Why we focus on the earliest stage

And how SoJo is helping educators train the next generation of social entrepreneurs

Imagine yourself as an engaged and action-oriented young person today. You see a problem in the world — maybe it’s food insecurity around the world, maybe it’s youth unemployment in your neighbourhood — but it’s a problem you feel passionate about solving. You have some ideas rolling around inside your head around what to do about it, but they’re fuzzy and hard to describe and you’re uncertain whether they’re the right way to solve the problem. But despite your uncertainty, you’re tired of seeing problems around you and doing nothing, so this time you’re ready to do something about it. You see your friends and peers launching start-ups and you feel inspired to start something too. So, what do you do next?

“So, what do I do next?”

This is the burning question that every aspiring social entrepreneur at the very beginning of their journey asks themselves. Whether they are able to make it to the next stage of the journey will depend on how well they are able to answer that question. And it is a question that educators are hearing more and more from students and are struggling to find the right way to answer.

Despite thousands of young people asking this question, most of the support available to aspiring entrepreneurs isn’t designed to help them find the answer. That’s because it isn’t designed for this stage of their journey. Resources for aspiring entrepreneurs, particularly social entrepreneurs, tend to either prioritize inspiration (read about these incredible people changing the world!) or business acumen (how will you make money? what’s your value proposition?). But there is a major gap between getting inspired and being able to articulate a value proposition that neither of these kind of resources address.

As a result, many of these potential entrepreneurs are getting stuck and languishing in this gap.

These aspiring entrepreneurs need more concrete direction than just inspirational quotes or top 10 listicles, but they haven’t thought through their idea enough yet to answer questions about revenue generation or customer segments — and that jargon can feel really overwhelming when you’re unprepared for it. What they need is straightforward, step-by-step advice that will help them to articulate their ideas, build confidence in their abilities and put them into an entrepreneurial mindset. Once they get to this place, they will be ready to take their idea to the next stage and take advantage of all the other resources out there — start-up competitions, incubators, and mentorship programs.

Once they have clarity in their idea and confidence in their abilities, there is a whole world of help waiting for them — it’s the lack of support to get them to that stage that’s missing.

Part of the reason for the lack of support available is that it is highly cost intensive to serve a large number of people in this stage through in-person programming. Individuals at this stage require a lot of direction and support, both for their idea but also for their personal growth. A cohort of program participants can all start this stage in the same place, only to quickly scatter to different levels of progress and needs, creating tremendous pressure on staff time as they struggle to provide the individualized support needed for success. Most people describe their feelings at this stage as “I don’t know what I don’t know” and it can be incredibly time consuming to try to figure out what they need to know and then help them learn it.

At the same time, there is no guarantee that all of these aspiring entrepreneurs will decide to stick with their idea all the way to launch. Because so many of the programs for entrepreneurs measure success by the number of ventures launched, they want to attract entrepreneurs already closest to launching who will have the highest likelihood of success. They can’t afford to invest in people who might not launch. As a result, the gap in support between the earliest stage and launching — and the number of people getting stuck in that gap — continues to grow.

In order to build new kinds of businesses, we need new kinds of business leaders and in order for them to flourish, we need to support their growth at the earliest stage of the pipeline.

This dynamic creates a real problem for the overall health of the entrepreneurship ecosystem. Maintaining an entrepreneurship pipeline that requires people to ‘find their way’ into the next stage reduces the likelihood of success for many of them, resulting in a loss of great ideas and human potential. It makes it easier for those already positioned for success (with business or engineering backgrounds, or entrepreneurial parents) to continue to dominate the start-up world, and less likely that the ‘unusual suspect’ entrepreneurs will breakthrough.

SoJo is changing all of this.

At SoJo, we’ve developed an early stage training curriculum that explicitly targets the unique questions and challenges aspiring entrepreneurs face at the beginning of their journey. This curriculum was developed through over two years of research, working with hundreds of aspiring entrepreneurs and mapping their experiences. It was also based on the insights gained through our own experiences in launching SoJo and struggling to navigate through the early stage ourselves. We went through the experience of feeling lost and overwhelmed when we were starting out, and many of the exercises in our curriculum are based off of tools we created for ourselves to help us bridge the early stage gap, when we couldn’t find any that were right for us.

The SoJo curriculum is delivered through our proprietary online training platform, MySoJo. MySoJo modules break down activities into step-by-step actions that participants can do at their own pace in any order or as part of a pre-set program, providing a self-guided but structured learning environment. It is not a MOOC — it is an action-oriented, just-in-time training platform designed explicitly to support entrepreneurial or project-based learning. This approach allows educators to use MySoJo as the foundation of basic training for their courses or programs, freeing up their in-person time to provide hands-on support, feedback, coaching and mentorship.

By delivering this training through an online platform, we are able to scale early stage programming to support large cohorts of aspiring entrepreneurs, reducing the cost of program delivery at scale.

At SoJo, we define success through learning, not launching. We have developed an evaluation framework that focuses on the different 21st century skills and competencies an individual develops by going through the journey of entrepreneurship. Regardless of whether they successfully make it to launch, or whether they are working on a project or a business, participants will develop the communication, critical thinking, teamwork and problem-solving skills employers are looking for. Our tracking and assessment features make it easy to report on program impact and learning outcomes.

By defining and measuring success in this way, we can unlock the broader value of entrepreneurship training to the economy and reduce the incentive to let our focus creep toward later stage support.

Our program and platform are ideally suited for educators responsible for developing or growing social entrepreneurship or project-based programs — who work with students brimming with passion and ideas, eager to take action but struggling to answer the question “so, what do I do next?”.

We believe there are a tremendous number of people with good ideas who want to make a difference in the world and don’t know where to start. And we’ve made it our mission to help unleash their potential. If you’re an educator searching for ways to unleash your students’ potential and see them take their next step, contact us. We want to help.

AJ Tibando is the Co-Founder and CEO of SoJo, a social enterprise that helps post-secondary institutions develop and grow social entrepreneurship programs on campus. Visit us at www.mysojo.co