PopTech Blog

Co-working for Social Good

Editor’s note: Heather Fleming is a 2008 PopTech Social Innovation Fellow and the CEO of Catapult Design, an organization that develops “human-centered products” for BoP (bottom of the pyramid). Below, she tells us why her company works from a co-working space for social entrepreneurs in San Francisco.

“It’s kinda like a third world command center,” is how Tyler Valiquette, (Catapult Design co-founder) described his first visit to 972 Mission, now Mission*Social, a co-working space aimed at social entrepreneurs in San Francisco.

Coworking at Mission Social
Mission*Social in San Francisco’s SoMa

Indeed, Mission*Social is stocked with organizations serving communities in India, Rwanda, Guatemala, the DRC, Zambia, Kenya, etc. and it’s got the extensive Skype conferencing setup to prove it.

Founded by Inveneo, a leading non-profit in ICT4D (Information and Communication Technologies for Development), Inveneo’s CEO Kristin Peterson describes the space as a “DIY environment” for its tenants.

Each conference room has monitors, speakers, and web cams rigged to the walls for frequent international video Skype calls; next to the kitchen is an open work area for assembly and de-bug littered with monitors, keyboards, wires, and electrical components; most of the IKEA furnishings in the space are perched on wheels to make changes fast and easy.

Coworking at Mission Social
Mission*Social in San Francisco’s SoMa

Catapult moved into Mission*Social at the beginning of October, joining Samasource and Inveneo. We immediately felt the benefits of sharing space with other mission-driven companies. Within two and half months of moving in, we’ve tapped Inveneo for legal resources, solar vendor recommendations for our client work in Rwanda, an accountant for the 2009 tax season, and even guidance on IRS filings. Resources like this are invaluable and save newbies (like me) loads of time and grief.

Co-hosting Catapult’s holiday party with the immensely popular Samasource fueled the expansion of our social circle. And naturally, being in a proximity of twenty feet with Inveneo has already resulted in a joint proposal on a new project.

The solidarity component also plays a valuable role in a space serving social entrepreneurs. Did I mention that I now get to sit next to two successful female CEOs running technology organizations?

Generally, San Francisco’s loft spaces in the South of Market (SoMa) area are some of the most viable and affordable office spaces for budget-minded social entrepreneurs—within walking distance of Catapult: blueEnergy Group (providing sustainable energy to marginalized communities), Impact Carbon (improves accessibility of clean tech for the international carbon market), Public Architecture, and many others.

The SF Chronicle, directly across the street from Mission*Social, recently announced that the TechShop, a membership-based DIY workshop, and the Hub, a network supporting business incubation, are moving in next year. And appropriately, the site of the upcoming TEDxSoMa will be in a popular SoMa co-working space, ParisSoMa.

Mission*Social is now open for those seeking permanent space as well as those passing through San Francisco. A final perk? The eclectic SoMa neighborhood is one of the only places in San Francisco where you can both guild your teeth and buy a cup of the city’s chicest coffee on the same block.

Great blog posts on the co-working trend:

- Change.org’s Nathaniel Whittemore, “Top Trend of 2010 #4: Coworking and Startup Incubation”

- The Guardian, Bobbie Johnson, “Co-working Silicon Valley Job Crisis”

Investing in You, Inc.

Editor’s note: PopTech Fellow Kushal Chakrabarti of Vittana has a similar project to Ashni’s Enzi, that she discusses below. Find Vittana gift certificates here.

How many times have you heard the words ‘investing in people’ as a nonprofit slogan or a corporate tagline or touted as an international development policy? That phrase has been recycled into many different avatars in as many contexts. But what if you took this phrase literally? What if you could actually invest directly in people, the way you would in a company, and receive dividends per an equity stake in their future income?

Hold your horses – this isn’t as crazy as you think. Investor, visionary, and fan of PopTech Rafe Furst, just invested in “Marge,” someone he believes is a superstar in the making, for a lifetime share in her income. Furst wrote an incendiary blog post about his decision, spawning a litany of polarized opinions ranging from praise (“brilliant”) to aversion (“this is a form of slavery”) to personal attacks (“you’re an a@# with more money than sense”). Change.org’s Social Entrepreneurship blogger Nathaniel Whittemore picked up the story and began a discussion with a number of social entrepreneurs and investors.

