Announcing the SOCAP24 Agenda — Going Deeper: Catalyzing Systems Change!

19 Social Entrepreneurs to Watch in 2017

Rachel Zurer March 1, 2017

Jessica Norwood, age 39

Founder of The Runway Project  – Washington, DC // Founded 2016 // No paid employees (yet)

Jessica Norwood, Founder of Runway Project

Jessica Norwood, Founder of Runway Project

When Hurricane Katrina hit her hometown of Mobile, AL, in 2005, Norwood saw firsthand what it meant to have financial resources and networks and how disaster affected people who didn’t. That experience inspired her to create the Emerging ChangeMakers Network, which since 2007 has found up-and-coming leaders and connected them to issues, ideas, people, and organizations that can make a significant impact in traditionally marginalized communities. Her latest venture is The Runway Project, an initiative to raise startup money for black-owned businesses. “When a business starts, entrepreneurs are told to get the early startup money by borrowing from their friends and family,” she says. “But what happens if their friends and family don’t have the money to lend?” White Americans have, on average, $144,200 in wealth (a lot of which is derived from equity in businesses), compared to black Americans, who have an average of $11,200. “Without friends-and-family money, there will always be a lack of diversity in businesses that get started,” Norwood explains. “There will continue to be a lack of investment in people-of-color ventures.” The Runway Project has one simple goal: to remove the barrier to starting a business that individuals without a personal network of well-resourced friends and family face and replacing it with all of us — everyone — becoming a prospective business owner’s “friends and family.” The Runway Project launched in October 2016 with a goal of raising $300,000 for a pilot program in Oakland. Within two days it was oversubscribed at more than $450,000. After three months, the fundraising efforts closed 2016 at well over $1 million. In January 2017, The Runway Project became an initiative of the Association for Enterprise Opportunity for the purposes of expanding the Runway financial instruments and strategies into Baltimore, Cincinnati, Charlotte, New Orleans, Detroit, and Washington, DC.

What’s the most surprising business lesson you’ve learned in the past year?

Jessica Norwood: This may be a cliché lesson, but “don’t give up.”

Some may think that The Runway Project came out of nowhere. But the truth is that each person on the Runway team has been working their whole lives towards closing the wealth gap. So this is not new to us. But the moment had to be right to see the value of the business strategy I was proposing with The Runway Project.

When I look at how quickly The Runway Project was received and supported, nationally and

internationally, I am overwhelmed because it’s fast-moving. But the good thing was that we were ready. We had been waiting for the circumstances in the market to propel us forward, and it did.

If you believe, stick with it. Too many people give up right before the tide changes.

What’s the most inspiring or game-changing business-related resource you’ve read, seen, or heard in the last 6 to 12 months?

JN: For starters, I read everything. Over the past couple weeks I found myself quoting an unlikely subject: rap artist Lil Yachty. The New York Times covered him in December 2016 in an article called “The Sudden Rise of Lil Yachty.” The article talked about the 19-year-old’s one-year rise to the top of the Billboard charts and endorsement deals with companies like Nautica and other brands. He says in the article, “I’m not a rapper, I’m an artist. And I’m more than an artist. I’m a brand. Rappers don’t have endorsements because of their images. Endorsement money is huge. And I care about my character.” He added: “I don’t rap about drinking or smoking, ever, because I don’t do it. I don’t rap about anything I don’t do.”

My takeaway: Lil Yachty doesn’t talk about what he doesn’t know; he speaks his truth, and that is what separates him from everyone else. As a business owner, I have had people challenge my desire to build a business that expressly speaks to the problems facing black business owners. I’m glad I didn’t listen to them and instead stuck with my truth. My truth gives me more understanding and makes me uniquely qualified.

What’s giving you hope?

JN: Every time I speak with our advisors, mentors, and partners, I am hopeful. They are prepared to bring all they have to the table to help communities that have been historically marginalized. I am honored and humbled and deeply in love with each person who has given time, money, and insight to make The Runway Project the best place for black visionaries to get support.

Hear Norwood speak about closing the racial wealth gap on SEE Change Magazine.


