Archive for the ‘business’ Category

Entrepreneurs in Appalachia

Darden offers a very cool second year course called “Markets in Human Hope,” where students “build on such innovations that use business and markets as viable tools in transforming societies.” http://faculty.darden.virginia.edu/warnockf/mhh.htm

The premise is that capitalism is more sustainable than donation and that empowerment of humans through creation of markets and businesses will lead to outcomes that can significantly improve and change their lives. Microfinancing in India is an example of that line of thought. It’s a year-long class and the goal is to actually create something; not just study, but to build something sustainable that can be passed to the next year’s class for continuation.

I’ve always been interested in Appalachia (ever since a service trip there in high school) and would like to focus on a county in western Virginia. While huge improvements have been made in health and education infrastructure, there are still several counties in which education remains a challenge and high school remains a ceiling for many students.  During one of the several conversations I’ve recently had with people experienced in the area, the idea of enabling student entrepreneurs came up. Providing small loans to entrepreneurial-minded students would enable job creation (hopefully different from the low-paying, high-turnover jobs that many people depend on) and build local markets. It’s an interesting idea and one I’d like to explore.

If you have any experience with micro-financing / entrepreneurial lending / Appalachia, let me know – I’d love to hear about your experiences.

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How will Darden help me at NewsGator?

So here I am in Colorado! Excited to be here…and to drum up a little jealousy, this is view from deck of the Boulder apartment I’ll be living at (thank you to my lovely [soon to be] in-laws!!).

I start my summer internship at NewsGator tomorrow – as I’ve mentioned a few times, NewsGator is a cool Denver company that creates social computing and collaboration solutions for businesses. Think of it like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr etc….for your company. Information can include user feeds (like twitter updates), collaborative docs, news stories, etc.

Note: I may be waaaaay off on my understanding of some things, which I’m sure they’ll tell me pretty quickly when I get there 🙂

What’s going to be most interesting is how I apply what I learned in my first year to the real world. B-school’s been great; I love my classes, professors, colleagues and friends. And I’ve learned a ton. But I’m intrigued to see how I actually apply any of it. The Darden case-study method hopefully gives a leg up over some MBA programs in ‘application’ of MBA concepts, but we’ll see. I’m excited look back at the end of the summer and see what I’ve used from different classes- marketing, operations, decision analysis (stats), finance, etc. If I have to build complex statistical models, I assure you my professors will be getting some heavy email traffic….

At the end of the summer I’ll post what I used, but I will definitely be depending on two truly valuable skills that Darden taught me- skills that are valuable no matter what the job:

  • Ask questions: Darden teaches you to question your own answers as well as others’ answers. If there’s one thing the case study method forces, it’s how to challenge a thought and drive down deeper until you understand (as well as how to respond to someone else’s challenge of you!). I truly believe that questioning is a learned skill and one that requires practice and dedication. We’re all reactive to what we hear and see; it takes practice to hold your own opinion up to the test when your gut reaction says “this way”.
  • Look at it from different perspectives: It’s funny how much of an expensive education comes down to the kindergarten maxim of “walking in someone else’s shoes,” but it’s a valuable perspective and one that was drilled into us in multiple courses. Looking at a decision or problem from multiple angles often sheds light on an issue- and surfaces assumptions that would otherwise go unnoticed. If you’re a finance whiz, try looking at a problem from an HR perspective. If you’re down in the weeds, try looking at it from a 50,000 ft view instead. Every person in every position makes assumptions; failure to step out of your perspective means greater risk of not identifying the possibly dangerous assumptions you’ve made.

So wish me luck! I’m looking forward to a great and amazing summer.



Rice Husk Power in India: Guest Blogger Samir Shah

Samir Shah, a classmate at Darden, guest blogs today on a visit our class had from Chip Ransler, co-founder of Husk Power Systems, which delivers power to over 50,000 rural Indians in a financially sustainable, scalable, environmentally friendly, and profitable manner. Samir’s post below:

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What stinks?