Three distinct models of people-to-people investments emerged in the ensuing discussion:

I. Furst found a single superstar he trusted who he thought was worthy of investment and added a lifetime equity stake to a deal built on a personal relationship of mutual trust. The Personal Investment Contract (PIC) Furst placed in the public domain is just three pages long because it stems from that trust. Furst’s deal is replicable by other investors but not scalable because of its personal nature.

II. SE Fund: Equity investment can be a funding apparatus for select superstar social entrepreneurs through a nonprofit trust issuing shares in their aggregated future income. Four entrepreneurs in the discussion put their lives on the line, eager for this type of investment. Interestingly, they all plan to re-invest the funds in their own organizations, whereas Furst’s original intent was for such funds to ease the investee’s life and not replace investments in their startups. He sees the two types of investments as complementary.

III. Enzi: People investments can be scaled in the context of education. Whittemore included me in the discussion because I founded Enzi, a social venture that lets people invest in students’ education in return for a share in their future income for a set period of time. Enzi is currently conducting a pilot at Stanford and securing investments in its first class of Masters EE students.

The following issues arose for discussion across these three models of people investments:

I. Legality – Can investments in people for an equity stake in future income be considered legal? Yes, certainly. Furst and Enzi had legal counsel write the people investment contracts in use. SE Fund advocates will consult a law firm in the new year to sort out possible tax issues that might arise with their model. Depending on the number and types of investors involved, any people investment model might have to investigate securities law.

II. Buyout clause – While it’s psychologically important to have a buyout clause from a future income contract, it can serve different purposes, depending on the model. Furst’s contract has a buyout clause that he considers a red herring – if it isn’t triggered, it’s a bad deal for somebody. A potential SE Fund investor was hesitant about including a buyout clause because it might incentivize the investee to leave the social mission-focused world for a high-paying job to afford buyout. Since Enzi’s investments are specifically for education and don’t involve lifetime income, its buyout clause is more akin to an early loan payoff for students who experience financial windfall such as cashing out on the soaring star of a startup company.

III. Investor preferences – Most people agreed that social return, not just financial, is an enormously motivating factor in all these people investment models. According to Furst, depending on whether the investee was ‘for-profit’ (ex. businessman), ‘non-profit’ (ex. researcher), or in-between (ex. social entrepreneur), he would rely on the percentage of income, the buyout, or a blend of both for his return.

A potential SE Fund investor was willing to take a discount on financial return for the entrepreneur to remain focused on social mission. If his investee jumped ship for the security of McKinsey, he would consider his investment a failure. Another investor considered it a worthwhile deal only if she could add value to the investee beyond money, in the form of a network or connections.

Enzi will entertain the preferences (ex. major, school, national origin) of investors who can invest in a fund of students with those criteria. We believe we’ll attract investors who altruistically re-invest their returns in other students as well as those who are drawn to sound financial returns.

IV. Investee preferences – Furst didn’t disclose much about his investee “Marge” except to say that he shared a close mentor relationship with her.

The entrepreneurs considering the SE Fund deal have personal preferences regarding their investors. One entrepreneur cautioned – ‘you become who invests in you.’ He would take the deal if only for the privilege of having someone he trusted and respected literally invested in his future. Some were inclined to have several investors as a board of trusted directors for their lives while some hated the idea of pitching to a forum of angels because one dissenting investor can influence the judgment of others.

Enzi aims to unlock latent potential in students. Its income-aligned education funding keeps students from fixed-amount crippling debt, enabling them to pursue their passions. In addition, students are paired with investor mentors who help support their professional growth.

The major differences between the three models lie in motivation, desired outcomes, and scalability. Furst has already determined that “Marge” is a winner and is motivated to add value, both personal and financial, to her hard work. His desired outcome is the value they will collectively generate over her lifetime. He pointed out that his model is inherently non-scalable because everyone has different ideals for a superstar candidate they would link with for life. The motivation of the SE Fund is to use people investments as a solution for the funding problems social entrepreneurs face, and the expected outcome is the social impact on the world that these entrepreneurs will generate on account of the investment. The SE Fund can be scalable if its advocates are able to agree on the right mix of investors and entrepreneurs. Enzi is motivated to create a paradigm shift in education finance by providing equity investments in education as an alternative to student loans. Its desired outcomes are removing the financial barrier to education and facilitating increased lifetime earnings and improved quality of life for students. Enzi’s model is scalable: it offers time-limited contracts explicitly for the purpose of education and lets several accredited and non-accredited (‘retail’) investors collectively invest in funds of talented students.

