To make an impact, a philanthropic organization’s mission must respond to what’s happening on the ground. When implementing the Blackstone Charitable Foundation’s Entrepreneurship Initiative, we strive to be nimble enough to pivot our focus with the times.
When the financial crisis hit in 2008, for example, the range of issues we were exploring quickly narrowed to one: jobs creation. We saw an opportunity to foster sustainable economic recovery by supporting both the existing crop of high-growth entrepreneurs and a new generation of entrepreneurs who could create jobs for themselves and the larger economy. We did this by giving them tools and contacts to form lasting, regional networks of entrepreneurs that would promote the creation of new ventures and jobs.
The vehicle for this was our 5-year, $50 million Entrepreneurship Initiative, established in April 2010 with the goal of strengthening entrepreneurial ecosystems in target regions—which allowed us to meaningfully contribute to the creation of jobs across the country.
Today, this initiative is comprised of a series of regional programs focused heavily on mentorship; it connects experienced coaches and industry experts with aspiring entrepreneurs. Our Blackstone LaunchPad program primarily supports the emerging student entrepreneurship community, while the Blackstone Entrepreneurs Network and Blackstone Accelerates Growth strengthen networks of entrepreneurs in regions primed for high levels of growth and business formation.
Making the Most of Mentoring
Why did Blackstone zero in on these approaches? Many talented young students with passion and innovative ideas don’t start companies because they lack the knowledge or experience to think through a business plan. Based on a successful program pioneered at the University of Miami, Blackstone LaunchPad helps aspiring entrepreneurs navigate these issues using resources such as one-on-one consulting and venture coaching with strong, experienced mentors. The program also seeks to create jobs, contributing to the rebirth and recovery of local economies. Based on its early success, we partnered with the White House and now have established the program at eleven campuses, clustered in small groups of colleges and universities in Michigan, Central Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Montana.
Meanwhile, we are piloting our Blackstone Entrepreneurs Network in North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park to develop a cohesive entrepreneurial ecosystem. We have recruited master entrepreneurs—seasoned, successful entrepreneurs—and linked them with a pipeline of potential high-growth companies in the region to create a network similar to Silicon Valley’s.
Beyond mentorship, we have used a parallel track to extend the reach of the Entrepreneurship Initiative. The Blackstone Organizational Grants program, which uses an RFP process, exemplifies how our foundation is primed to respond in new ways when new opportunities aligned with our mission present themselves.
The Organizational Grants program came about because during the first few years of the Entrepreneurship Initiative, we were approached by smaller, like-minded organizations that focused on entrepreneurship (including startup accelerator MassChallenge), and began awarding smaller grants to several organizations for programs aligned with our mission. When we saw the impact, we decided to solicit proposals through an official RFP process. Our first effort yielded almost a hundred proposals, and we awarded 9 grants totaling $1 million to organizations in 6 states and Washington, D.C. Encouraged by this response, we announced a second RFP this summer, this time for $1.5 million in grants. Incredibly, we received more than 500 proposals, including many from international applicants.
The Entrepreneurship Initiative establishes the groundwork for job creation, but real program success and sustainability relies on the lasting entrepreneurial ecosystems that we build. Maintaining relationships is critical to this. We are highly involved in project management and work closely with our partners individually. We also connect them with each other to help create a national network of organizations with similar missions. These strong partners—including the Burton D. Morgan Foundation, which we are working with to strengthen the entrepreneurial ecosystem in northeast Ohio through LaunchPad programs at four colleges and universities—are valuable in part because they provide us with important feedback. In Ohio, for example, we learned that an active and well-regarded partner can more effectively explain our work and the importance of entrepreneurship to their local community. We now also better understand the entrepreneurship space and our place within it, which helps us determine what programs to pursue next.
Skepticism about the intentions of corporate philanthropy can draw attention away from the powerful impact it can have. The creation of real programs that have a life beyond a single monetary gift or sponsorship—still a widespread form of corporate giving—not only connects a firm and its employees to their communities, but also encourages lasting change on issues that matter.
What other corporate initiatives have created lasting change in communities?