 Astrid Scholz, age 45

Chief Everything Officer of Sphaera Solutions – Portland, OR // Founded 2015 // 4 Employees

Astrid Scholz, Chief Everything Officer of Sphaera Solutions

Astrid Scholz, Chief Everything Officer of Sphaera Solutions


As an economist and longtime nonprofit executive, Scholz began to notice some troubling patterns in how the social change industry works. The ways organizations raise money, design and implement programs, and measure success in relative isolation from each other felt ineffectual in the face of the urgent crises the planet is facing. So she pivoted to become a for-purpose tech entrepreneur, and is now working to build a platform for organizations to share ideas, innovations, and solutions with others in their field. Sphaera’s mission is to accelerate the pace of change by connecting the practitioners, funders, and innovators working on the world’s toughest problems. So far, the company has raised about $2 million in non-dilutive funding, and has 15 early adopters of its enterprise product who are creating solution hubs for topics from inclusive economic opportunities in US cities to farmer-led agricultural practices in Africa to community economic development in island nations. The company had revenues of over $400,000 in 2016.

>> Her Inspiration “I am motivated by the sense that if we can figure this out, the systems change I can help catalyze is orders of magnitude greater than what I could do running one organization.”

Shelley Saxena, age 44

Founder and CEO of Sevamob – Atlanta, GA // Founded 2012 // 55 Employees

Shelley Saxena, Founder and CEO of Sevamob

Shelley Saxena, Founder and CEO of Sevamob

Saxena got the idea for a subscription-based healthcare business after his mother, who lives in Lucknow, India (population 2.8 million), almost lost her life from being misdiagnosed and incorrectly treated during a bout with Hepatitis C. “If this could happen in a ‘Tier 2’ city,” Saxena says, “the situation in ‘Tier 3’ or ‘4’ towns and rural areas is even worse. I started Sevamob to address this healthcare gap in the developing countries.” On a subscription model, Sevamob’s popup clinics provide comprehensive care, including dental and vision care, nutrition information, and more, onsite in underserved urban and rural areas in India and South Africa. Meanwhile, the company’s tech platform also provides infrastructure for tele-health, healthcare IT, and point-of-care diagnostics to third-party clinics. The company currently facilitates 20,000 patient consultations per month in eight states of India and in South Africa, while about 500 third-party organizations are using the tech platform.

>> Recent lesson “The healthcare sector has more regulations. A startup has greater likelihood of success if, instead of ‘disruption,’ it uses an approach of working with and adding value to existing players in the ecosystem.”

Natalia Oberti Noguera, age 33

Founder and CEO of Pipeline Angels – New York, NY // Founded 2011 // 4 Employees

Natalia Oberti Noguera, Founder and CEO of Pipeline Angels

Natalia Oberti Noguera, Founder and CEO of Pipeline Angels

Starting in 2008, Oberti Noguera built a network of female social entrepreneurs in New York from six early adopters to over 1,200 women. That network opened her eyes to how hard it was for many members to secure funding. “They were sharing their change-making ideas with their communities, people were getting excited, asking where to send the check … and as soon as they would clarify that they were aiming to be for-profit social ventures, people would back away, saying, ‘Let us know when you’ve launched your sister nonprofit,’” Oberti Noguera says. “I realized that society has a gendered perception with respect to how people are changing the world.”

Meanwhile, more and more evidence was emerging that angel investors and venture capitalists — who are mostly white men — tend to look for someone like them as they choose founders to fund. “I was interested in turning the concept of pattern matching on its head,” Oberti Noguera says. “If people invest in what looks like them, then let’s get more women and non-binary femme social entrepreneurs on the investing side, because we’ll probably be more open to investing in more of us on the entrepreneurship side.” That’s how the Pipeline Angels network was born; seasoned female investors run bootcamps for new investors along with pitch summits for startups looking for funding. Since 2011, more than 200 women have graduated from the angel-investing bootcamp and have invested over $2 million in more than 30 companies.

>> Recent lesson “If you want to be inclusive, be explicit. We received feedback on how we could make one of the Pipeline Angels Pitch Summit criteria more inclusive. With guidance from Riley Hanson, co-founder and CTO of Inclusion Through Innovation, we updated the language to ‘Woman and/or non-
binary femme co-founder (we encourage anyone who identifies with womanhood — cis, trans, third gender — to apply).’ While prior language encouraged cis and/or trans women co-founders to apply, it was not enough. As Maya Angelou once said, ‘Now that I know better, I do better.’”

