A Tale of Two Angels

When I first started pursuing the idea that technology can be harnessed to the cause of social good, it was pretty far out. Now, more than twenty years later, what has become known as social entrepreneurship is a hot global movement that is transforming the ways in which we approach the world’s most pressing problems and in which society organizes itself to solve them. Social entrepreneurship has its own conferences, publications, academic programs and awards. We celebrate the notion that nothing is as powerful as a great idea when put in the hands of a bold entrepreneur, and the lionization of entrepreneurs is a trend.

Let’s remember, though, that behind the entrepreneurs are equally daring angel investors: those who bet on these men and women when they have nothing to show but passion and excitement, and who empower them to realize their vision. After all, any great idea needs a vote of confidence, great advice and an infusion of cash to have a large-scale impact!

Even today, it’s not an easy task to find investors who are willing to take a chance on socially responsible ventures that prioritize social good over profitability. You can imagine how difficult it was back in 1982, when I founded Calera Recognition Systems (originally named the Palantir Corporation). My first successful tech company created technologies that could read just about any book or document. My very first angel investor who helped us get Calera off the ground was Sheldon Breiner. Sheldon is an amazing guy: a Silicon Valley serial inventor and entrepreneur who’s known as the Indiana Jones of geophysics. He’s an expert in magnetometers for natural resources and defense applications, and the inventor of the security walk-through metal detector and many other cool devices. Sheldon invested his own money in the newly born Calera and made important connections to key figures. Sheldon saying “I’ll invest in you” was the catalyst that led to Calera's first round of venture capital. Today, Calera is part of Nuance, the leading company in its field.

Sheldon was someone who I stayed in touch with even after leaving Calera to start a nonprofit social enterprise to make the Arkenstone reading machines for the blind (Arkenstone was the original name of Benetech). At a crucial turning point in Benetech’s history, I ran into Sheldon and outlined my dreams of doing more. I remember the event well: it was a rare speaking engagement by Bill Gates in 1999 when Gates was starting to shift into philanthropy in a big way.

Sheldon’s quick-shot reaction was, “you need to meet my friend, Robert.” And so, my very first for-profit angel introduced me to my first nonprofit angel! Robert Levenson had a tremendous impact on shaping the incredible organization we now know as Benetech.

At the time, I was in the process of selling the Arkenstone product line to a for-profit. I was eager to repeat the experience under our new name of Benetech. I thought if I was lucky, I could use the money from the sale of the Arkenstone assets to start a second successful social enterprise.

Robert, however, changed my mind about what the new nonprofit should be like. His first comment after hearing the Arkenstone story and my dreams to start another Arkenstone-style enterprise was that if I did so, he’d consider that a failure. I was flabbergasted. But Robert went on to explain that he felt that the best use of my efforts was to drive the creation of five or ten new enterprises at Benetech, not just a second one. And, he made the case that I should work to help build the field of social enterprise, and see if I could help build a movement that would lead to the creation of hundreds of technology social enterprises! He argued that I could have a bigger impact on the world by mentoring new social entrepreneurs, finding resources for them and helping them avoid the pitfalls I had experienced. Robert felt that, by aiming high, I would help build a movement of technologists who were more engaged in meeting humanity’s critical needs.
It was a breathtaking moment for me, to have a first-time meeting go in this completely unanticipated direction. What was stunning was being told that I lacked ambition, something I had never felt short of in the past! But, Robert was right. If I really wanted to make more social impact, I had to take on a different role. I’d have to become more like an angel like Robert and Sheldon.

But, Robert wasn’t just about giving me advice. He was a big believer in finding the precise intervention that would have the maximum impact. Like many angels, Robert didn’t have the most money to donate to us, but he was sure he could find a way to utilize leverage to help us. He connected me with two fabulous senior fundraising consultants, who mentored me at Robert’s expense for more than a year on how to become a better fundraiser for social innovation. He introduced me to leaders in the social innovation space, expanding my network and my understanding of the opportunities ahead. As a result of Robert’s help, one of the very first donors I met was Sally Osberg, who was just starting as the head of Jeff Skoll’s foundation (Jeff was the first CEO of eBay, and also the founder of Participant Media, the people behind incredible movies like Good Night and Good Luck, An Inconvenient Truth and The Help, among dozens more). Sally and Jeff have been the largest and longest term supporters of Benetech since that early meeting.

Robert went further and personally pitched Benetech to a very wealthy donor. At my first meeting with this donor and Robert, Benetech received an incredible unrestricted one million dollar gift. That funding, along with backing from Skoll Foundation and the Omidyar Network, was the rocket fuel for what Benetech has become today. Benetech was no longer just what I was going to do next, but a new phase in the search for innovative ways to apply maximum leverage to solving pressing problems on a scale well beyond a single project.

So here’s to Sheldon, Robert and all the other angels out there. You, who much like the entrepreneurs whom you support, act as society’s change agents. Thank you for unleashing resources where others see only problems. Thank you for seizing opportunities, which others miss, enabling new approaches and creating social value. And thank you for believing in crazy entrepreneurs, even those with little or no track record. Let’s hope that, as the social entrepreneurship movement continues to build, even more socially responsible angel groups and venture funds will arise and with them more opportunities for social enterprises to change the world for the better!


Donna McNear said…
Nice blog for the holiday season ...a time of reflection and gratitude..and of course, angels. A wonderful story to read on this week of waiting.

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