And we saw the American Tobacco Campus, where local business leaders had transformed the abandoned corporate headquarters of the company that marketed “Lucky Strikes” into a multifaceted center that housed restaurants, businesses and cultural hubs—like the local NPR affiliate and the YMCA—that are helping fuel the dynamic ecosystem that downtown Durham has become.

Detroit: Detroit’s rebirth can only be described as epic. Left for dead by most after the 2008 economic crisis, visionaries like Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert and entrepreneur Tom Kartsotis have helped not only build strong companies, but create thousands of jobs for out-of-work Detroit citizens, giving them an opportunity to prosper as part of the modern economy. Gilbert, who moved Quicken Loans and all of its employees to Detroit, has invested heavily in Detroit real estate, helped dozens of startups, and now employs an estimated 12,500 people. The portraits of those who have found jobs at the companies that have started in Detroit since the Great Recession or started businesses that are fueled by this resurgence highlight how new skills and a new way of thinking about work is being created in the shadows of the once great automobile industry. Detroit’s renaissance is also thanks to the visionary collaboration between the private sector and leading philanthropies, including our colleagues at the Kresge, Ford and Kellogg Foundations. Their work in bringing all sectors of the society to the table is a key to the broad based impact the economic and social revitalization has has had. Detroit has a long way to go, but the new ideas and optimism coming from this city sets a great model for others to follow.

While the names of the local startups and visionaries are often the first thing that one remembers from these trips, one of the great advantages these cities have is community and all the diversity of actors that brings with it. It is as if they have chosen to turn their backs on the “go it alone” mentality and see a competitive advantage in getting as many sectors of their society as engaged as possible. In Pittsburgh, the role of Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh, as well the role of Deloitte, Accenture and Barclays in innovation initiatives cannot be left out of a proper telling of the rebirth in Pittsburgh. While touring the American Underground facility in Durham with Doug Speight, the CODE2040 Entrepreneur in Residence and guru behind many Durham startups including Cathedral Leasing, he mentioned that women lead 29 percent of the projects housed in American Underground’s Durham sites and 28 percent are minority led. This was evident as we walked the hallways, and it makes American Underground one of the most diverse incubators in America, reflecting the fabric of the Durham experience. And the breadth of the players involved in rebuilding Detroit—from automobile companies to community organizers and political leaders, to philanthropists and entrepreneurs—highlights both the scale of the task and how they are committed to ensure as many as possible share in the benefits of rebuilding as possible.

This spirit is not limited to the United States. Great ideas and innovation, informed by the unique perspective that different lifestyles and backgrounds bring, are found worldwide.

While touring Africa, we met numerous entrepreneurs who were crafting new innovations informed directly from their personal experiences. In Nairobi, we visited a sanitation company, Sanergy. Sanergy’s vision is bold and robust: attack a massive hygiene and sanitation problem across communities by not only providing toilets to underserved areas, but by building a comprehensive entrepreneurship-driven model that creates jobs in underserved communities. Converting the waste into organic fertilizer, insect-based animal feed, and renewable energy, Sanergy’s model is emblematic of new approaches we saw throughout Africa.

In Iceland, I met Thor Sigfusson, the leader of the Iceland Ocean Cluster. This startup accelerator in Reykjavik houses 80 startups that are building businesses to use 100% of the fish—from salmon skin clothing to cosmetic products made of fish bones to nutrition and medical supplements from organs of the fish. The idea is that if more fisherman could capture value from 100 percent of the fish, they would need less fish take to make a living, leading to more sustainable fishing practices for the whole country. And given that Iceland takes 80 million cod out of their waters, their impact could be significant.

And as co-chair of the U.S.-Palestinian Partnership (UPP), a public/private partnership launched after the Annapolis peace talks, I saw firsthand the progress that can be made when communities are given a chance and the tools to innovate. UPP promoted economic and educational opportunities for the Palestinian people in order to facilitate progress toward a two-state solution, wherein Israel and Palestine can live side by side, in peace, security and prosperity. Linking support of young entrepreneurs by world-class tech companies like Google and Cisco, and launching the first-ever Venture Capital fund in the West Bank, represented hope and promise for new economic activity, particularly in the impressive IT sector in the region. This, coupled with affordable loan programs for small businesses, the building of new youth centers, helping to foster tourism, and leading business delegations, contributed to increase economic activity and helped demonstrate that the West Bank is open for business and that great ideas and innovations come from all places, including the West Bank.