Jacquie Berglund, age 51

Co-founder and CEO of FINNEGANS – Minneapolis, MN // Founded 2000 // 4 Employees

Jacquie Berglund, Finnegans

Jacquie Berglund, CEO Finnegans.

Berglund’s brewery’s mission is “turning beer into food.” When Berglund was a child, her family struggled financially, kindling a lifelong desire to support the working poor and leave the world better than she found it. Since its inception, FINNEGANS beer company has donated 100 percent of its profits to its nonprofit partner, the FINNEGANS Community Fund, to purchase produce from local growers and donate it to local food pantries in all the states where the company operates. In 2016, the company passed the $1 million mark in total donations. FINNEGANS also pioneered — then shared freely — the idea of a Reverse Food Truck: a truck that collects food donations rather than selling food. There are now at least six reverse food trucks in the US and Canada. The next step: the company’s most ambitious project yet, a hotel and brewery concept near the new Minnesota Vikings stadium that will also include a social innovation incubator.

>> What she’s reading “A book by Jenny Evans called ‘The Resiliency rEvolution’ — it’s about how to manage stress in a healthy way, and it has changed how I operate.”

Brian Linton, age 30

Founder and CEO of United By BluePhiladelphia, PA // Founded 2010 // 45 Employees

Brian Linton, United By Blue

Brian Linton, Founder and CEO of United By Blue

Linton grew up in and around the oceans in southeast Asia and always loved water. He started outdoor clothing company United By Blue first and foremost because he wanted to create a business that would have a meaningful impact on the “blue parts” of the planet. For every product sold, the company removes one pound of trash from oceans and waterways through company-
organized and hosted cleanups. UBB’s clothing is now sold in 500 retail stores globally and the cleanups have removed nearly a million pounds of trash from oceans and waterways across 27 US states and Canada.

>> His Inspiration “The thousands of volunteers who have attended a United By Blue cleanup give me hope. I never cease to be surprised about the turnout — there are so many people out there who genuinely want to donate time and energy to making our planet a cleaner place.”

Jenny Anderson, age 28

Co-founder and CEO of Celebrate EDU – Boulder, CO // Founded 2013 // 3 Employees

Jenny Anderson, Co-founder and CEO of Celebrate EDU

Jenny Anderson, Co-founder and CEO of Celebrate EDU

Anderson started Celebrate EDU, which provides entrepreneurial education to young adults with autism and developmental disabilities, because of her older brother Brent, who is on the autism spectrum. After leaving high school, Brent struggled to find employment and purpose in his life. It wasn’t until Anderson’s mom helped him launch his own business that he finally found his voice. Today, Brent is a bestselling author, inspirational speaker, and successful entrepreneur. “I started Celebrate EDU to create more stories like Brent’s,” Anderson says. The company’s proprietary programs use strength-based learning to teach entrepreneurship and business to help individuals with disabilities harness their passions and interests to create a career. Currently, 85 percent of adults with developmental disabilities are unemployed. In its first three years, Celebrate EDU has partnered with 22 schools and organizations in seven states to reach more than 400 young adults.

>> What she’s loving “Mindfulness has really changed my productivity in the past few months. There are so many interviews with entrepreneurs who say that meditating has changed their life. I’ve tried to pick it up multiple times in the past, but this time it finally stuck. I meditate every day using the Headspace app, which I love! This practice has kept me more grounded and present, thinking about what I am currently doing instead of the hundreds of things on my to-do list.”

Adam Lazar, age 39

CEO of Asarasi Sparkling Tree Water – Katonah, NY // Founded 2014 // 2 Employees

Adam Lazar, Asarasi Sparkling Tree Water

Adam Lazar, CEO of Asarasi Sparkling Tree Water

In the spring of 2008, Lazar spent a day visiting maple farms in Vermont and saw maple syrup producers dispose of hundreds of thousands of gallons of water left over once the maple sugar had been removed. “After realizing this was a pure biological water, and knowing that our drinkable water supply was dwindling, I decided that I needed to find a way to bring this new water resource to consumers,” he says. That is how Asarasi — the first USDA organic-certified bottled water — was born. By sourcing the sparkling beverage from what was previously a waste stream, Asarasi avoids depleting groundwater and provides another source of income for maple farmers. The company is quickly growing towards nationwide distribution.

