Podcast Episode 4 — Mid-Season Recap: Tech social entrepreneurship

by | August 27, 2021 | Tech for Good, Tech Matters Podcast

Jim Fruchterman founded Benetech (initially named Arkenstone) in 1989 in and Tech Matters in 2018.

In this episode, Jim shares his thoughts on what we heard from Mike, Ana, and Nithya, along with a personal note on his own experience: the importance of Human Centered Design, dealing with skepticism as a social entrepreneur, and what technology needs to bring to the table. Jim also introduces what’s coming next: An interview with Sanjay Purohit of Societal Platform, in which we dig deeper into the issue of impact at scale.
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Jim Fruchterman [00:00]

Welcome to the Tech Matters Podcast, an audio series about digital technology and social entrepreneurship. I am your host, Jim Fruchterman. Over the course of this series, I will be talking to some amazing social change leaders about how they are using tech to help tackle the wicked problems of the world. We’ll also learn from them about what it means to be a tech social entrepreneur, how to build a good tech team, exit strategies, ethical use of data, finding money, and making sure that when you’re designing software you’re putting people first.

This is episode 4 of the Tech Matters Podcast. What happened in the first three episodes and how does this connect to the overall goals of our podcast?

We featured Mike Sani of Play Verto, Dr. Ana Pantelic of the LISTA initiative, and Dr. Nithya Ramanathan of Nexleaf Analytics. Now they’re each working in different fields and different parts of the world, but as social entrepreneurs they brought forth a lot of common themes. They talked about good practices in doing technology for good, like using Agile and Lean, and Human Centered Design, things that we’ll be learning more about, but the idea is that you don’t sit down and think about what people should want or need; you actually develop a prototype and find out does it actually solve their problem, do they actually use it. And that is so different from the traditional way of working in the nonprofit sector where often someone in another country decides what this community needs. It’s very familiar to social entrepreneurs that we’re doing digital change in partnership with the communities that we serve instead of doing technology “to” them.

We also talked a lot about uses of data for social good. Data is such an important element for modern society. And we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of using data for social impact. Each of these great social entrepreneurs talked about how they use data to actually accomplish a social goal.

And then we heard a lot about why all this matters. Why are people doing this? Why are people deliberately not making as much money as they could with their education and their experiences; why are they focusing on doing social impact?

You know, becoming a social entrepreneur is about overcoming doubts of other people. It’s true about being a regular entrepreneur as well, and I’ve been a regular entrepreneur so I know this: people think that you’re going to fail.

I spent my first 10 years thinking that I was the only weirdo in Silicon Valley not trying to become a billionaire, in spite of the many people—who definitely did think I was a weirdo—for running a deliberately nonprofit company. It took me 10 years to find out that what I was doing was called social entrepreneurship and that I had the label of social entrepreneur. And when I first met other social entrepreneurs, it was mind blowing. Those peers were the people I learned so much from.

And that’s why sharing the experience of what it’s like to be a social entrepreneur, I think—it’s so important—it’s what really solidified me on my path. Ten years in when I started meeting other social entrepreneurs and learning from their experiences, and going, “Oh, that explains why I completely failed at that thing. Someone’s already figured out why this doesn’t work. And now I won’t make that mistake again and I’ll know why.”

So what is it about each of our guests where they overcame basically the belief of other people that they were not going to succeed? And quite frankly, each of them is working in an area where–I think of them as working in areas that are kind of fad-like, and I don’t expect them to work. Matter of fact, I claim that most of these areas are bad ideas and they fail 95% of the time. But I picked these three social entrepreneurs because they exemplify the 5% of the time that these ideas actually work—sometimes even less. They have actually figured how this technology, which has some bad characteristics, really has value when it is smartly applied (it just isn’t usually smartly applied).

So, what were those elements? Mike Sani worked on gamification, something that, you know—I often giggle when I hear someone say “We’re gonna use gamification to solve this problem.” But Mike actually did. He’s a younger social entrepreneur, someone who knows how dating apps actually work, with swipe left and swipe right, and he applied it to voter registration. And he made it work. And on a shoestring budget, he reached a couple million young people and got them to register to vote.

Ana Pantelic—she worked on apps. And again, often apps are not the solution to the problem that you have in the social sector. But she went out there with a very specific goal of reaching low income women and helping them learn about finance. And it turned out that apps, on tablets, actually were a solution that worked. She actually used these modern approaches of Human Centered Design and listening to the community to actually build an app that survived the vaunted, you know, randomized control trial, and showed that it actually had lasting social impact.

