Six weeks ago I was asked in an email, “What is the Princeton Impact Project?” by a woman named Kristen Gillette. Kristen is a Philadelphia reporter who writes for Generocity which is known as “the platform for social impact”.
As you may know from the post I wrote a few days ago, I started a meetup at the end of March of this year. The meetup is called Princeton Impact Project. Kristen got wind of the Princeton Impact Project before we had hosted the first meetup. The reason she was contacting me was her interest in our mission, and she hoped to do a write-up of our movement to post on Generocity.
At this point, I was shocked to have received an email from the press. I was still unsure whether the project would attract enough community members in order to be successful. I asked Kristen if she wouldn’t mind holding off on the write-up until after we had a chance to develop a bit first. She politely agreed, and has been fantastically supportive throughout the process.
What is the Princeton Impact Project?
The Princeton Impact Project is a movement of local community members who work cooperatively to create business models that tackle social problems like inequality and climate change. Members are assets to one another as they share resources, insight, and advice from respective industries.
The project is a top-of-funnel (TOF) channel that brings in new members to a larger ecosystem. Members typically fall within the following three categories:
- community members
- social entrepreneurs
- impact investors
Our weekly meetups are open and inclusive to anyone who would like to attend. There are no gatekeepers. We use the meetups as a chance for people to talk about the projects they are working on, and any obstacles they may be facing. The purpose behind this is to give people a platform to speak who would not typically have a platform, and to give the members a chance to learn about problems in which they can build solutions. It is a super-effective feedback loop.
After listening to the different members tell their stories I noticed four different phases of the social impact process begin to take shape:
- Humanity: understanding our role in the world, and learning how to unlock our potential.
- Community: immersing ourselves in the community to identify unmet needs.
- Incubation: creating value to serve the unmet needs we discovered.
- Impact: attaching a revenue model to the value we created.
I know the value in storytelling. Many of the people who were showing up to the meetings had no idea how valuable their stories were. What seemed like a natural next step in our evolution was to figure out a way to create a platform with a larger audience for my new friends. This led to organizing a social innovation conference, Cooperative Impact. The conference brings together all the stakeholders: government, community, business, and technology. It follows the arc of the social impact process outlined above. Speakers in the beginning of the day tell personal stories about humanity. Then we move into community, incubation, and impact.
The Cooperative Impact Social Innovation Conference takes place on May 14th at the Princeton Garden Theatre.
Why was the Princeton Impact Project started?
I started the Princeton Impact Project to begin the development of a social enterprise ecosystem in New Jersey.
In six years I have built small-scale social enterprises, taught social entrepreneurship at the university level, and mentored college students in building their own social businesses. It was not until Saturday, October 11th 2014 did I start working full-time on the global vision of what is now the Princeton Impact Project.
The years leading up to this point I had been reading about the tech industry and the startups being created left and right which “solved problems”. The words, “I had a problem, so I built a startup” are words I read consistently throughout the web. I watched millions of dollars being poured into these tech products, most of which help people be more productive, and it did not make sense to me.
At the same time, I was reading the new release from the World Economic Forum about the global risks we face in the next 6-12 months:
- Water crisis
- Failure of climate-change adaptation
- Interstate conflict
- Unemployment or underemployment
The words, “We are facing the greatest challenges of our time” are words I read as much if not more than the countless articles about the series A investments being made into tech startups. We have problems that have gone unsolved for decades, and in some cases centuries. At one time, I blamed the problem on tech startups for building useless products. Eventually, I realized that the technologists and engineers were doing their job, and the problem was more about the masses being distracted by the technology. Rather than using the technology as a tool, we often use it as a toy.
I thought to myself, “We have all these unsolved social problems like inequality, climate change, hunger, and homelessness. We have the most brilliant advances in technology the human race has ever seen. If startups are so good at solving problems, then we should be able to figure out a profitable model for building startups which solve social problems. We can not expect the technologists and engineers to take on the entire burden of solving these problems. This is where the rest of us must step up to the plate, and work in partnership with technology in order to overcome the obstacles we all face.
I started the process by deciding on an unsolved social problem that seems to be the most difficult to build a solution for: climate change. How would I build a startup that solved climate change? As I would approach any problem, I worked backwards. I unpacked the problem.
Climate change is a symptom of an underlying systemic problem. Meaning, we can not decide today that we want to “fix” climate change, and then it automatically is solved. Climate change is the result of our way of life. It is the result of the products we use like air conditioners, styrofoam, cars, fossil fuels, etc. I continued to work backwards. If styrofoam is bad, then we need to manufacture a sustainable replacement for styrofoam. The manufacturing of a styrofoam replacement is a new business model for a social enterprise. Elon Musk is building a replacement for cars. Igloo is building replacements for cooling mechanisms. This opened my eyes to a completely new world of untapped ideas for startups. This is when I realized I did not want to build a startup to solve climate change. I wanted to create a system which will teach, mentor, and invest in the next generation of business in America.
I spent the next four months researching, writing, sketching outlines, drafting business models, and building prototypes of five different products. I thought about all the obstacles I had run into when trying to build a social enterprise. Then, I built features in my products to solve those problems. I did not want to waste any time, money, or resources on developing any tangible software just yet. I had to find out if there were other people in the community who also were running into the problems I was solving with my platform.
I had to find the most cost effective and accurate method for extracting this data from the community. That is when I decided to start a meetup. I never thought about what I would name the meetup until I was filling out the registration form on the Meetup.com website. “Princeton Impact Project” naturally came to mind instantly. I never thought twice about it.
What is your role?
Six weeks ago, I was the lead organizer of a simple meetup group. Today, I am the founder and CEO of the Princeton Impact Project. My days consist of implementing high-level growth strategies. I invest my time developing relationships with leaders of government, business, and nonprofits as we prepare for the next phase of our evolution. I speak more about this in response to the question, “What are your goals for the group?”
Why are you interested in impact?
I was born into a low income family, and raised in one of the wealthiest areas in New Jersey. Being born into inequality was difficult. It seems as if most of my peers were born at the finish line while I was just arriving to the race. My mother told me not worry about the things other people had. This was something that was supposed to make me stronger. She said to just focus on doing well in school, getting a good education, and going to college so I could create a better life for myself. As I was graduating from college I realized that I took out loans to pay for a college degree that was of no use. Where was my American Dream that I was promised? I had to start from scratch. Again. There are a number of obstacles I overcame. I was meant to break through the chains of adversity. I appreciate that I have made it to the other side. I am now able to reach back to those who are not as fortunate to have blazed their own trail. My personal goal is to build the foundation of a new economy which will employ future Americans for the next 100 years.
What are the goals for the group?
Our vision is to live in a world where community, technology, business, and government work cooperatively to cultivate a sustainable way of life. The purpose of the Princeton Impact Project is to contribute to this vision by developing a social enterprise ecosystem in the United States of America. We have started this process in Princeton, NJ.
The next phase in our evolution is to acquire space in Princeton, NJ where we will build New Jersey’s first-ever social enterprise coworking space. It will be the city’s civic incubator. I am now aligning the stakeholders to prepare for this revolutionary push into the future. Our civic incubator will solve civic problems by bringing together community members to build solutions funded by private equity. The goal is to align the goals of business to coincide with the goals of the people.
It has only been six weeks since our first meetup. The amount of growth this organization has seen is remarkable. The creation of this movement is only possible because of the courageous community members of which I am now surrounded. I am forever grateful to be apart of what is now taking place in Princeton, NJ.