>> Recent lesson “The most impactful resource we’ve seen is startup accelerators that provide new businesses the resources and contacts to grow faster than they would be able to on their own.”

Rose Broome, age 35

Co-founder and CEO of HandUp – San Francisco, CA // Founded 2013 // 5 Employees

Rose Broome, HandUp

Rose Broome, Co-founder and CEO of HandUp. Photo by Jill Schneider

Poverty is one of the biggest global social challenges, but it’s not just occurring in developing countries: 43 million Americans live below the poverty line, and 3.5 million experience homelessness each year. Living in San Francisco, Broome was tired of seeing new apps for everything from ordering food to getting rides, but not for helping people who were suffering on her own city’s streets. She started her app HandUp because she wanted to make it easier to give directly to a specific person, and to see the impact of that donation. The fundraising platform works exclusively with human service organizations like those serving the homeless and at-risk populations, and has raised more than $1.86 million for over 100 poverty-focused nonprofits across the US. Top uses of funds are housing, food, and technology — the last being “a very important basic need, when you think about it,” Broome says. Like most fundraising platforms, the for-profit Public-Benefit Corporation takes a small percentage cut of transactions made on the platform.

>> What she’s reading “I’m a huge fan of Paul Graham and turn to his blog posts when I need business advice. His post on fundraising is especially enlightening.”

Phil Esterman, age 21

CEO of StoryTime – Washington, DC // Founded 2016 // 1 Employee

Phil Esterman, StoryTime

Phil Esterman, CEO of StoryTime

A Yale-trained computer scientist, Esterman taught Head Start preschool in Florida where many families didn’t have books or time to read them; many were struggling just to meet their basic needs. Every family, though, had a phone. To help his own students and to get families reading, he built a service to send children’s books via text message to any phone for free. Now schools across 12 states use StoryTime to get families reading and build literacy, and the program has more than doubled the amount of reading done at home among those who use it. In 2017, StoryTime is on target to work with schools in all 50 states.

>> What he’s reading Daniel Kahneman

 Fonta Gilliam, age 34

Co-founder and CEO of Sou Sou – Washington, DC // Founded 2014 // 7 Employees

Fonta Gilliam, Sou Sou

Fonta Gilliam, Co-founder and CEO of Sou Sou

The practice goes by many names around the world: “gae don” or “kye” in South Korea, where Gilliam first encountered it; “hui” in other parts of Asia; “pandeiros” in Brazil; and “susu” in West Africa, to name a few. It’s an ancient form of capital-sharing (or rotating savings and credit) in which a group comes together regularly to pool a certain amount of money for a defined period. Each month, say, a different person takes home the whole pot of money, minus some interest. The club continues until everyone has had a chance to take home the pot. Gilliam’s goal with the peer-to-peer mobile app she’s creating is to formalize and modernize this practice with technology and innovative financial tools as a means for economic empowerment for women globally. “Our mission,” she says, “is to close the $320 billion gap in access to capital, which is financially crippling women globally, through crowd banking.” The beta version of the app is currently scheduled to launch in April 2017.

>> Recent lesson “Smart prototyping and customer feedback are critical in the design and product development process. Don’t take it for granted or discount it. You must be willing to iterate and adapt based upon what you learn.”

Brian Hill, age 32

Co-founder and CEO of Edovo – Chicago, IL // Founded 2013 // 23 Employees

Brian Hill, Edovo

Brian Hill, Co-founder and CEO of Edovo

When Hill was growing up, his father taught in Folsom State Prison and at night would share stories about his students: their hopes and the way their lives were changing. “While I had no idea of the magnitude of the prison problem,” Hill says, “the experience ingrained a deep passion for providing a meaningful second, third, and fourth chance.” That passion led him to found Edovo, an education technology and services company that works to provide meaningful access to educational and self-improvement tools to unlock the potential of every person affected by incarceration. Their tablet-based, self-guided curricula are now available to inmates in 13 states, and have reached more than 22,000 users behind bars. “More importantly,” says Hill, “we are shifting the culture of corrections to focus on and demand rehabilitation through technology.”

