At the recent PSU Elevating Impact Summit in late June, a panel of social entrepreneurs gathered to talk about “Resiliency: Uncensored.” Moderated by Rick Turoczy of Portland Incubator Experiment (PIE), the panel comprised both current and former entrepreneurs, including the event’s Keynote Speaker Eric Dawson (Peace First), Kazi Huque (Grameen Intel), Franklin Jones (B-Line Sustainable Urban Delivery) and Lindsey Newkirk (Junk to Funk Trashion Collective).
Where did your inspiration begin to become an entrepreneur?
Eric Dawson: I was inspired while running a summer camp in inner city Boston. Some very young kids found an injured cat and ended up killing it because that’s what they had seen around them all their lives – someone being shot, stabbed or killed. Later, when we talked about, they cried and held hands and wanted to talk to the Boston Housing Authority about their environment, and that’s when I decided to start Peace First for all youth.
Kazi Huque: In 2008, I was working on a project that looked at the consumption of computing power across world. It made me realize that the R&D efforts of the most powerful computer companies in the world were focused on just 20% of population. What about the needs of the other 80%? Facebook probably wasn’t the answer for them. So, I jumped on the idea with a couple coworkers to take on social change. We saw that we could use technology to solve agriculture problems.
Franklin Jones: I was interested in social entrepreneurship but wanted to build off of my career in education. It’s great to be able to make an impact on kids each year but I had strong desire to look at a more linear model rather than just catching them once in their lifetime. I thought about the idea on a bike trip I took from Japan to Ireland, and the idea was born, similar to a business journey.
Lindsey Newkirk: I was an accidental entrepreneur. I was searching for my dream job in event production and sustainability and couldn’t find it so I made it up. I was interested in green events, but for a region that prides itself on sustainability, no one was looking at sustainability for events, so I started to focus on recycling and composting for events. I also took the idea to create a recycled fashion show. Trashion! We launched “junk to funk” and sold out the first event and then it became business.
What is your tolerance for risk? What has surprised you?
Kazi Huque: I’ve changed my perception of risk. The job of the entrepreneur is to minimize the risk, not take on risk. With VCs, there is a lot of money potentially available but they often don’t have a lot of confidence in what you’re saying – as an entrepreneur, you need to convince them where you’re going and how you’re going to mitigate risk.
How did you fund your business?
Lindsey Newkirk: I talked with big events like Komen’s Race for the Cure and Cycle Oregon about greening their events and got the business initially, but that wasn’t always the case. I quit my part-time job but then experienced several ups and downs. I didn’t get outside funding. Each job or event helped provide money to go to the next step. The universe always seemed to provide.
What is your definition of success and failure?
Eric Dawson: Because I started my business so young, my personal and professional identities were intertwined for a long time. The success and failure of the business were mine, too. The concept of humility is being open to the possibility that you might be wrong and allows you to let go. It is interesting how entrepreneurs mediate who they are publicly and privately. Many bad choices happen in that space but the more we can talk about that struggle and creating that sense of humility is important.
Franklin Jones: For me, the question is how does the company look at success and failure and how do I look at it? As a company, we look at our impact – how many trikes are on the road, how much carbon offset are we creating, how many smiles are we creating as our trikes go by, what do our finances and our ability to grow look like? We want to scale both in terms of financial performance and social impact. As an individual, the question shifts: success is about small points in time on a daily basis. Your team is just clicking. As entrepreneur you’re often living on the edge of your own strengths and skillset and knowledge. That’s where I feel more elements of failure.
What do you wish you had known before you became an entrepreneur?
Eric Dawson: You don’t need to be a martyr.
Kazi Huque: Finding a good problem solver is difficult. And retaining them without a lot of money is also tough.
Franklin Jones: The idea that when you bootstrap you have to be there 24×7 driving and riding the business. That was me – up at 6 am riding deliveries and doing everything else.
Lindsey Newkirk: It took a long time to figure out how important it was to understand business.
Rick Turoczy ended the session by sharing one of the pearls of resiliency he has often heard at PIE: Instead of holding the business up, you’re moving the business forward. Common sense is not common. You don’t need to do everything yourself.