De-Risking Social Entrepreneurship By Creating a Support Network

June 26, 2024
Bavidra Mohan
Director, Acumen

Insights from Bavidra Mohan, Director at Acumen, an impact organization combining the best qualities of philanthropy and business to spark transformational change and break the cycle of poverty.

Insights from Bavidra Mohan, Director at Acumen.

A space of real trust to practice with peers is critical for social entrepreneurs to develop leadership skills.

At Acumen, we create unique cohorts and community moments for our Fellows to not just learn leadership skills, but to practice them with peers. It’s an opportunity to push towards the edge of whatever that edge is for you.

We have this phrase in our community called the “one armed hug.” With one arm you're holding, and the other you're pushing. It’s a unique type of relationship and it illustrates what's required.

Too much holding is not actually going to get you where you want to go, because it's not going to push you to the place where you will learn. Nor is too much pushing, because you're going to fall off the edge.

You can't really expect that unique balance from everyone around you in the world, but you can from your Fellows. It is fellowship in the literal sense.

That is the kind of relationship that actually serves a founder. You and I can practice in a place that's safe. Then, I can go out into the world and do it again, not for the first time, when it's all on the table. I've come at it having sharpened the ax.

Trust is the rarest currency, so these accompanying relationships are not nice-to-have. They're actually critical.

Membership in these types of communities de-risk entrepreneurship. They de-risk it for the entrepreneur. They de-risk it for us as an investor or community holder.

All of our most successful organizations, the ones that have impacted hundreds of millions of lives, have had very deep, very long accompaniment from members of the community. Whether it’s from a business, leadership, and relational point of view, the community has supported them through the entire journey.

Entrepreneurs need the shortest path to solving problems, and peer connections are usually just that.

Another benefit of these spaces—for so many of these social entrepreneurs, the wisdom is in the room. Meaning: “I don't have the answer, but they definitely do.”

We’re now at 1,600 in our community, and it's so clear: the questions social entrepreneurs have are rarely answered by textbooks or long courses, but rather from a peer who's figured this out already.

Entrepreneurs will find the shortest path to solution, and most often that means calling somebody up who's been through it, which will save them the time and the money and the hassle.

If you buy this concept that the wisdom is in the room, that the wisdom exists within this community, it reframes our work. We're not teachers by any stretch. Our job is to unlock that wisdom, package it, and redistribute that amongst the community, and then hopefully out into the world.

That's become so evident, particularly for social entrepreneurship, where there just aren't templated approaches for this, but there are shared challenges.

Social entrepreneurs are still entrepreneurs. The categories of problems are largely shared whether you're a VC-backed SaaS company in the U.S. or working for smallholder farmers in Uganda. The categories are things like: team, economic model, and raising capital.

But, for social entrepreneurs, each of those categories takes on a unique texture.

Talking to someone who’s been there before helps you make better decisions faster.

The value that we hear so much from our community is: “The fact that I could call this person who had just been through this, with this funder, in this moment—and they can cut straight through all that,” is massively valuable.

It increases the founder’s chances of success and de-risks those investments.

Deep peer connections are investments in the long-term success of social entrepreneurs.

Truly, I think finding your people is more critical than finding the money to start.

Social entrepreneurship is a completely audacious decision. You’re not just starting a company—which in itself is statistically very irrational.

You are starting a company to tackle one of the toughest problems of our time, in markets that will not attract commercial capital, with models that don't exist, and often where there isn't a customer base. In the best case scenario, you would just move the needle in our lifetime.

The layers of complexity and difficulty are hard to comprehend.

You need to find the folks who hold similarly audacious and crazy goals, so that this path doesn't feel quite so lonely, so that you don't feel like you're out there on a ledge.

In moments where you might be overwhelmed, or you might want to give up, these folks help you keep going and moving forward.

It can feel frivolous and self indulgent to build relationships through deep questions and conversations when it feels like: “I need to go and raise this money, because our burn is going to put us out of business in three months.”

But that’s a short term inefficiency for long term efficiency. If you can see it as a de-risking, if you can see it as an investment to ensure that we will be on this for the long run, it completely changes it. It becomes essential.

It becomes a non-negotiable as part of the journey of anyone leading any type of organization, and particularly those working on impact organizations.

“Soft” skills are the hardest skills—and critical for social entrepreneurs.

The underlying thesis behind all of this work for Acumen is that developing entrepreneurs’ moral leadership capacity is critical for their success. Who are they? What is their purpose? How do they hold on to that?

I hate the phrase “soft skills.” It's how people often refer to them, but some of the hardest skills in the world of social entrepreneurship are skills such as resilience, courage, empathy, listening, and adaptability.

Next to unit economics and “how do you scale,” that's not a skill set that's particularly celebrated or lauded, but we believe it's beyond essential.

For example, storytelling. It’s not just: “Can I stand up on stage and speak?”

Storytelling in this context is understanding a narrative arc that connects you to a purpose, to a company, and to a business model.

That requires an understanding of a business strategy, of a market, of a customer, and the ability to weave that all together.

Same with the capacity to mobilize very diverse stakeholders from a place of values.

When I think about the hardest skills of our time, in this moment of unbelievable polarization, it's a critical skill set to disagree without being disagreeable. As in: you and I can hold conflictual opinions and still be able to build things and move forward together.

This is exactly the work of social entrepreneurs, who are inherently holding two opposing ideas. Whether in a leadership context, or in building a business model that sits at the intersection of scalable enterprise and deep impact, it’s the same muscle they’re working.


Bavidra is a Director at Acumen. Bavidra started his career as a Social Strategy Consultant with JWT, helping Fortune 500’s align social impact with business strategy. In 2011, he was selected as an Acumen Global Fellow and placed with d.light design in Shenzhen and New Delhi. Upon completion of the fellowship, Bavidra co-founded a technology startup in San Francisco to build mobile products for sustainable urban mobility. He returned to Acumen in 2014, launching and leading the Acumen India Fellows Program and heading up Strategic Partnerships.

Acumen invests in entrepreneurs and helps them build a more inclusive world. The organization combines the best qualities of philanthropy and business to spark transformational change and break the cycle of poverty, with an approach that combines a rigorous attention to detail and data with the magic of connection and collaboration. Their work focuses on investing in transformational companies, building sustainable markets and preparing leaders with the tools they need to create a more just and inclusive future.

Watch the full webinar with Bavidra Mohan for more insights.