Using Investment Capital to Democratize Entrepreneurism | Net Impact

Using Investment Capital to Democratize Entrepreneurism

Ross Baird, Executive Director, Village Capital

Ross Baird’s mission is to democratize entrepreneurship. His organization, Village Capital, brings together social entrepreneurs for education and rigorous peer-to-peer development of their business ideas. And when it’s time to introduce these enterprises to the investment community, it’s the entrepreneurs themselves who decide which businesses make the cut. His model’s been gaining traction, winning his team The NextBillion Case Study Competition and feature coverage in major newspapers.

Learning by doing

Ross’s interest in social entrepreneurship was formed while he was at Oxford, studying the connection between educational investment and political participation. While there, he took an internship with the Indian School Finance Company, a social enterprise that identifies infrastructure needs for schools in Hyderabad.

When he hit the ground in Hyderabad, Ross didn’t know he was about to get a crash course in business. But such is the reality at an organization where everyone does everything and there are no job descriptions. Ross was called upon to do everything from financial modeling to on-the-ground legwork. He loved it. And his boss noticed. “He would assign me serious business homework to do in my off hours,” describes Ross. “His philosophy was that a good ‘athlete’ can figure it out.”

Ross came back to the states and parlayed his newfound passion into a position at First Light Ventures, where his next boss gave him even more responsibility incubating early-stage social ventures. One of the biggest things Ross has taken away from his experiences is how important a great boss can be early in your career – in many respects, it’s more important than the job itself.

All this hands-on learning was great preparation for Ross’s involvement with Village Capital, a pilot program that was started within First Light and spun out under his leadership. Here, Ross’s background in political education and participatory politics has had a defining influence on his approach to growing social ventures.

“Village Capital is based on the idea that a well-educated peer group of entrepreneurs can make business better,” he explains. “Because when folks get hard skills through our programs, they’re equipped to help each other in new ways.”

Knowing when to push...and when not to

Ross speaks passionately about the need to be transparent with his team – to let them know why you’re deciding to go in a certain direction and being honest if things go wrong. He’s also assembled formal and informal groups of advisors, mentors who provide welcome advice and counsel.

The need to believe in your strategy and stick to it is critical. “If someone says ‘I want to invest in Village Capital, but I want veto power over which entrepreneurs get to seek investment capital,’ we have to say ‘no’ because it goes against our entire democratizing thesis.”

In the end, Ross was more than happy to sacrifice the big salaries he could have asked for coming out of Oxford. The potential he sees in the social entrepreneurship space is too exciting, the work is too rewarding, and quite simply, he’s hooked.

For those who may be interested in social enterprise or getting a job that has positive impact, Ross has some thoughts on the process.

  • Get yourself an informal board of advisors: Charting your career path in the social enterprise space is hard to do on your own. Try assembling a small group of smart people you can check in with and get perspective from. Their insights will help you on your way.
  • Have the right mindset for informational interviews: People make hires to solve problems. Focus on understanding a social enterprise’s challenges and highlight how you can help them overcome those challenges. Don’t expect a formal recruiting process. Your job may not exist until you inspire someone to create it.
  • Be flexible in your view of what a social enterprise is: Some amazing companies may not even see themselves as social enterprises, but they are. Look at companies that are performing well and advancing a social mission, regardless of labels.