From Non-profit to Social Enterprise: Interview with the Founders of ThinkImpact
How do we build the next generation of authentic leaders? A generation of mission-driven entrepreneurs, risk-takers, and bold-thinkers? How might we redesign education programs for college students to further develop these skills?
Meet ThinkImpact, a social enterprise offering experiential education based study abroad programs to college students that focus on bridging the gap between theoretical textbook learning and hands-on field training—all through the lens of social entrepreneurship and design thinking.
Their study abroad programs, known as “Institutes,” are offered across three countries (Rwanda, South Africa and Panama), where students work directly with community members on social innovation and entrepreneurship projects. Through these projects, over 100 micro-enterprises have been launched, creating over 300 jobs.
Interestingly, ThinkImpact was not always a for-profit social enterprise, in fact it began as a non-profit that Founder Saul Garlick built back when he was in college. With the help of Kate Loose, Jess Morse, and Patrick Keane, ThinkImpact transitioned to a for-profit social enterprise in 2011. Kate began her journey with ThinkImpact as a Global Development Intern in South Africa in the summer between junior and senior year at Cornell, and later came on board as a Co-Founder during ThinkImpact’s large rebrand and transition to becoming for-profit, “My focus was on the operations, especially global operations—building the experience of the programs, hiring all of the global staff, managing all of our programs, overseeing the international bank accounts.”
This interview explores the entrepreneurial journeys of Founder Saul Garlick and Co-Founder Kate Loose, the obstacles overcome, the organization's mission for impact, and lessons learned while converting ThinkImpact to a for-profit social enterprise.
Kate Loose (left) and Saul Garlick (right) in Rwanda
Anchor & Leap: In your own words, can you tell me the mission of ThinkImpact?
Saul: In my own words, we are trying to create opportunities for people from all walks of life, and we do that through connecting people who would otherwise never meet each other, to work through a process that they otherwise may never know, to accomplish something they otherwise would have never realized.
Anchor & Leap: How does ThinkImpact’s model of experiential education impact the scholars during the programs and within such a unique context?
Saul: I think the number one takeaway for the students is that is broadens how they think about their future. So students go on the program and have many types of expectations or assumptions about what they should be doing in their lives. And then they go on a program like this, and it challenges their assumptions and tests them to think differently about everything. You begin thinking differently about what is poverty, what is wealth. You begin thinking differently about what is a good use of your time and how you work with others.You think about entrepreneurial problem solving.
I think we live in a world right now that has glorified entrepreneurs and where we all want to be a Steve Jobs or Jeff Bezos, a hero. I think that that creates a false scenario and makes us look at people as those who can and those who can’t. And I don’t believe in that. What I like about our program is the extremely challenging experience of working through a design thinking process across cultures, and how that helps you realize how much more you are capable of.Students often say, “It really opened my eyes to what I could do, rather than what I thought I should do.”
I think it also really nurtures team-building skills. You have to be able to work with other people, work through challenges and process things. People get very political, territorial, and angry when they are in a difficult work situation and this program forces you to deal with people who speak a different language and don’t care about time the way you do and you have to work though that—and that is incredibly valuable in the work place. It sets students up for much for more success in their careers and we get that testimonial a lot from alumni. These are all things that experiential learning does for the scholars, and it increases confidence too.
Anchor & Leap: When you say that the students felt that it opened their eyes to what they could do, not what they should do, I think it even takes a level of confidence to be able to see that, and then act in accordance with that realization.
Saul: Exactly. A lot of our alumni have gone on to start enterprises and they were not necessarily entrepreneurs when they went on our program. But now they think of themselves as entrepreneurial, they now ask themselves, “Why not?”
From left to right: Jessica Morse, Saul Garlick, Abdallah Mohamed, Kate Loose, Patrick Keane at the White House.
Anchor & Leap: While transitioning ThinkImpact from a non-profit to a for-profit business, what has been a large area of learning for you?
Kate: I think the biggest lesson for me has been how important the team is. I came to ThinkImpact right out of college and tried to grow this company so I didn’t have any formal training managing a team, much less a global team across five countries. Many people we worked with were also much older than me. So that was definitely a challenge, figuring out how to hire the right people, then training them, and learning to keep them on board and really creating a great experience for them. What that means is that they are really learning and meeting their goals and simultaneously contributing to the company.
The management and leadership challenges have been the best ones for me, experiencing the ups and downs and seeing how important a great team is to the success of a company. This has been such a valuable lesson and also sparked a passion in how to unleash potential in people and help them to develop as leaders and great managers. I think it is really rare to have a great manager so I have become very interested in trying to develop myself as that, and then also my other teammates and working with them as much as possible.
Anchor & Leap: Saul, when you decided you were committing 100% to pursuing your own venture, what were some of the internal struggles that you were faced with?
