Foundational Capital: #SOCAP16
[DISCLAIMER: this post is in no way associated w/ the VC firm Foundational Capital.]
My first SOCAP was illuminating to say the least, and not just because I was excited to see what the world of Impact [Investing] was all about, but also because I got to hear firsthand what young companies in countries with little to no venture capital do to get off the ground. What do they do? What they have to. It turns out a big piece of that equation is working with private foundations and government entities, and so perhaps appropriately, I was keenly interested when the World’s second largest Telco invited me to their startup pitch session. The Vodafone Foundation is the umbrella org for some 27 separate sub-foundations in each of the countries in which Vodafone operates. A piece of the logic for this structure may be for tax purposes, but the key motivator for this separate framework stems from the varying social priorities of a given nation (or perception thereof). As you might imagine, the issues, challenges, and even mobile solutions inherently viable in Hungary, may or may not be the same in Ghana, and so on. Nonetheless, the overarching theme amongst all the Foundations’ work is ‘Connecting for Good’, and Vodafone supports these efforts to answer a very fundamental question for our Time: How can connectivity drive positive change and improve people’s lives?
“What do they do? What they have to.”
Specifically, the Vodafone Americas Foundation organized the startup pitch session at SOCAP. Not completely sure why it’s named AmericaS however, it is actually referring to the single America (as in the United States); but nonetheless, given the SF Area in CA in the US is a harbor for many of the new mobile communication technologies and applications eventually deployed globally, perhaps implying the entire Western Hemisphere does make sense. At any rate, it was very obvious that the reach of the US-based Vodafone Foundation is definitely global. This held true most notably in the companies that pitched, all of which were from either Africa or Europe.
It was great to see these passionate entrepreneurs, many of which are fighting far harder circumstances in their local economies and governance structures than in the U.S. I couldn’t help but laugh at the thought of your typical 20-something, genius-grade, #SiliconValley founder making the rounds on Sand Hill, then trying to go into the slums of Lagos and set up a business. More than likely, he or she would BE the business in less than 5 minutes, but that is exactly what CEO Phil Michaels and his team did to introduce the Tembo product to Nigeria. Tembo is the Uber of education for developing nations, matching pre-K parents and educators with the mission of extending invaluable knowledge and practices for humans 0-6 yrs-old. The company has been recognized by the Clinton Global Initiative, Forbes list of top social entrepreneurs, and if Michaels’ tenacity is any indicator, they’re not going to stop until the first 6 years of the World’s population is better suited to learning (be it cognitive, motor function, language, or emotional).
Peach Health is another startup operating in Nigeria that pitched at the SOCAP session. Why so much attention on this one nation you might ask? Because Nigeria has the World’s fastest growing mobile phone market and it’s 4th fastest growing population. These guys hail out of Boston, specifically MIT and its Global Founders accelerator, which now resides inside the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship. What is Peach Health’s mission? Oh nothing major mind you, just in many instances single-handedly incentivizing Electronic Medical Records (EMR) to facilitate impoverished patients in sub-Saharan Africa receiving the medical attention they need, and as a 5 person startup no less! It is via very tangible, and yes incorporated, organizations like Tembo and Peach Health that the Vodafone Foundations’ efforts come to fruition and take on the contextual meaning they deserve. Words like: ‘improve lives, strengthen development sector, spark innovation, empower females’ reside in literally thousands of mission statements and company values. A proven and respected track record in actually delivering on such goals? Far more rare.
“To make a difference by harnessing the power of technology in innovative ways such as developing and advancing wireless and mobile solutions to impact social change.”
That statement, while embedded with profound repercussions, provides a vague ‘what’ but doesn’t say anything about ‘how’. Such ‘objective heavy, tactically light’ assertions are something most of us have seen at least once in an organization. In the case of Vodafone however, their dedication and contributions are more than obvious when seen thru the lens of efforts like last week’s Mobile Fast Pitch session and also their Wireless Innovation Project, set up to award young companies using wireless-related technology to generate social benefit (1st-3rd prizes being $300K, $200K, $100K respectively).
Money and meaning…
In looking into this, I feel obligated to point something out. Don’t get me wrong, I commend Vodafone for their efforts. I would wager they are doing far more than most of their peers and I am grateful to have attended their SOCAP session. With that said, the combined annual revenues of Vodafone, Verizon, AT&T, Deutsche Telekom, Telefonica, and Orange is something on the order of half a Trillion dollars. Trillion with a T. That’s 500,000 million dollars. $500B is more than the total GDP of Sweden. It is literally globe-shifting amounts of cash. I do not believe throwing a few million here and a few million there is going to achieve the results the telco’s seek. If one doesn’t wish to be seen as dumb pipes (and that most certainly is NOT what telecoms are), and if one does want to be admired for service rather than resented for price, then significantly investing in a concerted effort to deliver more (and also earn more) is required. Now GRANTed I’m no esteemed central banker nor prized CEO nor a revered philosopher, but if a new-found fortune in the digital age arrives in the hands of the accounts of the company you lead, then what exactly arises as the logical obligation to invest back into Earth’s [tele]communication System(s)? Be it your network, the developers building apps on it, &/or the businesses built with ‘smart’, instantaneous, global communication at their core; I would also wager that upon deep analysis into the return on $1 spent in each of those categories (and a couple more), the financial viability and even advantages of such investments could be surprising.
After all, grants are still investments of a sort, and can be weighted just as much in terms of expectations in the future, as that of a generous gift in the present.
I hint of something at the ‘Gates Foundation’ equivalence, constructed to improve our future’s well-being via mobile communication technologies. Perhaps it could be that in the collective Carlos Slim’s of the World, both peace-stabilizing and profit-enhancing developments/platforms could be opened up in unison. And imagine that, delivered right to people’s phones no less. The first major hurdle we need clear is a reliable, globally-accepted means to send and receive currency even on ‘non-smart’ devices. Who knows, in a further effort to complement the high-level and sometimes fluffy language that accompanies such large scale and diverse work, perhaps a cohort of ‘Google.org/GV’-level corporate venturing groups could lend some light with new standardized valuation practices. After all, grants are still investments of a sort, and can be weighted just as much in terms of expectations in the future, as that of a generous gift in the present. Not convinced the Gates Foundation and Google [.org] Ventures are set to team up any time soon to deliver a better world via mobile tech? Ok, fair enough, maybe not. Well, rest assured the Vodafone Foundations are laying vital groundwork in is this world of a personally better, constantly-connected good. How is your [tech] company contributing?