In addition to being a Skoll Scholar and MBA Student, Kjerstin Erickson is the Founder and Executive Director of FORGE, an international NGO that provides education, skills training, and entrepreneurial resources to more than 70,000 refugees in war-torn Africa.
Ahh, the age-old entrepreneurial debate: how can an enterprise transition from startup to scale without losing its zeal, passion, and sense of purpose? And what role do founders play in helping or hurting these transitions?
In the session Founder’s Challenge: To Scale and Keep the Vision Alive, Skoll Centre Director Pamela Hartigan conducted a conversation with Wendy Kopp of Teach for America, Cheryl Dorsey of Echoing Green, Andrea Coleman of Riders for Health, and Subramaniam Ramadorai of National Skill Development Agency
While the panel was balanced between founding and non-founding social entrepreneurs, the overarching tone was decidedly pro-founder. Wendy Kopp pointed to research showing that founder-led company outperformed the rest of the market. Cheryl Dorsey reminded the crowd to “never discount the power of heros and legends.” And Andrea Coleman noted that the celebrity status of founders can be extremely helpful in attracting attention, resources, and talent.
Of course, there are risks that organizations can become overly founder-centric or reliant. Subramaniam Ramadorai pointed out that “institutions are bigger than any one individual,” noting that it is critical that organizations be prepared for founder transitions at any point in time. Andrea Coleman discussed the need for founders to find their appropriate complementors and collaborators, noting that “founders are really good at something, but not at everything Wendy Kopp pointed out that “there are different kinds of founders,” and went on to discuss how she believes much of her success as a founder was due to a focus on finding and empowering great talent to innovate within the organization. In an interesting tangent, Wendy also discussed how her 25-year history as a public figure and fundraiser may actually be hindering her in building Teach for All. Because “after 25 years you owe a lot of people a lot of stuff,” she has to hope that “the organization doesn’t fall apart while I go out and give this speech.”
The part of the discussion that stood out the most for me was Wendy Kopp’s description of her primary role at Teach for America, which she describes as “25 years of pushing a boulder up a hill to try to get people to understand our theory of change.” For Wendy, keeping TFA focused on their theory of change and empowered to make decisions which reflect it has provided a sense of strategic clarity that guided them through many tough years. As a social entrepreneur myself, I resonate deeply with the vision of a founder forging a stake into the ground then using it as the beacon for untold challenges ahead. I left the session feeling even more inspired by the humility and strength of will it takes founders to successfully scale an organization while keeping its values intact.