These are just a few of the hundreds of examples of innovators and entrepreneurs who are Getting In the Arena in communities worldwide. We have found innovation in all sectors coming from all corners of the world. As we look forward to the next 20 years of work, we believe that the next great ideas will come from these overlooked people and places and, frankly, this makes us more excited than ever to see what they create and to identify what we can do to support their efforts to get the attention, and investment, they deserve.

*Disclosure: Jean and Steve Case are investors in SolePower. 

Confronting Risk in Today’s Nonprofit

Over the last four years, the Case Foundation has been actively sharing and championing a framework of principles under the title, Be Fearless. Based on research highlighting key factors that often lead to transformative social change, it calls on individuals and organizations to Be Fearless in their vision, efforts and commitment to their cause. Throughout this period, I’ve met thousands of changemakers from across the country who have embraced the concept and are actively creating change in their communities on everything from poverty and education to climate change and impact investing.

Today, I am delighted to announce that we are debuting a redesigned Be Fearless Hub to enhance the user experience and make more accessible the free tools and resources that our community has requested. The new Hub includes a step-by-step guide to help your organization assess and navigate change, and a set of case studies that showcase some best-in-class changemakers putting the Be Fearless principles into practice—including three exclusive new case studies featuring:

  • Community Voices Heard – empowering New York City’s poorest residents through a radical, strategic coalition.
  • Propeller – restructuring its core program to more quickly move the needle on outcomes for food, water, health and education in New Orleans.
  • Sanergy – developing a new model for addressing a global health challenge that would transform the lives and livelihoods of millions in Africa’s slums.

As I reflect on our own efforts to Be Fearless, I have come to realize that even with resources like the Framework for Action, the case studies and hands-on training through workshops, the idea of risk, and the act of risk taking, remains a paralyzing factor for many. I guess it shouldn’t come as a surprise. The word itself is such a loaded one, often filled with negative or dangerous connotation—“risk-taker,” “risky business,” “credit risk” and “risqué” (the French origin). But the research that led to the Be Fearless principles suggests another perspective when measuring and embracing risk, and that is one of: “no risk, no reward.” In other words, innovations and breakthroughs usually require taking a risk. So given this, is there a way to de-risk, risk?

One way to approach this concept is similar to how private companies view research and development. The goal of R&D in this context is to experiment and identify potential new products in a safe space—despite the fact that the return on investment is uncertain. Suddenly, experimenting, piloting and producing a minimum viable product don’t seem so daunting. It is the cost of doing good business. And what once was a disappointing failure now becomes an opportunity to learn. Expenses to cover costs on the development of products that never make it to market are now seen as an investment where the organization can apply its learnings and ultimately save costs in the long run.

Indeed, there are many different ways to look at risk and R&D from an organizational structure. At the Case Foundation, we’re embracing risk in pursuit of catalyzing our two major movements—inclusive entrepreneurship and impact investing. As we seek to increase the number of women entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs of color, we know that access to social networks is a key ingredient to success. What we don’t know, because of limited data, is whether these entrepreneurs have higher success rates as cohorts of exclusively dedicated accelerators (women-only or of-color-only) or not. While we consider commissioning research, we decided to “be the data” by partnering with a young start-up PowerMoves, an accelerator for entrepreneurs of color, and test our theory of change to see what works.

Similarly, on the impact investing front, we are embracing risk in pursuit of a big bet regarding what’s needed to tip more investors from good intent to action. Coming this fall, we will launch in beta form a data visualization tool that maps the connections between investors, companies and funds in the impact investing ecosystem. Nothing like it exists in the market yet, but our work to date (research, interviews, partner collaboration) and that from the sector suggests there is a need for it. But who knows—the feedback and iteration stage could reveal some real surprises, surprises that we value as opportunities (not risks!) of doing our business better.

