[TC-I Changemakers]: Echoing Green's Cheryl Dorsey


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Cheryl Dorsey is the President of Echoing Green, a leading global nonprofit which “invests in and supports outstanding emerging social entrepreneurs to launch new organizations that deliver bold, high-impact solutions.” Since its inception in 1987, Echoing Green has awarded more than $27 million in start-up capital to over 450 social entrepreneurs. Unlike typical venture capital firms, they are authentic collaborators in the process of effecting social change:

We consider ourselves active investors-not just providing funding, but also helping our social entrepreneurs achieve their maximum potential through a range of support services, including training, networking opportunities, consulting, and championing. Similarly, we view our fellows as investment partners, with whom we collaborate as they build and grow their organizations and with whom we hope to have a long-term relationship.

Cheryl became President of Echoing Green in May 2002, ten years after being awarded the Echoing Green fellowship herself for “Family Van,” a community-based mobile health unit for at-risk residents of inner-city Boston neighborhoods.

ThinkChange India’s Prerna Srivastava and Shital Shah spoke with Cheryl about Echoing Green’s path-breaking work, and solicited her insights regarding the future of the social entrepreneurship sector. Special thanks to Shalena Broadnax for her unflagging spirit during the process of arranging this interview.

We were struck by Cheryl’s groundedness and passion for this field. Overall, Cheryl emphasized the importance of being embedded in the local community, sticking by one’s core values, the “human capital” side of the equation, and the ability of anyone to get involved in social change even if they are not an entrepreneur.

The full interview follows below.

The following questions were discussed over the phone. The answers are not verbatim.

ThinkChange India (TCI): Can you start by briefly describing the work of Echoing Green, including its history since inception? How has the organization evolved since 1992?

Cheryl Dorsey (CD): Echoing Green was started in 1987 by the founding members of a private equity firm, General Atlantic, LLC. The idea was to bring meaningful venture capital principles from the private sector to philanthropy. They provided wraparound technical support services to give the organization the best chance of success and be on the cutting edge of social entrepreneurship for positive social change. The organization started as a private foundation with secure revenue from many sources, but has since evolved into becoming a public charity. Now, Echoing Green is a social venture fund.

TCI: Vikram Akula, Tahir Amin, Priti Radhakrishnan, Henry Thiagaraj, Maya Ajmera – these are only a few of the Echoing Green fellows that are now effecting change within India and abroad. Can you give our readers a sense of how these Echoing Green fellows, including others, are changing the face of India?

CD: Echoing Green, and social entrepreneurship more generally, thrives in India. Echoing Green gets applications from 80 countries from around the world. However, there’s something to be said for a particular entrepreneurial culture which exists in both India and the US. In both these places, there is a certain predisposition towards entrepreneurship. This is reflected in organizations like Echoing Green and Ashoka. We do not just fund one area; fellows are working across issue areas and from different geographic areas. The common thread is that people see significant problems in their community and are developing innovative solutions to attack those problems. They are going about social change in many different ways.

TCI: What role can Echoing Green play in nurturing entrepreneurs from unconventional backgrounds, who may not be as privileged, but have the capacity to effect profound change? What role can Ashoka, in collaboration with Echoing Green, for example, play in this process?

CD: We seek to work with entrepreneurs from many different backgrounds. We’re in the business of finding social entrepreneurs when they are on the verge of starting – Echoing Green is a talent scout. Over the years, we’ve worked hard to move beyond narrow, university-based talent scouting. Our organization is based on the hard work of developing relationships with individuals around the world. The ideas come from anywhere and from anyone. We now have gotten to the point where we’re able to identify indigenous leaders, regardless of their socioeconomic status. We do well with the talent identification and pipeline function; we bring in fresh ideas and fresh voices.

TCI: For the benefit of our readers who also aspire to be Echoing Green fellows – what are the key attributes of “successful” social entrepreneurs? What are the key attributes of “successful” projects? On the other hand, has Echoing Green had experiences with failed projects? What have you found contributes to “failure”?

CD: Echoing Green has been doing this for 20 years. We have developed a particular point of view, which we term the “Social Entrepreneurial Quotient (SEQ).” This tracks the specific characteristics that increase the likelihood of success. Specifically, there are 8 characteristics or traits across all successful social entrepreneurs. First, social entrepreneurs are asset based thinkers, in that they are able to look at challenges as opportunities. Second, social entrepreneurs are resource magnets – they are not individual islands of excellence, but are embedded in larger social movements. To do the hard work of making sustained social change, you have to attract a variety of resources for the cause.

We also have a risk tolerant profile and believe “no pain, no gain.” If there isn’t failure in your portfolio, you aren’t taking enough chances. Some ideas fail because they’re too ahead of their time. In the beginning, Echoing Green funded individuals who weren’t as embedded in their communities. Being accepted by the community is a must. I’m very careful to say that an indigenous leader doesn’t have to be born in the community, but does have to earn their way into that community. In our earlier years, people may not have been accepted by their communities, and this makes success more difficult.

