The agenda for the off-the-radar Social Innovation Summit held in Palo Alto this past Wednesday read like an all-star team of social innovators: Room to Read, Donors Choose, charity: water, XPrize, DoSomething, Taproot, Facebook, Google, and LinkedIn to name a few, but the finale of the summit was reserved for a panel, moderated by Akhtar Badshah, senior director of Global Community Affairs at Microsoft Corporation, to showcase a new crop of social entrepreneurs.

Venture for America, founded by quick-witted Andrew Yang, is Teach for America for small businesses. It recruits top college graduates to intern at start-ups in disadvantaged and/or low-income communities. As a fellow attendee noted, start-ups don’t have the massive recruiting machines that more established corporations do, so they might not get the best talent. Venture for America helps connect talented graduates with small enterprises so that both sides win. A reoccurring theme of the summit—entrepreneurship leading job creation—is embodied in Venture for America. It is a catalyzer, not just to grow new companies faster with higher-quality talent, but to train the next generation of entrepreneurs and innovators who would then create even more jobs.

Social Innovation Summit speakers

Left to right: Ahktar Badash of Microsoft, Wilson To of Lifelens, Melissa Kushner of Nonprofit-share, and Andrew Yang of Venture for America. (Photo courtesy of the Social Innovation Summit)

The next social innovator, ebullient Melissa Kushner, presented her idea for connecting complimentary nonprofits to build a network of support for people in need called Nonprofit-share. She gave this example of the problem she is trying to solve, “It is great if you start a job-training program for unemployed adults, but if you don’t also provide them with childcare, how are they suppose to show up for the program?” Nonprofit-share is building an online tool that enables nonprofits to engage, communicate, and collaborate. Many people in the philanthropic world complain that there is not only a lack of communication between related nonprofits, but often times overlap and confusion. It is a challenge to navigate the nuances of multiple-partner collaboration, and it only succeeds if there is a talented convening and organizing party. However, if Melissa is successful, Nonprofit-share could vastly improve how disadvantaged people receive the assistance they need.

Mobile health care was another reoccurring theme of the summit, and the young-but-insightful Wilson To presented his contribution—LifeLens. “With LifeLens, a healthcare worker can take a photo of a blood sample in a rural village and email it to a pathologist for diagnosis,” explains Wilson. Mobile healthcare offers great promise for meeting the needs of people in communities without sufficient healthcare facilities, from providing chronic care services to improving maternal health, and LifeLens would be a welcome addition. Although still in the very early stages, Wilson certainly seems to have the credentials to make LifeLens a reality. He is a doctoral student in Comparative Pathology at the University of California, was a Microsoft Senior Student Partner, has been recognized by President Barack Obama, and is a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Millennium Fellow.

All three of these social innovations have great potential, but many fantastic ideas have hit roadblocks when put into practice—issues with distribution, adoption, training, technology and local culture to name a few. Andrew, Melissa, and Wilson have a challenging adventure ahead of them, but they have some stellar role models. To paraphrase the advice of the immensely successful all-star team who presented earlier at the summit, “Take on tough challenges, set audacious goals, design to scale rapidly, and power your decision-making with accurate data.” This combination of awe-inspiring goals supported by smart business practices is irresistible to funders.

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