And lastly, Nithya worked on data collection in the Internet of Things, basically putting measurement and data network capabilities into objects to measure things. Now, IoT, Internet of Things: very [much a] fad, very popular. But Nithya actually honed in on the place where it would have a huge human impact. And that was not just tracking how vaccines were kept cold during the transportation process to get to the clinic—to get to the place where it was going to go: into the arms of young children or teenagers or adults that desperately needed these vaccines. She actually realized that tracking how the vaccine refrigerators in the clinics—at the point of service delivery—why that was critical; and how, in partnership with the people who operate those clinics, how to actually make that work in a way that better delivered healthcare without being punitive. Without the data being used against the people on the frontlines of social change.

Because these three social entrepreneurs, really, really wanted to make a difference, I think they succeeded where many other people would have failed. And since it’s the nonprofit sector we’re talking about, it takes some extra work to figure out which projects actually succeeded in real life rather than just succeeded in the donor reports.

Now, social entrepreneurship has been reasonably well covered by academics. But most Tech for Good content is connected to the for-profits, that need to sell something. I’ve been there, and I respect the for-profit sector. But I am most excited about doing technology when the market fails, when the need is great, when the people that we’re serving are most in need of technology and often least able to afford it.

By hearing from the nonprofit leaders who are using tech, using software and data to deliver innovation at scale, I hope to expose a whole new community of Tech for Good people on how to make tech-enabled systems change, because I can’t imagine any project succeeding in the 2020s and beyond, reaching thousands of organizations or millions of people, without the smart use of tech.

And of course, underlying the Tech Matters Podcast, is systems change: how we can actually change the lives of tens or hundreds of millions of people, or reach thousands upon thousands of organizations who reach those tens or hundreds of millions of people. That’s where technology actually makes an impact and will actually help move the needle on the major social challenges that the world is facing. So underneath all the things that we’re talking about are these consensus objectives of how to advance society. And society actually has an agreed upon set of goals: in 2015, we came up with the Sustainable Development Goals, which were a highly detailed list of all the things we’re going to accomplish in terms of advancing social objectives in every single major area of social innovation, social endeavor, whether that was education, or poverty alleviation, or climate change, or empowering women. All these different things, we have a set of goals.

And, I think as many people are aware, we’re not doing that well against the goals. Matter of fact, before the pandemic came out, I think it was projected that we were going to reach those goals sometime in the 2080s. And latest on this, post-pandemic, is that that’s now been pushed off at least 10 more years, another decade into the 2090s.

So, we have a lot to do. And I think it’s so clear that technology alone can’t do it, but you just can’t change the lives of tens of millions of people in a positive way without using data more smartly, without using technology to actually put tools in the hands of people to solve their own problems rather than solving them for them.

These are the kinds of examples that we’re going to be talking about. And we’re going to be always thinking about scale. You know, they just might be one minor step, but you have scale in mind from the start. And that’s why the next episode, episode 5, is going to be with Sanjay Purohit of Societal Platform because, among the tech social entrepreneurs, this is the group that I look up to—because they think about scale from the start. And Sanjay is going to talk about how they got a project going from inception to 100 million kids being affected in a positive way, I think it was three years. And that’s the kind of ambition that I think we need to see from the nonprofit sector rather than chipping away at these kinds of issues. And I have more great leaders in mind for the rest of the season, and for season 2, and look forward to sharing those with you.

I’m excited about the start that we’ve made with the Tech Matters Podcast, but, honoring these best practices that we talk about, we need to get better! And so I hope to get a lot more constructive feedback about this new podcast about how to improve it over the rest of the season and future seasons.

And, of course, the reason that we’re doing this is because human society needs to get a lot better at solving our big problems. Technology alone can’t solve any of these problems, but I believe it will be a critical part of solving them, and I think that we need to use technology in smart ways to tackle the problems that are especially resistant to being solved by the market system or, frankly, are caused by the market system.

I hope you’ll come along for more of the Tech Matters Podcast as we bring you more of the world’s great technology for social impact leaders. Thanks so much for joining us.

This podcast is funded by the generous donors of Tech Matters, especially Okta for Good. Thanks and see you next time!



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