Celebrating Two Years of Building UnLtd USA
Last week, I went out to breakfast with Hudson Baird, Executive Director and co-founder of PelotonU, a social enterprise that provides working college students a pathway to earn a degree on-time and debt-free. In Texas, if you have to go to school full-time while holding down a job, that gives you a 16% likelihood of graduating. The odds are so stacked against you that 30 million adults nationwide have earned some college credit but can’t complete their degree. PelotonU is changing that — not only are 80% of their students on-track to graduate but none of them have any student debt.
Today marks our two year anniversary since launching UnLtd USA, so today we’re celebrating alongside the fifteen entrepreneurs now in our portfolio. Alongside Hudson are entrepreneurs like Meg Erskine of Open Arms, which provides living wage employment for refugees through textile manufacturing; entrepreneurs like Buzz White who built BlueHub Health to acquisition by Afoundria after inefficiencies in the healthcare system almost ended his wife’s life; entrepreneurs like Joe Troyen, who on a trip around the world saw an opportunity to leverage technology to innovate on an old model and is now building PenPal Schools. Today, PenPal Schools has connected over 70,000 students worldwide through online pen pal exchanges.
But if you were to rewind back through the last several years, very few would have predicted we’d be where we are today.
A little over two years back, I was commuting back and forth to work by rickshaw each day in Mumbai, India. A year before that, I was working with child laborers and their families in a mountain town in Argentine Patagonia. Before that I worked in Chile, Bolivia and Guatemala — nothing about my path pointed toward startups or investing or even back toward the US.
But what I saw in India is why I’m sitting here in Austin today. From my fourth-story office building in Mumbai, something in my understanding of tackling poverty began to shift each day as I watched a new narrative of entrepreneurship unfold: I watched Barefoot Slums grow their acupuncture clinics to affordably treat chronic pain in slums and rural villages; I saw m.Paani build India’s first loyalty and data company that rewarded users with basic resources like clean water and education; I watched Greenway Grameen scale their clean cookstove company across India, reducing smoke emissions by 80%.
As I witnessed these entrepreneurs build financially-sustainable, scalable social ventures in India, each night I found myself returning to a simple question: who were their American equivalents, the entrepreneurs who were also heads-down, working tirelessly to build innovative business models aimed at solving social problems?
Fast forward six months, and I found myself pulling into Austin along with a team of four in tow. Austin was the third city on an eight-city tour of the US. Our purpose was to meet America’s social entrepreneurs and determine the launch city for UnLtd USA.
Fast forward another few months, and I again found myself pulling into Austin — this time to stay. It was an obvious choice; in Austin, we spoke with more social entrepreneurs than in any other city, and with more city leaders who wanted to learn how to support them. There was also a gap in funding and support for these entrepreneurs; and though momentum was building behind impact investing, it was a wave that had not yet broken.
If there is one lesson we want our entrepreneurs to learn during their year with UnLtd USA, it is this: Their success is not theirs alone. It is also the success of the networks they construct around them. This process is driven by a trend that is much larger than any one of them alone and is rooted in a pay-it-forward ethos. We know from the tech world that successful entrepreneurial ecosystems are built and driven by entrepreneurs who pay forward their success into the next generation of entrepreneurs starting up.
As a nascent industry whose culture and norms are still being set, we expect our entrepreneurs to embrace — if not drive — that culture. For this reason you’ll find that pay-it-forward ethos embedded into every aspect of our model — from how we structure our seed funding to how we select our entrepreneurs to how we run our program.
And just as we teach our entrepreneurs, we recognize that our own success at UnLtd USA is due to the support of those individuals who have joined us along the way as team members, funders, mentors, partners and — most importantly — as UnLtd USA entrepreneurs.
Two years ago, the UnLtd USA team began to come together when Cristina Diodati arrived from Atlanta ready to source and select our first cohort — and blew past our expectations to source 80 applicants for our first cohort. Thanks to an across-the-pond visit and a bottle of whiskey, Mark Hand joined us from Oxford for a three month stint that turned into two years. Along the way, he embedded network thinking into nearly everything we do. Soon Jonathan would join, bringing his expertise from the design world; as would Trevor, taking our tried-and-tested program and forging it into a measurable, repeatable model. Six months later Margo would join us, bringing to our team one of the most brilliant social justice minds I have encountered.
