The 3 Mistakes You Need to Avoid in Scaling Social Impact.

The beginning of 2017 marks 12 months spent working on one of the most challenging, and most rewarding projects of my career — leading the formation and scaling of an internal social-start up initiative at SAP, designed to improve the lives of 1 billion people through the power of SAP technology by 2020.

Over this year we’ve seen some amazing success. We launched a social start-up incubator with the help of some amazingly talented folks from INSEAD, funded and incubated three social initiatives across the region, and have already begun to improve lives with our first venture to go-live in late 2016.

That said, we took the start-up mantra of “fail fast” to heart and learned some big lessons along the way, here are the big ones:


This mistake, or rather, naïve presumption we held that “improving a billion lives shouldn’t be that hard really?” hit us in our early planning, and actually become our first major challenge. How would we measure ‘improved’ lives? How do we capture the nature of the improvement? How can we define approaches that were broad enough to impact this scale of the population, while being specific enough to a cause? — my answer: “no idea.”

So, with a looming pitch to our advisory board, and in typical #millennial fashion, I substituted a meaningful answer with some buzzwords — #crowdsourcing, #social #incubator and a healthy dose of #MichaelPorter — specifically his work on Creating Shared Value. Our answer to this challenge was to not build the strategies, but build a platform that our employee’s, those with the domain expertise in working with the technology and in partnering with government agencies, NGO’s and social enterprises could best determine. We would provide the funding, technology, time and support needed to turn these ideas into social impact.

Leveraging the passion of our employee’s and their unique knowledge and expertise — we saw over 180 social-impact proposals submitted. Working closely with our executive sponsors, members of our advisory board, and some clever consultants, we were able to define a screening model evaluating submissions on:

  • The scalability of the venture (how many lives could we potentially reach?)
  • The magnitude of the proposed improvement (how valuable would that improvement to society be?)
  • The feasibility of the proposed venture (how well equipped is SAP to address the challenge?)

We eventually identified 3 ventures for the 2016 1BLives cohort, you can read more about their stories and how they will improve lives here.


Now for our next big mistake — surely our venture teams, with the help of the 1BLives Initiative, significant seed funding, and ongoing coaching in our 1BLives Accelerator featuring INSEAD professors had everything they need to proceed? Yes? No. Our teams were made up of sales, consulting, developers and marketers from SAP, a well-rounded mix of skills necessary for establishing and scaling a social initiative, or so we thought. Maybe I hadn’t used enough hashtags through the campaign, but the ideas of #startup of #sustainability and #sharedvalue hadn’t hit home as well as we would have liked, and our teams (quite rightly) progressed in their typical mode of solutioning and digging into the technical solution required to the defined issue.

The thing is, social problems exist because they are not simple. They are often a mind-numbing and overwhelming myriad of dependencies, complexities and heart-breaking injustices -both institutional, and purely by accident. We should have had a deeper appreciation for what we were facing, with many examples before us. In Bangladesh for example, BRAC learned the hard lessons of scaling social impact, specifically in its Employment and Livelihood for Adolescents (ELA) initiative, and the need to “Recognize that some barriers are easier to overcome than others. The majority of social problems are sustained by a complex blend of interrelated barriers to progress and change. Surmounting each of these barriers requires particular strategies. It makes sense to design a roadmap that addresses all barriers, taking into account their relative difficulties, and also the order in which solving them will have the desired outcome.”

More than this, we wrestled with the idea of making sustainable social impact. If we could improve lives through the donation and supply of technology to a cause, great — however, if that social impact is dependent on renewed funding every year, and the only path to that investment was through corporate social responsibility initiatives — then that isn’t sustainable change. Our ventures were challenged to fund sustainable ways to create value, in social impact, and commercials within the ecosystem of suppliers, NGO’s and government agencies to deliver impact that becomes self-sufficient.


Through this whole process, we’ve been amazed with the passion, enthusiasm and hard work our team, partners, and advisors have dedicated, often in addition to their full-time jobs. When you give people the opportunity to make their work even more impactful, and find purpose if their work — people jump right in. In a recent study by Linkedin, they found purpose-oriented workers are more likely to stay in their companies and are more satisfied in their job than those who aren’t.

Bottom line: When your work instills purpose in your workforce, and genuinely improves lives — you better fail fast and get things right.