>> What he’s reading ‘Just Mercy,’ by Bryan Stevenson. I don’t know how this book slipped past my reading list for so many years, but Stevenson does an amazing job highlighting the multi-layered challenges in the criminal justice system and inspired me to think more deeply about the continuum of care that needs to exist pre-, during, and post-release.”

Annalea Krebs, age 32

Founder and CEO of Social Nature – Vancouver, BC // Founded 2014 // 12 Employees

Annalea Krebs, Social Nature

Annalea Krebs, Founder and CEO of Social Nature

Each year, the average person uses about 200 products; that’s 200 choices people are making about what to put in their bodies and the environment. After starting (at age 24) and then selling a Groupon-like site focused on ethical companies, Krebs turned her attention to trying to influence consumer behavior around those product choices. Her B2B company, Social Nature, harnesses the power of word-of-mouth — the most trusted form of advertising — by getting new natural products in front of a community of everyday influencers who are excited to try them and spread the word about them to friends on social media. To date, Social Nature has raised $1 million from investors and has worked with more than 100 natural brands, reaching more than 100 million people on social media.

>> Recent lesson “When you’re recruiting employees, you need to pitch your company, but don’t be afraid to also share your challenges. Top talent will be attracted to solving problems and will see these as opportunities to have a big impact.”

Funlayo Alabi, age 51

Co-founder and CEO of Shea Radiance – Ellicott City, MD // Founded 2008 // 3 Employees

Funlayo Alabi, Shea Radiance

Funlayo Alabi, Co-founder and CEO of Shea Radiance

Faced with their two children suffering from acute eczema, Alabi and her husband Shola, both from West Africa, started on a journey to help their children cope via better, more effective skincare products. Their solution is a line of beauty products made from sustainable, natural, raw ingredients and sourced directly from women-run co-ops in Nigeria and Ghana, providing steady sources of income for the families involved. While Alabi always conceived of the business as deeply intertwined with her mission to “influence the way women care for themselves, and for each other,” she didn’t always explain it that way. “I spent a lot of time making sure our products were amazing, and sharing the benefits of our ingredients and that they deliver the best results to the customer,” she says. “I was hesitant about making the mission front and center for fear of being perceived as a nonprofit. Lately, I’m learning that people care about the story behind our brand. When they realize the mission of the business, they almost get mad that I didn’t make it front and center.”

>> Her inspiration “The more retail doors and distribution channels that open up for us, the more economic access we provide to our suppliers in West Africa.”

Anna Auerbach, age 33, and Annie Dean, age 31

Co-founders and co-CEOs of Werk – New York, NY // Founded 2016 // 6 Employees

Annie Dean

Annie Dean, Co-founder and Co-CEO of Werk

Anna Auerbach and Annie Dean

Anna Auerbach, Co-founder and co-CEO of Werk

After Auerbach and Dean each had children while working in elite corporate environments, their ambitions didn’t change, but the ability to progress in their careers sure did. They both dealt with bias and limited career choices that helped them understand why less than 5 percent of top leadership roles in companies are held by women. “We believe a key, unaddressed reason is opting out,” explains Auerbach. “Over 30 percent of talented women leave the workforce entirely, and this doesn’t even take into account the droves of women who are forced onto a ‘mommy track.’” Werk is a job board on a mission to keep talented women in the leadership pipeline. The team works with A-list companies to prenegotiate flexibility in the positions it lists (e.g., flex hours, some ability to work from home, etc.), and markets those roles to a highly credentialed and ambitious member base. In less than a year, Werk has closed a pre-seed funding round of $1 million, is launching its second tech product, has had over 1,000 applications to over 100 jobs, and is growing 30 percent month over month with no marketing or promotion.