Risk, in these two contexts, is elevated into a purposeful strategy and opportunity to innovate and try new things, without the assurance of a positive outcome. Imagine what could be possible if the social sector invested in a continuous cycle of R&D? What if you got regular feedback on your programs, could test new ideas with your target audience before implementing them at full scale or allowed for iterations of your product over time in order to deliver the best version possible? What kind of impact could you help create?

So I ask you now, what are you doing within your own organization? Have you developed your own form of R&D or institutionalized processes for innovation? Or are you perhaps just getting started and looking for ways to take the first step? If you are ready to embrace risk and reach the next level of changemaking, then I encourage you to check out the Framework for Action, case studies and other free resources on the Be Fearless Hub. It is incumbent upon all of us empowered changemakers to take risks, be bold and fail forward, so let’s take the next step together, now.

Don’t forget to share your experiences with us via Twitter using @CaseFoundation and #BeFearless. We hope you’ll join us!

Entrepreneurs + Toilets: A Matchup that Won’t Go Down the Drain

This week at the Case Foundation, we’ve been celebrating entrepreneurs — their role as innovators, job creators and the heart of economic growth — as part of National Entrepreneurship Month and Global Entrepreneurship Week.

It just so happens that within this busy week falls another day that is close to our heart — World Toilet Day — focused on raising awareness of the 2.4 billion people around the world who lack access to clean water and sanitation. Today’s efforts will also shine a spotlight on the incredible people and organizations working towards meeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal to ensure access to water and sanitation for all.

For me, it’s a not just a happy coincidence that these two important world celebrations — entrepreneurs and toilets — fall in the same week. In fact, I see them as closely intertwined. Admittedly, it’s an odd couple at first glance… what do entrepreneurs and toilets have to do with each other? Actually, quite a lot.

We talk a lot at the Case Foundation about the role that entrepreneurs can — and must — play to solve some of our most intractable social challenges. And opportunities abound to bring entrepreneurial thinking and approaches to address the sanitation crisis.

One of the organizations living this idea is Sanergy, a social enterprise and a grantee of the Case Foundation. We’ve written about its groundbreaking work in the informal settlements of Nairobi, Kenya and had the opportunity to spend time with the Sanergy team during our visit to Africa this summer. But what’s particularly worth highlighting about Sanergy on this year’s World Toilet Day is its unique approach to leveraging the power of entrepreneurship. Through its franchise model, Sanergy has created a community of 370 micro-entrepreneurs — known as Fresh Life Operators — who purchase and operate Fresh Life toilets, providing their communities with access to clean, safe and affordable hygienic sanitation.

The Sanergy team mentors and assists these entrepreneurs along the way: from providing training in basic business skills, to partnering with Kiva to provide access to interest-free loans, assisting in the set up of savings accounts and holding regular forums on best practices. Creating a community of successful Fresh Life Operators goes well beyond enabling these entrepreneurs to provide hygienic sanitation to their friends and neighbors (via the 764 Fresh Life Toilets deployed to date), but they are also helping them create jobs. To date, nearly 150 Fresh Life Operators have hired attendants to help run their toilets, creating new, steady jobs in an area with 40 percent unemployment.

Sanergy certainly isn’t alone in this endeavor to leverage entrepreneurship to address the sanitation crisis — our long time partner Water for People has piloted a “sanitation as a business” initiative, which it intends to build on in 2016. And WSUP (Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor) has been a leader in this space, incubating a number of new initiatives that leverage the power of business and entrepreneurship to provide sanitation solutions in places like Ghana, Bangladesh, Kenya and Zambia, through its innovative WSUP Enterprises effort. And companies like Sanivation (an alumni of the incubator program run by our friends at Halcyon House), Pivot, x-Runner Venture and many others are making an impact by providing toilets and removing waste from communities in places like Kigali, Naivasha and Lima. The list of innovative organizations leveraging entrepreneurship to address the range of challenges in the sanitation crisis goes on and on.

It is my hope that someday, we won’t need a World Toilet Day because each and every person will have access to safe, hygienic sanitation, forever. But until that day, let’s celebrate the unexpected and critical role that entrepreneurs and innovators can play in changing the status quo.

