Social Entrepreneurism in Career Navigation
Members of the JFFLabs cohort of entrepreneurs share thoughts about the high points and challenges of driving social impact, while building businesses that thrive.
Social entrepreneurship—building a business that does good for the world while succeeding in the marketplace—is uniquely rewarding and uniquely challenging work.
Leaders who launch social enterprises not only need to have a strong grasp of business fundamentals; they also need deep connections to their missions and the people they hope to serve. And those connections must be strong enough to not only win customers, but also attract co-creative partners and funders.
We spoke with members of the JFFLabs cohort of entrepreneurs who specialize in career navigation—part of an initiative supported by Cognizant Foundation—to find out what social entrepreneurship means to them. Their insights help shed light on the opportunities and challenges the social entrepreneurship model presents to would-be founders of similar ventures—especially those who are members of, or aim to serve, populations that have faced systemic barriers to career and economic advancement. And they’re inspiring us to continue to seek out ways to support them and other like-minded business founders, share resources, and build stronger partnerships to make the future of work and learning work better for all of us.
Social Entrepreneurism Means Optimistically Embracing an Ambitious Mission
Manny Smith, founder of EdVisorly, a student recruiting platform designed to help community college students successfully connect with and transfer to four-year universities, describes his company’s goal as “bringing postsecondary education into the realm of the possible for all individuals.” And all of the entrepreneurs in this cohort share that spirit of aspiration and optimism about bringing things “into the realm of the possible.” They aim to help the people in the populations they serve explore new and exciting opportunities for their futures.
For example, Dion Walcott, founder and CEO of Martk’d, a platform and creative agency that provides creative professionals with access to education, and Shaon Berry, founder of Metro Esports, an e-sports and production platform, have each embraced strategies that involve connecting with people through their passions. At Martk’d, Walcott uses sneaker art as an engagement tool to build community and empower youth. And at Metro Esports, Berry partners with schools and community organizations to offer coding workshops and other tech-related training to young gaming enthusiasts.
At the Formerly Incarcerated College Graduates Network (FICGN), Terrell Blount has a hopeful and ambitious vision: “a society in which formerly incarcerated people of all races, genders, sexual orientations, and offense types pursue their dreams as educated and empowered citizens.” Meanwhile Kristina Williams, founder of Unpacking, has a goal of building workplaces where members of the FICGN—and anyone else—would feel a sense of belonging. Unpacking’s mission is to use gamified learning activities and other resources to empower individuals to use their voice and unique expertise to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion and create healthy workplace cultures.
At CNA Simulations, Founder and CEO Charlene Brown is reimagining how frontline health care workers learn important skills. She put together a team of experts to build a library of simulated lessons in clinical care, and the first is a training platform for certified nursing assistant (CNA) education that helps CNAs build the confidence and skills they need to provide high-quality care to older adults.
As a working parent, Afua Branoah “B.B.” Banful experienced a challenge familiar to many caregivers: having to drop everything to manage her kids’ online activities. She believed there had to be a better way for families to tap the benefits that the web and other digital resources have to offer, so she founded Aneta, which offers a “digital wayfinder” that parents can use to create journeys across websites and apps that children can follow independently. Aneta helps children develop a love for learning that will carry them through educational journeys across their lifetimes.
Meet the Entrepreneurs: JFFLabs Lifts Up the Innovators at the Heart of Career Navigation
These entrepreneurs are emphasizing social impact as they grow, starting with the end users they serve and spanning not just their customer and partner relationships, but also the broader education and workforce ecosystems in which they operate. Here are four key ways they’re doing that:
- Helping learners see pathways into careers that they might not have known about otherwise. Walcott said he envisions Martk’d serving “huge segments of our population that don’t know that certain jobs exist—helping [students] understand that education and a career can be a possibility for them.” Similarly, Berry said Metro Esports “leverages the vast reach of gaming” to spread the word about career options and make the prospect of economic advancement a reality for large groups of people who “need exposure and are just waiting for the opportunity.”
- Helping their partners better understand what’s possible when startups emphasize purpose and mission. In interviews with JFF, cohort members said believing in their mission and their vision gave them the confidence to take on the risk of launching their organizations. And they want their partners to embrace that belief in their mission. When they engage investors, they help them understand that it’s essential to address the root causes of inequities—and that it’s possible to do so successfully.
For his part, Smith said investors who aren’t familiar with community colleges sometimes respond to his pitches by telling him “I’ll believe it when I see it,” but what that really means is “if I don’t believe it, I won’t see it.”