TCI: It seems as if the social entrepreneurship sector is also obsessed with performance measurement metrics, or the “social return on investment.” How does Echoing Green measure success? Is the process more quantitative or qualitative? What role do scale, replicability, and sustainability play in the evaluation process?

CD: We fund far upstream. We are investing in the social entrepreneur instead of the organization. The quantitative measures are proxies; on a macro level, we look at a couple of things – 1) our ability to bring special new talent into the social sector – 80% of our leaders stay in the social sector. In this regard, we play a valuable role as a pipeline; 2) For-profit venture capitalists look at our sustainability rate – we have a 60% success rate; 3) Dollars in versus dollars out – we’re a small seed funder, and collectively we’ve invested $27 million dollars in over 450 social entrepreneurs. They’ve gone on to garner an additional million dollars for their enterprises.

We look at ourselves as an accelerator fund -we’re in the business of taking these social entrepreneurs further, faster. We look at the fellows who almost got the fellowship, but didn’t – and the difference is striking. Forty percent of those we don’t fund do not go on to start their own organization. Our fellows outstripped those who did not get the fellowship across all factors – they are able to fundraise more, hire more quickly, gain greater media exposure, fill their board, and have a strong organizational or leadership trajectory. We accelerate the progress of social entrepreneurs.

We also look at how the social entrepreneurs are doing in terms of the issue they choose to address.

TCI: Any final thoughts for our readers?

CD: Echoing Green is a resource for you. Other than the US and Nigeria, India is our richest sources of applicants. We’re really proud of the pipeline of interest we get from India. For young people who are really excited about social entrepreneurship, I want to underscore that even though we’re in the business of supporting new organizations for social entrepreneurs, people should not be starting new organizations. It’s not about the organization, it’s about the idea – people can plug into the movement, either as organizations or individuals that drive change in a collective fashion. Social entrepreneurs are a fairly rare breed. This is a fairly narrow skill set. We recognize that the pathway to success is not always starting something. You can also be engaged in a meaningful way that leverages individual skills.

The following questions were discussed through a follow up email.

TCI: During the interview, you’d mentioned the 8-part “SEQ” developed by Echoing Green based on your experiences with Echoing Green fellows. Can you outline these 8 characteristics for the benefit of our readers, and briefly elaborate on each?

CD: Echoing Green’s success as a global social venture fund for social entrepreneurs over the past twenty years is based on our ability to spot and pick social entrepreneurial talent. Interestingly, while so much of the social entrepreneurial literature is focused on organizational development strategies and performance metrics, Echoing Green believes that it is the human capital part of the equation that matters most. At the end of the day, we invest in individuals–extraordinary people with a compelling, innovative idea for social change.

Despite the wide variety of program areas in which our fellows work, we have identified a constellation of characteristics and traits exhibited by all of our fellows. We call this constellation: “SEQ” or Social Entrepreneurial Quotient. SEQ (a play on Daniel Goleman’s EQ) is a behavioral model developed by Echoing Green to provide a new way of understanding and assessing successful social change agents. We will soon be releasing a publication detailing SEQ; we look forward to sharing it with you.

TCI: On the website, you speak about a speech given by Maria Shriver at a high school graduation speech, “Those in attendance told Maria what struck them about the speech was the question she posed. It wasn’t, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?” Rather it was, “Who will you be? Who is the person you want to be? Who are you?’ For all those who search for lives of meaning, these are really the questions that count. It plays out in interesting ways, in particular, for those attracted to careers in social change. It’s about trying to live out your values through your work in a way that has integrity, impact, and balance.”

The question, then, is this – what role do you believe values play in the life of a social entrepreneur?

CD: Values play a critical and dual role in the life of a social entrepreneur. One of the traits comprising SEQ is the social entrepreneur’s success in forming her core identity and the ability to connect deeply with that core identity. It’s really about achieving a level of authenticity and self-awareness that, quite frankly, is difficult for most to achieve. This includes recognizing and abiding by your values–they are your North Star, your rock. Social entrepreneurs so often go against the grain, challenging the status quo. This can be incredibly scary and lonely work. Sometimes, your values may be the only thing you have to hang on to.

On the other hand, social entrepreneurs often push against societal values (enduring beliefs that people are emotionally invested in) they do not share in order to drive towards positive social change. This clash of values can make the quest for change very slow going. Yet successful social entrepreneurs have to be able to change hearts and minds, two organs fueled very much by one’s values.

TCI: Finally, aside from the concrete change catalyzed by Echoing Green Fellows, what kind of cultural shift (in terms of mindsets, values, beliefs, principles, etc.) do you envision Echoing Green fostering?

CD: I read somewhere that President Obama said that it is not our problems that are too big; rather it is our solutions that are too small. This really resonated with me because it reflects what Echoing Green believes. Our fellows get up every morning seeking to solve the problems they are tackling, not just ameliorate their symptoms. This is a profound shift along the social sector spectrum–what we typically call moving beyond charity to change. This statement is not at all meant to denigrate the importance of charitable good works. Rather, it is to encourage us all to be cognizant of the difference between the two and recognize the role that both charity and social change play in creating a better world for us all.


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