The Evolution of SoJo — Part 2

This is the story of how SoJo spent the past three and a half years evolving into the social venture we are today — and where we’re going next.

SoJo first launched in late 2012 as an incorporated non-profit, formally known as SoJo Education. We launched with the external mission of supporting other social entrepreneurs in pursuing their ideas; and the internal goal of becoming a financially self-sustaining social enterprise. We believed — and still do — that social enterprise represents the future of business, and we wanted to prove it. So while we were operating as a non-profit for now, we knew we would eventually (if we could) evolve into something else.

Back in 2012, not a lot of people were talking about social enterprise, and even fewer were taking it seriously. It was a struggle to find early funding to test out ideas and build clarity in our vision. Our big break came when the Ontario Trillium Foundation decided to dedicate it’s 2013 Future Fund initiative to supporting youth-focused social enterprise infrastructure — just the kind of work we were starting to do. In May 2013, we were awarded a three year grant through the Future Fund to support the development of social enterprise infrastructure throughout the province, delivered through a collective impact approach with six other organizations.

This was a huge, rare opportunity for us and gave us a chance to really explore and understand what it means to be a social enterprise. Over the three years we were able to accomplish a tremendous amount — speaking to thousands of students about the concept of social entrepreneurship and delivering training and workshops to hundreds of youth. We ran a #SOCENT Bootcamp for 60 youth in multiple regions of the province, launched a storytelling publication (here on Medium!) sharing over 50 stories of young social entrepreneurs from across the province on how they got started, and working with the other members of the Future Fund to launch the Hook It Up mentorship program.

We built a province-wide network of partner organizations doing similar work, including the six amazing organizations that were part of our collective impact group — affectionately known as the Socent7. These groups include CatalystsX, the School for Social Entrepreneurs, AscENT (out of Commuitech), the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, Social Entrepreneurship Evolution (out of the Nordik Institute), and Manifesto.

And we got a chance to better understand social enterprise, what a social business model can look like, and how to build one.

Through this experience we realized that if we were going to achieve sustainability, we were going to have to think like a business and find a market gap we could fill. More and more organizations like ours — focused on raising awareness about social enterprise — were popping up, and we needed to find a way to differentiate. That led us to the development of our online training platform; a tool that could deliver training to large numbers of aspiring social entrepreneurs, while filling a need for educators and program managers for tools to better track and scale their training programs. We began working on the concept in 2014.

Funding the development of this kind of product was easier done as a for-profit than a non-profit because of the nature of capital available, so in late 2014 we decided to incorporate a separate, independent company, formally named MySoJo Inc. “SoJo” as a brand essentially came to represent our two organizations.

We launched the platform — along with a suite of products and services — in 2015, and things really took off. We are now providing social entrepreneurship training products or services to over 20 organizations across 7 countries, and continuing to grow rapidly.

For the past year, we’ve been growing this social venture while continuing to run programming for the Future Fund through our non-profit. To put it mildly, we’ve been busy.

This spring, our grant through the Future Fund came to a close. Filling out our final report gave us a chance to reflect on how far we’ve come as an organization and to appreciate the tremendous opportunity OTF created for us when we were chosen as a recipient.

It also forced us to ask ourselves where we wanted to go next. It was always our goal to be self-sustaining and through MySoJo Inc we’ve been able to accomplish that. So after a lot of consideration, we’ve decided to focus our energy on continuing to build on the success of the business and grow our social impact through that, winding down SoJo Education while appreciating how far we’ve come because of it.

So what does this mean for you, our clients, partners and friends? In the grand scheme of things, very little. While we’re shifting to a new look and new website, the vast majority of our activities will remain the same. The only major difference will be a little less paperwork for us to do behind the scenes.

We wanted to share our story with you to show you what the evolution of a social venture can look like. We’ve always talked about the importance of transparency and honesty for social entrepreneurs and encouraged others to share their journey’s — and we expect nothing less from ourselves.

Becoming a successful social venture is never a linear path, and it’s important for those who support and advise social entrepreneurs to remember that. When we first started out, we had a lot of people discourage us from pursing our ideas, telling us we would never make money and be sustainable. And they might have been right — if we had stuck with the first idea we had in 2012. But we were never going to do that. We were always going to try things, see what worked, learn and adapt — guided by our overall mission and sense of purpose. After all, isn’t that what the entrepreneurial journey is supposed to be all about?

So thank you to everyone who has supported us and continues to support us on our journey. If you haven’t already, please check out our website to see where we’re going as a company. We’re excited to enter this next phase with you — and continue to share our story as it evolves.

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