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

Facilitating Deal Flow: Evolving the SOCAP Entrepreneur Program

Anika Horn August 14, 2023

Behind the Scenes of SOCAP23 with Sarah Sterling, Executive Director of Entrepreneurship

This is the third installment of our SOCAP Behind the Scenes interview series. In this series, members of the SOCAP team openly share how it is approaching this year’s event, building on the event’s legacy with an approach designed to meet the current needs of the impact community — and see around corners to the future of the global impact movement. Sarah Sterling is the Executive Director of Entrepreneurship at SOCAP and has been with the SOCAP team since 2015, leading the annual Entrepreneur Program. Prior to working with SOCAP, she was the Director of Impact at Pomona Impact, an impact investing fund in Central America, worked as the Program Catalyst for, and was a Peace Corps Volunteer in El Salvador. She has also consulted with various impact accelerators on their impact measurement strategies and entrepreneur selection processes and has been a leadership coach for multiple social enterprises.

Initially created in 2008 with the inaugural SOCAP conference, the SOCAP Entrepreneur Program has always been dedicated to uplifting social entrepreneurs from around the world. What started as a scholarship program has today evolved into a one-of-a-kind opportunity for entrepreneurs, connecting them directly with SOCAP’s wide network of investors, donors, and changemakers. When Sarah joined the organization in 2015, she expanded the annual program to offer selected social entrepreneurs the unique opportunity to not only connect with and learn from one another leading up to the event but the chance to present their ventures to the entire SOCAP audience.

In this Behind the Scenes at SOCAP23 interview, Sarah shares how the SOCAP Entrepreneur Program has evolved from a scholarship to a holistic support program for promising social entrepreneurs from around the world. She explains what entrepreneurs and investors can expect this year and how organizations can take advantage of the Entrepreneur Program at SOCAP23, set for October 23 to 25 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco.

SOCAP is offering partners the opportunity to support and further the impact of the SOCAP Entrepreneur Program at SOCAP23 and beyond. If your organization is passionate about providing resources, connections, training, and more to leading social entrepreneurs and enterprises around the world, connect with Sarah ( to learn more about this partnership opportunity.

How has the SOCAP Entrepreneur Program evolved since its inception in 2008?

The Program was originally launched to increase the diversity of and access to the SOCAP conference by selecting a large cohort of about 150 social impact founders to attend SOCAP for free. SOCAP paid for their entry tickets and provided accommodations for a majority of the cohort during the conference.

When I took over the SOCAP Entrepreneur Program in 2015, it was still a simple scholarship program. After a virtual onboarding, founders attended a full-day orientation to network with each other and to hear from speakers to get the most out of the program. Over the years, I received feedback from founders that it wasn’t enough to simply have an open door to SOCAP — they wanted more resources, connection, and access to new networks. Once SOCAP merged with the Sorenson Impact Center, we finally had the capacity to develop this program further.

In order to ensure that this program would reflect the current needs and challenges of social impact founders, we asked the more than 900 alumni of the program, “What kind of support would you have wanted when you attended SOCAP the first time?” What we heard was this: “An open door is not enough; we need resources and connections to make the most of the event.” That led to the program evolving into what it is today: A full-fledged hybrid, holistic program for 40 founders from different sectors, countries, and backgrounds.

What changes were made to the program with the recommendations from the alumni?

Our six-month program, co-created by our alumni community, is now designed to prepare founders to take full advantage of SOCAP:

  • From April until early October, the cohort meets twice per week and hears from guest speakers on topics related to all aspects of managing and scaling a team and their organizations — from holistic founder wellness to founder self-advocacy to investment readiness and impact measurement. During SOCAP itself, we will host two 90-minute pitch sessions on the main stage to create a platform for these entrepreneurs to tell their stories and talk about their impact, the challenges they encounter, and the novel solutions they’ve developed.
  • To create more deal flow during SOCAP, we have intentionally curated partnerships between different organizations, including Toniic, to help facilitate introductions and connections to the right investors with the right entrepreneurs.

Other benefits include one-on-one advisory with me, free legal counsel from Lex Mundi Pro Bono Foundation, lots of opportunities to network with fellow entrepreneurs and the SOCAP community, one-on-one connections with funders via our partnership with Toniic, connections to other entrepreneurial support programs, and a digital booth in our online networking platform, Brella, during the event. Entrepreneurs can see a full list of program benefits on the Entrepreneur Program page.

How are founders selected for the Entrepreneur Program?

Our selection process is extremely competitive, with a 10% acceptance rate. We carefully select for-profit and nonprofit entrepreneurs from around the world based on several criteria:

  • At least two years of operations 
  • An impact-driven core business model
  • A unique, sustainable, and scalable solution to a challenging problem
  • Actively fundraising 
  • At least one full-time staff member dedicated to running the organization
  • A web presence (either a working website, Instagram page, Facebook, etc.)

In our experience, entrepreneurs that are in business for less than two years don’t have enough traction to show their impact, and those that are too far along in their journey need a different type of support. We recruit founders who are at this sweet spot of growth where SOCAP can make the greatest impact on their journey. 

The 2023 Entrepreneur Program cohort includes 40 entrepreneurs from more than 20 countries. This group was selected from hundreds of applications and represents innovative solutions to social, cultural, and environmental challenges around the world

What can investors expect from the Entrepreneur Program?

Community engagement begins as soon as investors purchase their tickets: If an investor indicates that they’re actively looking to invest, they receive an invitation to participate in the Toniic Investor matchmaking process, which uses the SDGs as a guide to match investors with our entrepreneurs. They might even get a personal email from me to connect them with one of our entrepreneurs (SOCAP Entrepreneurs do their homework and research potential investors ahead of time). 

Once investors meet entrepreneurs from the SOCAP Entrepreneur Program, they know that these founders have been thoroughly vetted and prepared. Entrepreneurs know exactly what they’re asking for and how this investment will help them move their venture forward. 

While we leave room for serendipity, we are very intentional about making meaningful introductions between investors and mission-aligned entrepreneurs — all in an effort to facilitate better deal flow.

At SOCAP23, you’re launching the inaugural Funder Showcase. Can you share more about this addition?

In addition to supporting entrepreneurs in making connections at SOCAP, this year, we have focused on supporting funds and foundations in making similar types of connections with our inaugural Funder Showcase. Funders have the opportunity to pitch for three to five minutes either to attract funding for their fund/foundation or to share what type of entrepreneurs they’re looking to invest in themselves. We will also be extending one-on-one, curated invitations to the Showcase based on the goals of the participants to ensure the right people are in the room for the ideal networking exchanges. Our goal is to create a more transparent and interactive space for funders. We believe that better facilitation leads to more meaningful connections in the investment journey. Some of the confirmed participants of the Funder Showcase are:

How can investors and partners get involved with the 2023 Entrepreneur Program? 

Investors who want to participate in the 2023 Funder Showcase or are looking for curated introductions to entrepreneurs that are fundraising should contact me directly. They can also apply to be part of our Toniic Matchmaking process free of charge simply by checking the interest box during their registration at SOCAP23. 

Organizations that are interested in offering these benefits to their entrepreneurs have the opportunity to partner with us. We work with other impact-focused Entrepreneur Support Organizations to host their demo day for them. Some of our sponsored cohorts include:

These sponsored cohorts receive the same preparation and their own unique pitch session in front of the SOCAP audience. We work directly with both the sponsoring organization’s team as well as with each of their selected founders to identify their goals in attending and the connections they wish to make at SOCAP. In addition, we spotlight these cohorts through blog posts to build interest, create curated connections between their entrepreneurs and funders/other connections they are seeking, and showcase the entrepreneurs’ profiles during SOCAP via digital boards with a rolling slideshow of their profiles.

How can interested social entrepreneurs apply for the program?

Entrepreneurs who are investment-ready, have an innovative solution to a major challenge, and are interested in actively participating in the 2024 Entrepreneurship Program can start applying in January 2024. Join our newsletter to stay up to date with our application launch date announcement, and learn more about SOCAP’s Entrepreneur Progam here.

Other interviews in the series:

• A New Approach to Event Content and Curation at SOCAP23

• The Lighthouse Effect: Partnering with SOCAP

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