Look around your immediate location.  Take a second to analyze what’s there, the purposes those things serve, and how they could be made better.  It might be a small issue like the ergonomics of your computer mouse, or something more significant, like the difficulty of keeping documents organized (As you might have guessed, I am looking around my own desk right now).  Take another second to think about how you would fix it, and what you would need to accomplish that fix.

So what stinks?  And how can you make it less stinky?  Chip Ransler, co – founder of Husk Power Systems recently discussed this idea with our Entrepreneurial Thinking class.  He felt that ‘what stunk’ was the fact that 350 million individuals in rural India lived lacking reliable electrical power.  What stunk even more is that these individuals could not be part of the economic revolution currently revitalizing and invigorating much of the country.  Rice, a large agricultural product, produces a waste product, rice husks, which were also being wasted.  That stunk too.

Now what do you do?  You found something that stinks, something that needs a solution.  Ransler and his partners found a way, through technology and the free market, to develop a power system that used rice husks to generate electricity for villages in rural India.  Facing obstacles like working with clients who are not easy to reach, ‘not in tune’ with paying for electricity (read: they usually steal it), a 40% payment default rate, and a corrupt government, Husk Power has grown to reach these rural Indians and provide power solutions to more and more people.

It has been largely successful, and the exact details of their growth story are made clearer on the company website. The story of Husk Power Systems is inspiring and compelling, and Ransler brought forth some key ideas in developing solutions for problems that stink.  So what ideas are relevant for aspiring entrepreneurs and creative thinkers?

  1. Get it done.  Put your feet to the fire and get your idea out there.  You need to have passion that borders on insanity and be willing to go to the mat for your idea and vision.  Be ready to sacrifice (Ransler, along with his partners, lived in rural India for months at a time to get the system running properly), adapt, and give up what is secure.  Finally, talk to people.  Then, talk to more people. After you finish talking to everyone, find some more people to talk to.  Communicate your idea so that you can find a way to put things together.
  2. Know your customer and frame your idea properly.  Husk Power wasn’t giving away electricity, but selling power units to a market that had a demand for energy.  They tailored their product to their market, and made sure it was a sustainable way to earn revenue, grow, and maintain the initial objective of fixing what stinks.
  3. Ransler talked about the concept of second and third right answers.  I probably need more time to digest this idea, but he noted that while developing a power solution was the first right answer, subsequent right answers came from adapting ideas to develop the target market – for HusK Power, this included selling smaller amounts of power, and having customers prepay for power, bringing the default rate from 40% to 0%.  These second and third right answers have helped Husk Power develop and grow, reaching more people in an ever expanding market, which has in turn helped them develop their technology and infrastructure and continue the cycle upward.

Ransler didn’t talk much about the effect of injecting this power system on rural Indians.  I can only imagine how the company has allowed thousands of people to expand their productivity.  He did give us one quote from a local resident, who noted that “We gained independence from England 60 years ago, but it feels like we just gained our independence today”.  I have to admit, this quote choked me up just a little bit – the image of rural Indians being empowered was an inflection point in the presentation being made – things didn’t stink as much for these folks anymore.

Having visited India, and having family who grew up in lower class areas of the country, I can empathize with this quote, and it made me stop thinking about the story of entrepreneurship and start thinking about the power of the free market to fix what stinks.  In what some might call the heart of human poverty, an idea and product have been developed to promote social good and economic development.

So what stinks?  What can you do to fix it?

Samir Shah

Why Facebook/Twitter/LinkedIn Aren’t Enough….