>> Recent lessons

“Building a successful business is disproportionately about effective communication.” —Dean

“I always thought that entrepreneurs were a different breed from me. The most surprising lesson I learned this year is that there isn’t a secret entrepreneur recipe. It’s just a matter of commitment and focus. Once you do those two things, nothing can stop you.” —Auerbach

Alloysius Attah, age 27

Co-founder and CEO of Farmerline – Kumasi, Ghana // Founded 2012 //  24 Employees

Alloysius Attah, Farmerline

Alloysius Attah, Co-founder and CEO of Farmerline

After his parents divorced when he was 5, Attah spent 15 years on his aunt’s rural farm witnessing the challenges that small-scale farmers face, especially in accessing information. He studied natural resources management and software development in college, then founded Farmerline, a software company with the mission to transform millions of farmers into successful entrepreneurs. Farmerline sends SMS and voice messages on weather forecasts, market prices, new farming techniques, agrochemical applications, and finance directly to the mobile phones of farmers and fishermen, all in local languages. The company’s social business, software technology, and partnership network have reached over 200,000 farmers across five countries. Fish farmers who received Farmerline’s messages saw a 44 percent increase in the selling prices of their fish and other efficiency benefits that led to a 50 percent increase in farmer income. Farmerline achieved financial break-even in November 2015 and generated over $300,000 in revenue in 2016.

>> His inspiration “Millennials in Africa give me a lot of hope. My dream is to see a new economic system in Africa not reliant on aid, a forward market where there are fewer people at the bottom of the pyramid. The youth have a major role to play, and I want my work to inspire my generation to take charge and create sustainable businesses from the bottom up.”

Komal Ahmad, age 27

Founder and CEO of COPIA – San Francisco, CA // Founded 2013 // 8 Employees

Komal Ahmad, Copia

Komal Ahmad, Founder and CEO of Copia

“Access to food is a fundamental human right,” says Ahmad. “People throw away millions of pounds of food while others starve, and these groups often live across the street from each other. This is ethically and economically inefficient.” Ahmad’s company, COPIA, is solving that problem by instantly matching businesses and events that have surplus food with those in need and giving the donor businesses simplified tax reporting and powerful procurement analytics. Ahmad was inspired to launch the tech-based service while she was in training to become a naval officer and realized that many of the homeless people she encountered were veterans. “I’m motivated by hunger because it could happen to anyone and it should happen to no one,” she says. “In a world with so much abundance, innovation, talent, and technology, it doesn’t make sense for hunger to exist, which is why I call it ‘the world’s dumbest problem.’” So far, even with service limited to the Bay Area, COPIA redistributed 200,000 healthy meals to nonprofits in 2016.

>> Recent lesson “It’s all about the hustle. The best idea or the best product won’t go anywhere without getting your hands dirty and getting things done.”

Philip Taylor, age 34

Co-founder and CEO of Mad Agriculture  – Boulder, CO // Founded 2016 // 2 Employees

Philip Taylor, Mad Agriculture

Philip Taylor, Co-founder and CEO of Mad Agriculture

This Ph.D. researcher in ecology and evolutionary biology has set his sights on creating a food system rooted in culture, ecology, and radical creativity. His pathway to changing the world? Insects as animal feed. Mad Agriculture cultivates black soldier fly larvae using commercial food waste as the sole input in order to produce a healthy protein source that fish and chickens love to eat. The company’s production facility requires minimal water and energy and no arable land or synthetic chemicals, and the process is virtually zero-waste, as all food-waste inputs are converted into either animal feed or frass (larval excreta, like worm castings), which is a rich compost that enhances soil fertility. The first batch of product is scheduled to hit store shelves in March 2017, with a pilot facility in operation and feeding trials with poultry underway.

>> What’s inspiring him The Land Institute in Salina, KS. “I attended their Prairie Festival this past fall, where I met Wendell Berry — Mad Agriculture is named after his ‘Mad Farmer’ poems. I discovered that this was the secret gathering place of the agrarian giants, like Michael Pollan, David Orr, Gary Nabhan, Fred Kirschenmann, Woody Tasch, and many others over the years. All of these visionaries have had the guts, will, and ability to go big with their ideas. One must stand on the shoulders of giants to move forward, and there is no better place than the Prairie Festival to find inspiration.”

Social Entrepreneurship / Stakeholder Capitalism
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