Leadership

Mentoring Meets Its Match

RippleWorks helps entrepreneurs in the developing world tap the expertise of executives and engineers from Silicon Valley.

Doug Galen, cofounder of RippleWorks, meets in Nairobi, Kenya, with Dennis Ondeng, CTO of Kopo Kopo, a mobile money platform company. (Photo courtesy of Ripple Works) 

Ruma, a social enterprise that launched in Indonesia in 2009, aims to lift people out of poverty by creating new business opportunities through mobile technology. Thousands of Indonesians have signed up to be Ruma agents, and in that role they sell mobile minutes and provide bill-pay services to people in their village. Early success has attracted investors and philanthropic supporters. But Aldi Haryopratomo, founder and CEO of Ruma, worries about his next move. “If you think about scaling up systems and processes now, you will pay for it later,” he says.

For support in making that next step, Haryopratomo has solicited advice from afar. Mike Starkenburg, a technology industry investor now based in Orange County, Calif., helped the Ruma team think through a range of challenges—“everything from product management and system scale-up to logistics,” Haryopratomo says. “Lessons from [Starkenburg’s] experience in scaling up e-commerce companies helped us design our processes and systems better.”

RippleWorks, a Redwood City, Calif.-based nonprofit that launched in April, matches early-stage social entrepreneurs from the developing world with tech industry talent from Silicon Valley and beyond. Unlike many other skills-matching efforts, this one aims to facilitate intense, short-term engagements. Ruma is among the first five enterprises that RippleWorks has chosen to support.

The mission of RippleWorks is to provide “human capital, not financial capital” to promising social enterprises, says cofounder Doug Galen, a veteran entrepreneur who teaches in the Startup Garage at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. The other cofounder is Chris Larsen, CEO of Ripple Labs, a software company that has developed a digital currency. Larsen pledged seven billion units of virtual currency (valued at $60 million) to get the nonprofit off the ground.

Before launching RippleWorks, Galen interviewed investors, academics, and aspiring social entrepreneurs around the world to find out what those entrepreneurs need most. “The best ideas are already getting funded. The core challenge [that companies] face is scaling,” he explains. Galen understands the value of having ready access to expertise. “If I have a challenge, I can walk into a Starbucks in Redwood City and run into somebody I can ask for help,” he says. That’s not so easy in places like Jakarta, Indonesia, or Nairobi, Kenya.

RippleWorks approaches matchmaking with considerable care. On the enterprise side, it looks for growing companies with a social mission that have already attracted substantial funding. “That eliminates financial resources as a key barrier to success,” Galen says. He and his colleagues target companies that have strong performance metrics but are now confronting a specific challenge. On the mentor side, RippleWorks recruits C-level executives and high-level technologists who have limited time to volunteer. “We want people who are world-class at their particular skill,” Galen says. “They are in the middle of amazing careers. They have been looking for a bite-sized way to apply their skills [as volunteers].”

After RippleWorks matches an enterprise with an expert, it continues to play a supporting role. “We sweat all the details and manage the project so that the expert and the enterprise can focus on solutions,” Galen explains. Most of the mentoring work happens virtually. Some mentors, however, choose to meet with their partners on site. In that case, RippleWorks handles logistics and absorbs travel costs.

The efficiency of the RippleWorks model appeals to Wayne Fenton. He has more than 20 years of experience in leading projects for companies like Cisco Systems and eBay, and he’s now vice president of engineering at iControl Networks, a provider of solutions in the security and connected-home field. At least once a week, he takes time to speak remotely with Dennis Ondeng, chief technology officer of Kopo Kopo, a mobile money platform company in Nairobi. Kopo Kopo has built a large customer base in Kenya but faces software challenges as it prepares to migrate its platform to other countries across Africa.

“I was immediately able to start adding value,” Fenton says. “It’s a good match for my skill set.” He contrasts this work with previous volunteer gigs in which his contribution didn’t go beyond swinging a hammer. “I’m not the best carpenter, but I know a lot about software.”

RippleWorks leaders expect to have 10 matches in place by the end of 2015. The next challenge, according to Galen, involves deciding how fast to expand the reach of the organization. “We want to drive the most impact,” he says. “Do we do that by working with 50 companies a year, or 500? If we’re successful, we’ll drive social good from [developing world] companies and create more engaged global citizens in Silicon Valley.

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