Executing Entrepreneurship: The Operational Side of Social Impact

Guest Blog

There is one quote that I heard during my fellowship experience that best embodies what I learned about the operational side of social entrepreneurship. While in a meeting with Keith (Warner, Miller Center’s Chief Learning Officer), he said the following: “If you only have a team full of dreamers, then all you have is dreams.” His words changed my entire perspective on social entrepreneurship. Prior to this fellowship, I would have described myself as a dreamer, a big picture thinker, a visionary. I may still be that, but, as of right now, my goal is to be more than the dreamer — to be the support system of the dreamer. Most importantly, I want to be the sun that wakes the dreamer up in the morning and transitions them into reality. During my time at Cycle Connect, I saw the operational side of making an impact. I came face-to-face with the reality that you cannot dream increases in income and sustainable livelihoods into existence just as you cannot dream away poverty. Making an impact requires actions beyond just brainstorming and ideas.

My first interaction with the operational side of impact was when I spent the spring quarter looking into the business models and impact models of various social enterprises. Seeing all of the different audiences, expenses, and sources of income showed me that a social enterprise is just as much of a business as a retail store. An enterprise’s operations and outcomes might look different, but most of the systems thinking remains the same. Just as there are a lot of steps to get from waking up in the morning to eating breakfast (e.g., getting out of bed, showering, brushing your teeth, preparing the meal, etc.), there are a lot of steps — in fact, countless more — to go from an enterprise to impact.

My next glimpse into the operational side of Cycle Connect was through my meetings with Molly Burke. Molly and I set up biweekly meetings to discuss the status of the deliverables, but these conversations also introduced me to the mindset of an entrepreneur. Molly introduced to me the idea that sometimes things have to be “good enough” when running an enterprise. Operations will not always run smoothly, but bumps in the road cannot derail an enterprise from its mission. Molly told me that Cycle Connect was looking to make some changes to their current training dissemination practice and asked for my thoughts on the matter. I offered my thoughts and was met with an additional series of questions and explanations of why some of my ideas would not work.

She then recommended that I speak with Fred, one of Cycle Connect’s regional managers in charge of a lot of the day-to-day activities. Fred and I discussed the changes to training dissemination and he offered me a variety of alternatives to the idea that I originally had proposed. Fred’s discussed the cost of implementation, the reputation of Cycle Connect, the happiness of the clients, and marketing. It was a simple suggestion: to provide t-shirts to incentivize clients. One simple suggestion was a 20-minute conversation about all of the different points of execution and potential barriers. I was fascinated by how meticulous his thought process was. Fred showed me that even the simplest of actions requires a team of people to research, plan, and execute. Giving out a t-shirt might not seem to have anything to do with increasing farmers’ income, but when looked at as a tool for incentivizing repayment and client engagement in training, the t-shirt’s value increases tremendously. Being able to see how individual actions on an organizational level have consequences that touch many different audiences led me to consider a career in operations management.

My vocational calling is still uncertain, but I feel closer to finding out what it is that I want to do after this fellowship experience. In my time working on the bicycle training workbook, I met with nine different Cycle Connect employees. Each employee offered me advice from a different perspective, yet the overall message remained the same. A successful social enterprise is a well-oiled machine that understands its mission and its values. Their ability to scale, however, is dependent on how successful their operations are. After feeling as if my input was valued in regard to an operational change within Cycle Connect, I am looking forward to exploring more opportunities that allow me to operationalize impact.

By Ben Grundy, GSBF 2020
Read all of Ben and Katie’s Action Research with Cycle Connect on their student portfolio page