It’s exciting to witness the evolution of these people investment models. Though they target different stakeholders, they can and should coexist – they have potential to be powerful forces of social change. Here’s one vote for people investments as a panel topic at SoCap10! Do I hear another?

Ashni can be contacted via email (ashni [at] enzifutures [dot] org) or Twitter (@ashnimohnot).

New York Designers Propose Ideas for New York Transportation, Navigation, and Waterfront Development

Two weeks ago, GOOD and CEOs for Cities held a Manhattan event where Alissa Walker, a design writer, and Scott Stowell (of NY design agency Open) moderated six design teams proposing solutions to New York societal problems.

Below, excerpts from presenters Jake Barton (Local Projects) on the appeal of bicycling as alternative transportation, Brett Snyder (Cheng+Snyder) and Guy Zucker (Z-A Studio) on wayfinding in Times Square, and Colin Brice and Caleb Mulvena (MAPOS) on waterfront development in Sunset Park:

What do you think about these proposals?

VIDEO: Balance of Systems: PopTech 2009's Nocera, Kurgan, and Kuepper

“You’ve got to start from the bottom and work up. And if you don’t, I guarantee it will always be too costly.” Dan Nocera, PopTech 2009

With global leaders in discussions about climate change, PopTech releases three talks this week from energy researchers approaching the problem from other angles. MIT chemist Dan Nocera shows how we can move from the grid to personalized energy, spatial designer Laura Kurgan demonstrates there are no neutral maps, and scientist Nicole Kuepper creates photovoltaic cells out of nail polish, inkjet printers, and pizza ovens.

Watch Dan Nocera on personalized energy:

MIT Professor Dan Nocera believes he can solve the world’s energy problems with an Olympic-sized pool of water. Nocera and his research team have identified a simple technique for powering the Earth inexpensively—-by using the sun to split water and store energy—-and thus making the large-scale deployment of personalized solar energy possible.

Go Deeper:

- See Dan’s MIT Nocera Lab group page
- Read Dan’s MIT faculty page where he explains his work
- View the National Geographic solar energy slideshow Dan references in his talk

Watch Laura Kurgan on human geographies:

Architect Laura Kurgan is the Co-Director of the Spatial Information Design Lab at Columbia University. Kurgan visualizes complex political and social data to advocate for social reform. One project, “Million Dollar Blocks,” shows how the government spends more than one million dollars to incarcerate prisoners who live within a single census block.

Go Deeper:

- Learn more about the Spatial Information Design Lab
- See Laura’s Terre Natale, that has been on display during COP15
- Laura was named a United States Artist Rockefeller Fellow on December 14th

Watch Nicole Kuepper on low-cost solar

Ph.D. candidate Nicole Kuepper has been passionate about solar energy since she received a toy solar-powered car for her 8th birthday. Kuepper has recently patented a simple low-temperature process for printing low-cost solar cells that could make solar energy affordable across the developing world.

Go Deeper:

- Watch a video of Nicole working on photovoltaic cells in the lab
- Read the abstract for the UNSW inkjet solar cell scientific paper
- Learn more about the UNSW School of Photovoltaic and Renewable Energy Engineering

For more, follow PopTech photographer Kris Krug’s Flickr photostream for the latest Copenhagen images, find out why activists the Yes Men (who presented at PopTech 2006) helped coordinate and release a fake press release on behalf of the Canadian government Monday.

More climate change links:

6 PopTech Climate Change videos from the archive

Mother Nature Network’s Copenhagen Climate Talks section

Reuters liveblog from Copenhagen

Inhabitat reports Copenhagen has been “Causapalooza”

Kofi Annan in The Guardian on climate change, December 10, 2009

Updates and reporting from Mother Jones, The Uptake. Treehugger, Grist, The Nation, Center for Investigative Reporting/ Frontline/World, and The Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting

Data visualizations of global climate temperatures (follow #climatedata for more)

What do you think about these energy ideas? Where are you following COP15 coverage?

Frieder Weiss on Light Design, Creative Process, and Breaking Flatness

This year at PopTech, choreographer Gideon Obarzanek, who directs Chunky Move (an Australian dance company) spoke about designing movements for dancers that play with light.

