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Q&A: Cheryl Dorsey, president of Echoing Green

Q&A: Cheryl Dorsey, president of Echoing Green

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In a world where ideas are currency, the social entrepreneurship funder Echoing Green takes a different approach. Echoing Green leaders discovered that the innovator, not the idea, is the most important factor in making an impact.

In a world where ideas are currency, the social entrepreneurship funder Echoing Green takes a different approach. After a quarter-century providing start-up capital to nonprofits including Teach for America and the Freelancers Union, Echoing Green leaders discovered that the innovator, not the idea, is the most important factor in making an impact.

I spoke last month with Cheryl Dorsey, president of Echoing Green, about the qualities of successful social entrepreneurs, the importance of problem-solving skills and a new trend in the social enterprise sector. Below are excerpts from our interview.

Describe the mission of Echoing Green.

Our mission is to unleash next-generation talent to solve the world's toughest social problems. We've been in business for 25 years. We were founded by the leadership of General Atlantic, a leading equity growth firm. We are angel investors in the social sector, providing seed capital and support to some of the world's best emerging social entrepreneurs.

What's more important: the idea or the innovator?

When you look across the spectrum of those who invest in social entrepreneurs, we all weigh the idea of the innovator differently. There's no right or wrong answer. Echoing Green has doubled down on the person, the human capital. We always believed that if you invest in the right person, who has an important idea for social change, that's a winning strategy. It's not that you completely discount the idea. Obviously, this idea is the physical manifestation of the innovator's thinking. But if you bet on the leader, that's a great starting point.

What's the No. 1 trait you look for in social entrepreneurs?

It's a constellation of qualities and characteristics. We often joke at Echoing Green that the process of selecting these next generation innovators is alchemy. You're using your gut. But you're also using hard data. Does the person express their idea in a way that makes a case for how this tackling of the problem could lead to its solution? What's their perspective on the world? How do they think about solving particular problems? How do they deal with the complexities that come with starting a new enterprise and trying to change the status quo? Do we think the person has the potential to grow into some of the key qualities we look for? It's multifactorial and complicated.

In your 99% talk, you described what you call Social Entrepreneurial Intelligence. What is that and why is it important?

Despite the fact that we fund people all over the world working in a myriad of problem areas, these leaders have many similar qualities. In our attempt to codify what we've learned over the past decades, we looked at the folks in our community. They're different in so many ways, but you can start to see common themes in their leadership styles. We looked at similarities and boiled them down into 10 qualities, traits or characteristics that we rolled up into this term SEQ. It's a shorthand way for us to look at these leaders and see the tendencies we think are highly correlated to being successful social change leaders. There are 10 qualities and you can start to bucket these traits.

  • One bucket is their perspective on the world and their ability to drive change. One quality in that bucket is this notion of a human-centered way of looking at the world. The client with whom they're working is always at the center of every decision. It's the spark for the passion of the work.
  • Another bucket is outcome-orientation. These folks are in the business of solving problems. There's a higher level of accountability for the solution they're driving at. It's important for them to be accountable to both the success of the work and the failures of the work.
  • The third bucket is the notion of power source. You can be a terrific leader with a great idea, but if you can't generate resources to drive toward the solutions it's for naught. How are these leaders able to attract all sorts of resources to their cause?
  • There's a notion of purpose. We look at these folks as purpose drivers. They have a North Star. They may not know how they're going to get from A to B, but they're completely committed to get from A to B. It's tough to move the needle on these problems. There are a lot of folks who push back against their view of the world and their solution to the problem. Having that North Star is an incredible buttress when you're trying to get it done.

You've said you look for entrepreneurs who can solve problems rather than just generate ideas. Why?

We're invited to conference after conference and asked to talk to young people about how to start something new. We constantly begin our formal remarks by saying, 'Please don't start something new.' There's been an interesting phenomenon in the last few years where people equate success with being a founder, rather than solving a problem. That's a concern for Echoing Green. Echoing Green has never been in the business of just starting more innovations. We have leaders who've got what we think are potentially systems-changing ideas. We think moving the needle on these social problems is so difficult and so dangerous to the status quo that you need a protective shell to give this a chance. The emphasis is not on starting something new, but on an idea that could shift the conversation. It's a complex argument to make.

Before you were the president of Echoing Green, you were a social entrepreneur yourself. Talk about that.

I received an Echoing Green fellowship in 1992. I was in medical school. I'd taken a year and a half off to get a Master's in public policy. I got involved working with a doctor on the issue of black infant mortality in inner-city Boston. At the time, black babies were dying at three-times the rate of white babies. Infant mortality is not as much a medical problem, but a socioeconomic problem with terrible medical consequences. If you could link pregnant women to culturally-competent and accessible services, you could reduce this racial disparity. We started a program that Echoing Green funded called the Family Van. It's a mobile health unit that travels through inner-city Boston providing medical services and connections to healthcare institutions. It was a transformative experience: not only the imprimatur of Echoing Green believing in me as a young entrepreneur, but embedding me in a larger network of entrepreneurs who were committed to changing the world. This investment in young human talent changed my world view forever. Eleven years ago, I joined the Echoing Green staff.

What's next for you and Echoing Green?

This has become a true global social movement powered by the energy and enthusiasm of young people. This demographic is working to change the world because they've become increasingly skeptical of institutions that have let them down. They're re-imagining their relationship to the social contract in their communities. When Echoing Green started, it was truly a pioneer. It was speaking into the wilderness. Now there's a growing community and it's great to be part of this tidal wave.

Our work is becoming increasingly global. When we started 25 years ago, the vast majority of our work was funding U.S. citizens doing work in the U.S. It's increasingly clear that some of the most interesting talent and ideas are coming from abroad. Echoing Green is thinking about how to support those international leaders.

Since 2007, we've seen an explosion in the number of young people starting for-profit social enterprises. These young people are completely changing the way we think about how to drive change. This whole idea of impact investing and using traditional business to drive change is a trend that's going to grow. How do we start to build a social capital market? These entrepreneurs are building what we think will be the sustainable business models of tomorrow.

Photo: Cheryl Dorsey

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Christina Hernandez Sherwood

Contributing Writer

Contributing Writer Christina Hernandez Sherwood has written for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education and Columbia Journalism Review. She holds degrees from the University of Delaware and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure