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Mar. 24, 2016 2:34 pm

4 things to consider when launching a social enterprise

Faith Wallace-Gadsden cofounds social enterprises that deliver clean drinking water to developing countries. Here's what she's learned.

An Archimedes Project Ideation Lab at Tufts University.

(Photo by Matthew Modoono for Tufts University)

When Haiti experienced its first cholera outbreak just under a year after the devastating 2010 earthquake, Faith Wallace-Gadsden was quick to board a plane to the island.

Wallace-Gadsden, a Bryn Mawr College alumna, was finishing her Ph.D in molecular microbiology at Tufts University in Massachusetts at the time. This was the first recorded cholera outbreak recorded in Haiti, and she wanted to be there to study it.

What she found was a breakdown in distribution — the island was brimming with international aide organizations, all of which were pumping the island full of the chlorine tablets needed to cleanse the water. Yet, cholera was still spreading.

At the same time, other goods were still making their way around the island — school supplies, packaged foods, beer. She had an idea: Why not get clean water and chlorine tablets around the island by taking advantage of those distribution systems that were already in place?

“What I did was I started looking at how to design enterprises and how to bring smart ideas from outside the international development community into this question of distributing low cost products dealing with water and sanitation,” Wallace-Gadsden said. “Could you bring in someone who’s a marketing expert with someone who understands behavioral economics with someone who understands logistics?”

So, Wallace-Gadsden launched the Archimedes Project, a technical cofounder that hosts Ideation Labs — an accelerator of sorts for one social enterprise at a time (rather than cohorts, like the Good Company model) working on market-based solutions.

So far, Archimedes has pumped out one enterprise — Kouzin Dlo, which employs women in Haiti to sell chlorine tablets to their communities.

“This is what the Archimedes Project is all about,” Wallace-Gadsden said. “Finding these tactical, actionable things that people are doing wrong and other people are doing right, bringing them together and figuring out what to do next about it.”

Here’s what Wallace-Gadsden’s learned:

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1. Deliver a product or service people actually want. “Figure out what people want, then figure out what you’re going to use to deliver what they want to them,” she said. Anything else is like trying to fit a round peg in a square hole.

2. Incorporate lessons from previous efforts in and outside your market. “Figure out what people have done that didn’t work,” she said. “That’s just as important as figuring out what did work.”

3. Build on partnerships with local organizations. “You don’t want to make any enemies, which I’ve found is shockingly easy to do,” Wallace-Gadsden said. “Partners will know the system and can help you understand what you don’t know and where your service might fit.”

4. Rely on proven technology. Make it low-cost, low-energy and easy to repair. Wallace-Gadsden said this is a common mistake made by social enterprises trying to introduce new water technology to areas without the means to maintain them.

Archimedes also hosts mini-Ideation Labs at Universities across the country, hosted by college students themselves. The programs are three days long and styled like a tech hackathon, with teams coming up with business plans for social enterprises by the third day.

“I would love for there to be one in Philly,” said Wallace-Gadsden, who now splits her time between New York, Boston and Europe. “Students independently run the labs. We give them information, advice and guidance.”

Looking at you, Philadelphia universities.

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