To play with light, his Chunky Move dancers interact with software designed by Frieder Weiss, an “engineer in the arts.”

Frieder is in New York this week with Chunky Move for their “Mortal Engine” run at BAM (performances until Saturday, details below).

He talked yesterday afternoon about his EyeCon software (released for use), the unreleased Kalypso program used in “Mortal Engine,” how his lighting is live, why sound can be less accessible than light, and the frozen project he is working on next:

For more of Frieder’s thoughts on how to explore visual planes, he is speaking tonight at 6 pm at Harvestworks, and then with Gideon and the Chunky Move dancers tonight at BAM after the performance.

You can buy tickets to Chunky Move at BAM, tonight through Saturday.

And here is Gideon Obarzanek’s 2009 PopTech talk:

Questions for Frieder? Leave a comment below.

Winter in Camden

Editor’s note: Beth Cohen is PopTech’s Director of Media Production. She made the below video to give everyone a taste of winter in Camden, Maine, where PopTech holds its annual ideas summit and where one of the PopTech offices is located. Here’s how she describes the weather yesterday.

First snow day of the year. All the local schools were closed, and many businesses closed early.

First it snowed, then it got really windy, then it started pouring rain. Winter is finally here.

VIDEO: Steve Barr, Ashley Merryman, Dennis Littky on Educational Approaches

This week in PopTech 2009 video releases, find out the difference fifteen minutes can make to a child’s cognitive performance in parenting guru Ashley Merryman’s presentation, why school turnaround visionary Steve Barr thinks private school should be outlawed, and the way legendary teacher Dennis Littky has transformed student performance through personalized curriculae.

Watch Steve Barr on fixing failing schools:

According to Steve Barr, the fastest way to fix education in America would be to make private schools illegal. As the founder of Green Dot Public Schools, Barr is devoted to improving public education in blighted cities. His efforts have transformed high schools across Los Angeles into charter schools that send nearly 80% of students to college.

Go Deeper:

- Read the May 2009 New Yorker piece, “Steve Barr’s crusade to remake failing schools”
- Attend the Green Schools Benefit, February 11, 2010 in Venice, CA
- Find out about the recent Gates Foundation grant to Green Dot Schools

Watch Ashley Merryman on parenting:

Ashley Merryman has co-authored numerous articles about parenthood. Over the past two years, she and journalist Po Bronson have collaborated on an award-winning series of articles in New York Magazine. Their most recent work, a book titled NurtureShock, explores cutting edge research that challenges many familiar myths about how to best parent kids.

Go Deeper:

- Follow the NurtureShock blog and on Twitter @NurtureShock
- Read an excerpt from NurtureShock
- See what the NurtureShock authors think about emotional intelligence

Watch Dennis Littky on Big Picture Education:

The co-founder and co-director of Big Picture Learning, Dennis Littky believes that cookie-cutter teaching fails too many students. So Littky works to make alternative, non-standardized curriculums the new standard. Big Picture now has more than 70 schools nationwide.

Go Deeper:

- Start a Big Picture School and become a staff member or volunteer
- Attend an event with Big Picture Learning
- Read an April 2009 Education Week article on five faulty assumptions in education policy

B is for B Corps

Last week, Lucy Bernholtz, president of philanthropic consulting firm Blueprint Research & Design, spoke with Marketplace (download the audio from the link) on “Philanthropy’s Big Buzzwords of 2009.”

Between impact investing and mergers, Bernholtz talked about B Corps, the designation for businesses holding a social good certification (think LEED for social enterprise) from a group called B Lab.

B Corps screenshot

Of the 240 businesses are certified in the U.S. as B Corps, nine in Philadelphia have an additional reason to pay a tenth of 1% of their net sale to hold the certification. Last Thursday, Philadelphia’s City Council unanimously approved a bill to give a sustainable business tax credit to certified sustainable businesses in the city. The first financial incentive for sustainable businesses in law in the U.S., the new bill allows twenty-five companies in Philadelphia to receive the tax break.

Co-founder of B Corporation, Jay Coen Gilbert describes amending a company’s articles of incorporation to include B Corps “changing the DNA of a company.”

Individually, each certified company is a B Corp—together, they are B Corps.

