Pairing entrepreneurship with diversity: a vehicle for achieving scalable and sustainable impact

Typically, when people hear ‘social impact’ or ‘social justice’, they think of government, policy, law, or a handful of other words that conform to a very specific, preconceived image. Similarly, when the word ‘entrepreneurship’ is floated, it’s often automatically paired with ‘capitalist’, ‘opportunist’, ‘the Valley’, or a number of other terms that carry, at best, a neutral tone and, at worst, a very negative association.

We at Rhodes Incubator believe that this kind of thinking is detrimental to the global community, and that the terms ‘social impact’ and ‘entrepreneurship’ can be powerfully complementary. In fact, the two may be necessary sides of the same coin for tackling large, systemic problems facing the world today.

The key lies in synergizing the ‘best parts’ of the mentalities that are traditionally associated with the realms of ‘social change’ versus ‘start-ups’. In our experience, traditionally high-achieving students can quickly point out the strengths of the former: patience, diligence, systemic solutions, sustainable approaches, social/cultural conscientiousness, and so forth.

What Rhodes Incubator is trying to cultivate is a coupling of these virtues with those that are more inherent or more natural to the entrepreneurial mindset: a predisposition to action, constant iteration, human-centred design, external validation, partnership expansion and growth.

Getting your hands dirty early is a critical step in intimately understanding a problem and how a particular solution is or isn’t addressing it — it’s something that comes naturally to entrepreneurs but many successful scholars struggle with.

Yes, there are plenty of issues that the extremes of this kind of thinking can cause. You need only look as far as the recent discourse around Facebook, Twitter, user privacy, and election results to see some vivid examples. It’s a balancing act; remember to self-regulate and hold yourself accountable along the way while staying true to your mission. And while this might be difficult, it’s not impossible. We believe that networks like the Rhodes community are not only capable of achieving this, but are, in fact, perfectly positioned to cultivate conscious, morally-sound entrepreneurs who can go on to be global leaders and innovators.

In addition to being mission-driven and action-oriented, we also stress the importance of diversity. One of the easiest ways to innovate and build solutions while maintaining an awareness of externalities is to encourage and support entrepreneurs that come from different contexts, backgrounds, and geographies to come together. Moreover, innovators that come from within the community they are trying to improve can have a more intimate understanding of the problem at hand, which is a powerful advantage. We also find that it’s easier to keep yourself accountable and aware when you have a core team that is diverse across multiple metrics. There needs to be a unifying thread, of course, along with some key shared characteristics, but otherwise, we believe that a diverse team is, from the get-go, better positioned to achieve impact, scalability, and sustainability.

Rhodes Incubator only launched in October; there are still many things we are trying to figure out and get right. However, we’re excited by the work we’ve done so far, especially with regards to encouraging an entrepreneurial mindset amongst extremely diverse people.

We’ve had 37 entrepreneurs come through our first two cycles of programming; 51% have been female, 60% are black, Asian, or minority ethnic, and 48% originate from Africa, Asia, or the Caribbean. This represents a substantial departure from other incubator programmes.

The projects coming through have been wide-spanning across a number of fields; re:DIRECT News is a media outlet seeking to increase the nuance in public debate; the Mobile Mental Health team is busy digitizing and disseminating mental health therapies; Boresha is tackling low-risk lending and financial inclusion for farmers in East Africa. There are further projects in education, health, media, energy and environment, arts and culture, retail, and forced migration, capturing the full breadth of scholar interest. Moreover, 40% of participants in the Rhodes Incubator programmes did not have any previous entrepreneurial experience.

In addition to entrepreneurial diversity, we have also surrounded ourselves with a range of advisors and mentors, all coming from different backgrounds and offering unique insights. With over 25 scholar alumni & friends involved, we have invaluable, deep niche expertise in a wide array of fields. We are eager to continue expanding this global entrepreneurial network, and to continue encouraging more scholars to think about problem-solving and leadership in a venture-based way.