Show your support for World Toilet Day by tweeting: Celebrate the innovative entrepreneurs working to address the global sanitation crisis this #WorldToiletDay! http://bit.ly/1NEDuT4

We Can’t Wait – World Toilet Day 2014

These days, it seems like there’s a dedicated “day” for pretty much everything – to raise awareness for important issues, to give to local charities, or to celebrate important people in our lives. I don’t ultimately think it’s a bad thing, as it causes us to pause and reflect on important moments and issues. One of these “days” that has gained momentum and attention in recent years that I’m particularly passionate about – is today, World Toilet Day.

A day dedicated to toilets may seem a little silly at first glance – it’s a big slab of porcelain in a room in our house that we generally take for granted. It’s easy to forget that they were an important innovation that dramatically improved our quality of life. In fact, readers of the British Medical Journal (BMJ) chose the introduction of clean water and sewage disposal—“the sanitary revolution”—as the most important medical milestone since 1840, when the BMJ was first published.

But it’s an innovation that is not taken for granted by the more than 2.5 billion people worldwide that are still living without access to improved sanitation. It is not taken for granted by the young women who face the choice of defecating out in the open or risking rape and assault to walk to the nearest public toilet. Nor is it taken for granted by those who are subject to cholera, diarrhea and a whole host of other health issues that are caused by overrun sewers and as the result of so-called “flying toilets.” Makes you think a little more carefully about that slab of porcelain in your house – or even public rest stops that we have to duck into during road trips, doesn’t it?

Addressing the sanitation crisis has the potential to not only improve quality of life for nearly 40% of the world’s population, but to have a tremendous positive impact on a whole host of other issues – from global health, to safety for women and girls. Over the years, the world water crisis has deservedly gained great global attention – but only recently has the issue of sanitation has really come to the forefront, with the UN officially recognizing World Toilet Day in 2013 (after several years of “unofficial” World Toilet Days in years prior).

Some of the most interesting and exciting innovations in global development are happening in the sanitation space – from organizations like Water for People focused on transparency in bringing access to clean water and improved sanitation to everyone, forever; to major international organizations like the IRC International Water & Sanitation Centre and Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor; or initiatives like the Gates Foundation’s “Reinvent the Toilet Challenge.” Not to mention the growing number of companies and nonprofits like re.source, SOIL, Humanure Power, Clean Team, Toilet Hackers and others that are delivering major innovations in both design and approach for deploying toilets in both urban and rural settings.

I’m particularly proud to serve on the board of one of these innovative organizations – Sanergy – which is focused on providing access to affordable, hygenic sanitation in urban informal settlements. To date, Sanergy has launched more than 575 of its Fresh Life Toilets in Nairobi, Kenya, where more than eight million people lack access to clean water. The organization doesn’t just stop at building and franchising toilets that offer a clean, dignified place for residents to use the bathroom (and a steady income for the Fresh Life Operators who purchase and manage the toilets) – Sanergy also safely collects and transports the waste from Fresh Life toilets, and is converting it into useful byproducts like organic fertilizer. The importance of waste removal and conversion can’t be understated in communities where a sewer system typically doesn’t exist – or is rarely working properly if it does.

I’ve been lucky enough to visit Sanergy and see first-hand the impact of their work in Nairobi twice over the last two years, most recently just two weeks ago. It has been beyond inspiring to hear directly from the Fresh Life Operators on how their lives, and the areas around them, have been transformed by the use of the Fresh Life Toilet, is an understatement. It is also powerful to witness Sanergy’s efforts to truly ensure that everyone in the community has access to a clean, dignified sanitation facility by working not just in commercial areas, but with schools and in residential areas to install the Fresh Life Toilets (you can read more about their impact in schools here and here).

I’d be selling Sanergy short, however, if I only talked about their groundbreaking work in addressing the sanitation crisis in urban settings. It’s impossible not to notice the culture of the organization they’re building – as one of Kenya’s fastest growing social enterprises, Sanergy has a team of more than 190 young, energetic, talented individuals on a mission to change the world and global health as we know it. The impact of the more than 600 jobs they’ve collectively created – including those within the community they’re serving – is a critical part of their work.

So today, on this World Toilet Day, I’m pausing to reflect on one of our most unsung, and often taken-for-granted innovations – and celebrating the work of amazing organizations who are working towards a healthier future, where everyone can take their toilet for granted, forever.

To learn more about World Toilet Day efforts led by UN Water, click here.