As the “corps” entry in the online dictionary Wordnik (watch Wordnik Founder Erin McKean’s 2006 PopTech talk) aggregates definitions, synonyms, images, tweets, tags, and etymologies about different meanings and content around the term, we hope that sustainable businesses for social good will continue to find new reasons to become, as the American Heritage Dictionary defines “corps”: “a body of persons acting together or associated under common direction.”

DARPA Balloons and #scoutsforgood

To mark the 40th anniversary of the Internet, today DARPA released ten balloons for the DARPA Network Challenge, a competition in online and social network cooperation with a $40,000 prize.

“The Network Challenge winner will be the first individual to submit the locations of 10 8-foot balloons moored at 10 fixed locations in the continental United States. The balloons will be in readily accessible locations and visible from nearby roads.”

The contest end at 12:00 PM EST on December 14, 2009, and one team has another motive for the prize money.

DARPA balloons

Stan Wiechers and Carlos J. Gómez de Llarena’s team, @ballooncharity, wants to give 100% of the prize money to the Aga Khan Foundation to support programs that may help rebuild Afghanistan.

Balloon Charity tweet

From the Balloon Charity site,

DARPA is betting on people’s self-interest to motivate them during this giant crowdsourced guinea pig test. We want to bet on crowdsourced altruism. One of these motivations will emerge as the driving force behind the winning team.”

The team is always using the hashtag #scoutsforgood to mobilize team members.

Want to play? You can find the rules on the DARPA Network Challenge site.

The best way to follow or join the Balloon Charity team is through their @ballooncharity Twitter account.

VIDEO: Gideon Obarzanek, Neri Oxman, and Reuben Margolin

Where does design meet nature, technology meet dance, and kinetics meet sculpture?

This week, new PopTech videos are on interactions: biomimicry architect Neri Oxman shares her favorite natural form, sculptor Reuben Margolin creates sparkling waves of light, and choreographer Gideon Obarzanek outlines ways dancers move with each other and the spaces inbetween. And, we’re pleased to share an opportunity for PopTech Friends to see Gideon Obarzanek’s latest dance performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

We’re going to see Chunky Move on December 9th at BAM, and we hope to see you there.


Watch Gideon Obarzanek on digital moves:

Hailed by The Australian as the country’s best modern dance company, choreographer Gideon Obarzanek’s Chunky Move dazzles audiences with its use of site-specific installations and interactive sound and light technologies. Obarzanek’s avant-garde performances explore the tensions between the rational world we live in and richness of our imagination.

Special Offer for PopTech Friends: 15% Discount for Mortal Engine, Dec 9 – 12
Dec 9—12, BAM, Howard Gilman Opera House, 30 Lafayette Ave, Brooklyn, New York

Mortal Engine uses a spectacular mix of space-slashing choreography and hyper technology to transform the stage into a cosmic force field. As the dancers morph into light, image, and sound, this work portrays a shimmering, ever-shifting world—never predictable and always changing.

Offer valid for all performances. May not be combined with other offers and not valid for prior purchases. Subject to handling and facility fees and availability. Maximum of 4 discounted tickets per household. Offer expires Tue, Dec 8. Use promotional code 11027.

More info, video, and tickets on the BAM page.

Go Deeper:

Become a Fan of Chunky Move on Facebook

See more dance videos of Gideon’s choreography for Chunky Move


Watch Neri Oxman on designing form:

Architect Neri Oxman is the founder of MATERIALECOLOGY, an interdisciplinary design initiative expanding the boundaries of computational form-generation and material engineering. Named one of Fast Company’s “100 Most Creative People in Business,” Oxman investigates the material and performance of nature in an effort to define form itself.

Go Deeper:

Read Neri’s blog

Watch 2009 video of Neri from Fast Company

Read Surface Magazine’s recent profile of Neri’s work (.pdf)


Watch Reuben Margolin on kinetic art:

First inspired by the mysterious and mathematical qualities of a caterpillar’s crawl, artist Reuben Margolin creates large-scale kinetic sculptures that use pulleys and motors to create the complex movements and structures we see in nature. Margolin takes to the PopTech stage to share some of his extraordinary mechanical installations.

Go Deeper:

Find more videos about Reuben’s waves

Watch a MAKE.tv profile of Reuben in his studio

See where Reuben’s work has been exhibited