I woke up this morning thinking about how many online networking sites I use (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter) and a new one I just joined (Gravity – thanks Adam!). Gravity is very different- the network is based on conversations and interests, not friends. You choose topic areas and conversations that you find interesting, and then follow and participate in those. This prevents users from simply repeating the formula on other websites, finding the same friends all over again, and then following them on a new website. After all, the baby pictures they have on Facebook are the same as the ones they have on MySpace…

What traditional networking sites (Facebook, etc.) provide is the ability to quickly scan the life of your friends as you choose. I’m not knocking them- I use them all! But it allows you to quickly keep in touch with minimal work, to stay updated, and to update in return. You can take that networking a step further and write more in-depth notes or make plans, but for the most part, you are simply presenting your life to those friends on your page, and scanning the life they present to you on theirs. It is a means of linking you with friends you already have- while you sometimes move a few layers past people you know personally or well, this form of networking doesn’t truly expand your influence. While Gravity is different in that it introduces you to a new group of friends, the lack of a true “profile” on the page prevents these new contacts (at least as far as I can see) from becoming more than conversation partners.

I began wondering how, in this environment, I could understand my current network, evaluate its flaws, and grow it to something more meaningful? In other words, how could I grow my online network to provide the same substantial impact that I expect from my personal and professional network? LinkedIn has this goal, but seemingly fails to deliver real visibility into the circles of influence that are your network- and that visibility is key to changing an online network to a network as powerful as an in-person one.

So this is what I thought of- a combination of two very different technologies:

  1. The yet to be popularized social network aggregator (such as FriendFeed)
  2. A network visualization and analysis software (like NetMiner)

By taking the same API that a network aggregator uses, you can build an updated feeds and friend database, probably sending it directly to a desktop program rather than another website. That program uses a technology similar to a network visualization model like NetMiner, allowing you to run a visualization and analysis program of who you are friends with, who you are talking to, and how much repetition there is in your network, instead of new growth.

Imagine being able to look at your network with a critical eye and see how much your communication depends on the same sphere of friends. That’s where you can begin a secondary network analysis of the hobbies, traits, etc that your group of friends likes, and either find out that you tend to like people that like “x” (which can sometimes come as a surprise) or you can identify some of the gaps in your network (oh, look, I don’t have a single friend that’s not an “associate” somewhere- maybe I need to start some mentoring outreach).

I understand that not everyone uses online social websites to network or to maintain an image- sometimes it’s just for fun. But it can be so much more- and with the increasing amount of time we as a nation spend online, on these sites, the greater is our need to use these sites to replicate certain in-person interactions. As with any growth, the first step is sometimes simply self-reflection, which a tool like this would provide. Thoughts?

Find 30mins and watch this now. Do it.

If you have time to do one thing for yourself tonight, watch “Lemonade.”

It’s only 30 mins long, but it is so pertinent, so on-target right now, and so right for this moment, that I think everyone could take something away from it. Maybe you’ve heard of it- I just did today (via Seth Godin’s Blog), but don’t wait to watch it.

The tag-line is “It’s not a pink slip; it’s a blank page.” A 37-year old copywriter got laid off from a large ad agency and started a blog for other unemployed ad professionals. After it launched, they created this promotional video for the blog featuring the faces and stories of other laid-off execs. I’ll admit some of the “lemon” visuals up front are a little tedious and bang-me-over-the-head-with-your-subtlety, but give it 10 minutes to really get going- once you get to the stories, to the real people opening and sharing stories about their lay-offs, it is absolutely spellbinding.

The stories told by those who were laid off are very moving and at times profound, because each of them was able to discover something they had lost- and they only discovered it by being laid off. Cliched or not, failure is a fear- a limiting fear. Jerry Colonna writes a cool blog called “The Monster in Your Head” – he had a nice post about those fears. When they were laid off, each of these people were able to discover something they had lost because their fear; their fear of mortgage payments, their fear of ridicule; their fear of failure. This movie is so good because each of these people, when faced with that fear, found the way to something they love.

Obviously a lot of this is easy to say because I’m 28 – I don’t have a  mortgage (yet :)). But I’m not saying people should quit their jobs and start a company, “bills be dammed!” I just happen to agree with what one of the speakers said in the movie about finding more time and more ways to integrate the things you love to do into your life. And if you can monetize that and make a living doing it….well, all the more power to you.

It’s amazing to think that, out of the 29MM or so businesses in the US, 21MM of those were self-motivated and without employees-like those in the film. That’s pretty incredible.