The William James Foundation - The Catalyst for Future Generations of Sustainable Entrepreneurs

All early stage social entrepreneurs aim at translating an idea into products and services that will render their venture financially viable while having a positive social and/or environmental impact. Unfortunately, many great ideas will not become full-fledged social businesses. This is mostly because, in their early stage of development or while growing, these budding social businesses lack access to resources and/or to quality advice and feedback by experienced social entrepreneurs.

Fortunately, the William James Foundation (WJF) bridges this gap. WJF works with for-profit entrepreneurs (i.e. sustainable entrepreneurs) whose social businesses that have yet to generate revenue or have been generating revenue for less than three years. WJF partners with sustainable entrepreneurs primarily via its sustainable business plan competition.  As all business plan competitions, some of the WJF competition entrants are selected to receive prizes. What is really unique about the WJF competition though is that all entrants are provided with detailed feedback on their sustainable business plan.  In 2010-2011, WJF leveraged 315+ social entrepreneur judges to provide over 3,500 pages of detailed feedback to 135 businesses from more than 35 countries. In addition, WJF offers ways for entrants to ask further questions directly to the judges.  Furthermore, the WJF organized several conference calls for the entrants and the second round judges to connect.

As part of their efforts to connect sustainable entrepreneurs with resources and quality advice, the WJF organized its 8th Annual Gathering in Washington, DC. last weekend.  At the center of the gathering was the opportunity for social business finalists to get additional advice and compete for over $15,000 worth of prizes and cash. The 2011 WJF Socially Responsible Business Plan Prize was awarded to Practically Green, an online service that inspire consumers to make healthy green changes in their community, as well as at work and at home. Second place went to Runa (a socially responsible distributor of Amazonian tea products). Third place went to Preciva Incorporated (a social business that makes advanced cervical screening technology available to under-served low income women). In addition, the 2011 Affinity Lab DC Prize Winner was awarded to WeBike, an innovative bike sharing system that relies on mobile technology for community users to easily pick up and drop off bikes by locking them at any existing bike rack. The 2011 DC Prize Second place went to Legacy Therapeutic Massage, a certified B Corp that provides massage services to seniors. The 2011 DC Prize third place went to Madagascar Biodigesters, which aims at replacing wood cooking with clean, sustainable biogas cooking fuel in Madagascar.

Over 100 participants also attended in a number of other sessions at the weekend gathering. These included presentations live, by skype or via video by WJF partner organizations. Also, at the 'Pitch with a Switch' session, social businesses delivered their pitch in two minutes or less to randomly selected audience members (that they have never met). These audience members later had one minute to convey that pitch to the rest of the general audience. Three businesses competed (Kwai, New Caledon, and Shifting Patterns Consulting), and the winner (voted by the audience) was Kwai, as presented by Chris Persels.

Finally, the gathering included a number of valuable panels for sustainable entrepreneurs. For example, one panel focused on resources for sustainable entrepreneurs in the Washington, DC area. This panel featured Raj Aggarwal of Joint Concepts and ThinkLocalFirst DC, Paulina Migalska of DC Net Impact and the William James Foundation, Brian Weaver, DC City Council Candidate, Christina Tindale, Fabulous Women Business Owners of DC, and Philippe Chetrit, CEO of the Affinity Lab (Moderator). Another panel on "How sustainability is adapting to and changing the financial world" included thought leaders such as Amy Kincaid of Change Matters, Rob Thomas of Social(k) and Mission Markets, as well as Jordan Chazin, of B Corporation.

What's next for WJF? In his welcome letter to the gathering, the WJF Executive Director, Ian Fisk wrote "We’re looking for professional and financial partners to help us plug that service into other organizations that can provide more focused educational and financial support. Watch our website for a number of exciting partnerships that will be announced this summer as we work to grow the field of sustainable entrepreneurship as a whole." The WJF is very well positioned to provide a unique and much needed bridge between sustainable entrepreneurs and the resources and constructive advice they need to turn their idea into viable social business entities. To enter their next competition, qualified sustainable entrepreneurs can submit a five page executive summary by 5pm USA eastern time on November 10th, 2011.

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