All of the entrepreneurs said that they’re committed to inspiring others to believe. And one of the keys to doing that is to get them to recognize the power of individual contributions—that everyone can make a difference, and that a successful broad-based initiative can begin with just one company having the courage to take the first step.
- Reaching far beyond “vendor” relationships to collaborate on solutions with partners and customers. Walcott said Martk’d seeks “partners who have vision” and don’t just “want to throw money at the problem and expect you to magically solve it.” Each cohort member also emphasized the importance of allyship and said it’s critical to find partners who want to collaborate as co-creators and innovators—so you can move forward into the future together.
- Recognizing that policy and systems transformation are critical. Sometimes well-intended public policies that sound good on paper don’t yield the anticipated outcomes when they’re applied in the real world. In those cases, the entrepreneurs told us, we must have the courage to change things. This “requires genuine reflection with full hearts and clear eyes, deliberately proceeding with integrity, not driven by ego but with the intention of making the United States a truly better place,” Smith said.
The work of social entrepreneurship is not without its challenges. But working to overcome challenges can create opportunities, and the entrepreneurs highlighted three key areas of opportunity they’ve encountered:
- Ensuring that a diverse range of voices and perspectives are represented in—and driving—investment decisions. Smith explained that Black founders face extreme challenges in raising venture capital (it’s estimated that they receive just 1 percent of funding allocated by VC investors), which clearly makes it difficult to build a successful company—especially one that aspires to serve people who are members of populations that may not be fully represented in the venture ecosystem. Therefore, “we have to take effective action to diversify the perspective of voices at the table who are making the investment decisions,” he said. “If the U.S. investment market never invests in the people who truly own the perspective of their communities, it will always miss opportunities to solve systemic pain points among these communities [and miss opening] doors to solutions that drive systemic transformation.”
- Recognizing the tremendous business and social impact potential in populations that have been long overlooked by leaders of systems, institutions, and industries. Berry said apathy about the possibility of addressing inequities in U.S. society is common in the tech sector—and that’s a missed opportunity because 54 percent of all Black Americans have lived their entire lives in the digital age. And he added that companies in his own segment of the market, gaming, are clearly missing out on opportunities because they haven't invested in communities of color even though Black and Latinx youth spend more time playing video games than their white peers.
Brown, who’s a physician as well as an entrepreneur, said that one of the reasons she founded CNA Simulations was because learning tools that use clinical simulations are common in advanced training programs for nurses and doctors, but typically hadn’t been used in courses for nursing assistants and others on the front lines of healthcare. One of her goals at CNA Simulations is to “democratize access to advanced learning tools” and make them available to more diverse populations of learners.
- Investing in opportunities for social entrepreneurs to network, build social capital, and learn from one another. Berry said it’s essential for organizations that have a vested interest in diversity and equity to support initiatives that help social entrepreneurs build professional networks. “It’s the only way Black and Brown founders are going to be able to meet and connect with each other,” he said. “We don’t have hundreds of years of networking history, so this is really the only way to continue to build and grow and leverage each other’s experiences and expertise.”
He described the benefits of the collective energy that builds when entrepreneurs form relationships with “individuals fighting the same battle” and have the opportunity to “hear their stories and learn from their success and also their mistakes.” He added that networking has helped him “make smarter decisions about our business, our growth, our direction.”
Manny Smith, Founder and CEO, EdVisorly
If the U.S. investment market never invests in the people who truly own the perspective of their communities, it will always miss opportunities to solve systemic pain points among these communities [and miss opening] doors to solutions that drive systemic transformation.
Community Is Crucial to Success
The cohort experience is clearly helping to address some of these challenges.
“We can’t be what we can’t see,” Smith said, “and the JFF Career Navigation Accelerator is providing an incredible opportunity for me to build perspective among a safe group of motivated entrepreneurs with mentorship that allows me to focus on how to best build EdVisorly.” Banful also expressed her appreciation for the network of peers the Accelerator has brought together, saying her fellow social entrepreneurs provided “examples that it is possible to do well while doing good.” And for her part, Brown reports notes that she has “grown immensely through the peer-to-peer learning, individual mentoring” as a member of the cohort.
And finally, Williams noted that being a member of the cohort has helped her keep things in perspective and focus on her mission, not just the bottom line. The “opportunities to amplify our work as social entrepreneurs are invaluable because this work does not always get the recognition it deserves in a venture space which often prioritizes profit over people,” she said. “Validation of the seriousness and potential of our ventures is often underestimated and requires an extra layer of grit to scale success.”
Based on the experiences of the entrepreneurs in our Career Navigation Accelerator program, we’re seeing that developing a social enterprise is a skill unto itself, and that community—and the opportunities that come with being part of a community—is crucial to success.