Alongside them, our Board assembled: first came Meaghan Casey and Gavin Wilson, part of UnLtd USA before we had even landed in Austin. After a year of working together, three core Advisors moved on to our Board: Robin Bruce, CEO of Acton School of Business, taught us to hold ourselves to the same high standard as the entrepreneurs we back. Jason Seats, entrepreneur-turned-investor and Partner at Techstars Ventures, pushed us to operate with an insatiable curiosity to learn and to never shy away from the tough question. Joanna Harries, VP at Endeavor Global, brought hard-earned wisdom from scaling an entrepreneurship organization and constantly challenged us to think bigger, act bolder and do more on behalf of our entrepreneurs.
Just as important is our ever-expanding Mentor Network. From industry experts to investors to entrepreneurs themselves, these individuals picked up where our team left off, bringing deep industry expertise and years of battle-tested experience. Alongside them came the seasoned entrepreneurs who shared their Founder Stories, including Philip Berber, Brett Hurt, Amos Schwartzfarb, Evan Baehr, Erine Gray, Cotter Cunningham and Robin Bruce. Through our Mentor Network, UnLtd USA entrepreneurs have gone on on to raise funding, brought on Advisory Board members and even find customers.
Of course, there were our own backers, as well: Steve Wanta, who on Day 1 offered UnLtd USA a home at Center61 — and again a year later with his cofounders at Impact Hub Austin. Dan and Lisa Graham became our program’s first financial backers, and The Hitachi Foundation, from their national perch in DC, saw something special happening down in Austin and took a chance on a young organization with a simple idea and a big dream.
And there were many, many more — so many more that we started mapping them, and in 2016 led by Mark Hand and Clare Zutz of the RGK Center of Philanthropy and Community Service published our network map of the Austin social innovation ecosystem. Later, we launched the Austin Social Entrepreneurship Slack Channel.
This, we believe, is the true magic of entrepreneurship: A core group of individuals, equipped with innovative ideas, relentless persistence and a vision to build a better world can assemble the community necessary to make that vision a reality.
Last week when I sat down with Hudson, we talked about the road ahead. Over the last two years, PelotonU has achieved unprecedented results in a space that no one has yet seemed to be able to crack: 95% of the students in their current cohort are on track to graduate on time, ahead of the 16% industry standard, and they’ve experienced 350% growth over the last year . Yet even as they achieve these results, Hudson and his co-founder Sarah Saxton-Frump are leading their team to new heights, on track to become fully financially sustainable by summer 2018.
If you were to stop someone in the street today in Austin and ask them to name the most exciting, innovative entrepreneurs in America, too few would point to someone like Hudson, working to solve the higher education graduation and debt crisis; or to someone like Meg, providing living wage employment to refugee women.
But we believe entrepreneurs like Hudson and Meg represent the future of entrepreneurship, and that five years from today, alongside our big tech successes, we will also point to entrepreneurs working to harness the power of entrepreneurship to tackle our most pressing challenges.
A special thank you goes out to our funders and supporters: The Hitachi Foundation, Enable Impact, RetailMeNot Inc., Tingari-Silverton Foundation, Notley Fund, Austin Impact Capital, M.B. & Edna Zale Foundation, MAXIMUS Foundation, GreenStraw Creative LLC, Center61, Impact Hub Austin, Owen’s Garage, Articulate Persuasion, DLA Piper and Kumu.io.
We will also be forever grateful to our first believers: Pooja Warier, Richard Alderson, Tej Dhami and the entire UnLtd India team; and to our team: Mark, Trevor, Margo, Jonathan and Cristina, who have worked tirelessly to build this program from the ground up, fueled almost entirely by tacos.
But most importantly, we thank our UnLtd USA entrepreneurs, who made a bet on us: Igor Holas, Michael Hanan, Lloyd Minick, Diana Griffin, Cheyenne Weaver, Hudson Baird, Sarah Saxton-Frump, Dustin Fedako, Eric Goff, Joe Troyen, Meg Erskine, Casey Smith, Buzz White, Paul Abumov, John Ruff, Alejandra Rodriguez Boughton, Roxana Castro Camargo, Sera Bonds, Karyn Scott and Ruben Rathnasingham.