Saul: I made the decision when I was in school that I was going work on my non-profit instead of an internship I had, which felt like a low risk commitment because I was in school. And then I later decided not to ever apply for a job and just go full time after graduating. And to be perfectly honest, I never thought of an alternative.
I remember back in May of 2007 I volunteered on the Obama campaign. A buddy of mine was also involved and I thought maybe I would work for the Obama campaign. I met the man who ran travel for the White House and who became that role after Obama won and he gave me his number and told me to call him. But then I never called him; I never really thought that I was ever going to do anything else than this.
I had to convince my parents that I wasn’t crazy and they definitely thought that I was. But for me, I needed to be able to wake up every morning and say to myself that this is the right thing to be doing with my life—even if I’m screwing up and going left and right and figuring it out as I go. As an entrepreneur, I love starting things, I love ideas and I love working with others. So for me it was about figuring out how to do that to the max, and I just didn’t see an alternative. It was not a real internal struggle, I’m not going to lie; it was an obvious, it was the only thing I could think of myself doing.
Oil maker design team in Nyarubuye, Rwanda
Anchor & Leap: What were some of the reasons that made you transition ThinkImpact from non-profit to for-profit?
Saul: Practicing what we preach was number one. I didn’t like fundraising to pay the bills and I wanted to be able to raise money for the company in large dollar values. I also thought that if we were talking about market-based solutions to poverty, that we really needed to understand how the market works. As a non-profit there were also many stakeholders and I thought I could clean things up if I went to a business model. This doesn’t mean that I don’t love non-profits, because I do, and I serve on non-profit boards. I am a huge fan of brining non-profits where there are market failures and service gaps in society and think non-profits are critical for the social fabric of society, but I also felt that I couldn’t scale what I was doing in that model.
Kate: The non-profit model didn’t speak to me as much as the model of for-profit. I really love the structure of thinking about this organization like a business. Then the impact is really engrained in what the business does, so the for-profit side really excited me and how to grow a model for a profitable social enterprise. Also, at the point in time we were doing this, social enterprise was pretty new.
Anchor & Leap: I can understand that and think an exciting part of social enterprise is when you create a market-based solution to a social challenge that becomes a self-sustaining enterprise. To me, that feels like a “hack” to the system.
Founder Saul Garlick
Anchor & Leap: In your own personal journey, has there been a single most transformative experience along the way?
Saul: There have been a couple of highlights. One was being exposed to poverty in a very authentic way, and in a place that had historically been repressed and oppressed. The second experience was in 2007 when I brought a group of students back out and I saw the school that I had originally funded through Student Movement, and a couple classrooms were in disrepair. I didn’t realize at the time how that would affect me. The school had moved things over to the new classroom and shuttered the old ones. After seeing that, I think I had the wrong reaction, which was to immediately mobilize to fix the classrooms and make the rooms functioning again. But that is not how you create lasting change, and I learned that because I had messed up. We did many other projects that had the opposite fate, one of our projects was a school in Kenya where we built a few classrooms and then another organization came in and built a few classrooms and now it is a vibrant school.
Another important experience has been through the time I spent in the village and the feedback I would get from people about what was really working. Some of that feedback was surprising. My host dad in South Africa once told me that the most important thing in that community was the small scholarship we had created, because it motivated all of the other students to pursue it, and that in turn, it had changed the dynamics of why kids were working hard. I hadn’t thought about that impact originally.
Later on, a guy named Jerry Hildebrand exposed me to social entrepreneurship. He was a very inspirational person and exposed me to new ideas and got me really interested in the world of business and impact. I had been focused on impact and then I started thinking about business. I think American culture has a funny attitude around money; we all love it but we hate to talk about it. But my broader point is that I am a both/and kind of guy—I want to make a huge difference in the world, and I want to use business to do it. And that’s hard to do. So my other point is that there is a lot of talk around the value and potential of social entrepreneurship and social impact, and I’m not sure if everyone understands just how difficult it is to do that.
Anchor & Leap: What were some of the obstacles you came across along your journey, particularly ones that you were not anticipating?
Saul: When I was transitioning ThinkImpact to for-profit back in 2010, I went down to South Africa with this guy who had been an entrepreneur, he was retired at something like 40, and he said to me, “If you are starting a business, you need to follow the TOE principle.” And I thought, “What’s the TOE principle?” He explained that it meant, “Think Of Everything,” and I thought, “Wouldn’t that be nice, if I could think of everything.” But what he meant by that is that anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. That literally everything will go wrong.
I think many people enter a business or enterprise and they think that it’s going to be hard to raise money, hard to motivate a team, and hard to finalize the product. But actually those things are the high level items that seem to be the hard part, but if you grind at them, you will figure them out. Those things don’t bother me as much because I know we will figure them out. It’s going to take iteration, and I take a design thinking approach to everything I do, so I am okay with that. The really hard part is the daily small things that come up that blow your mind. It’s the resignations of employees, it’s the people you have to fire, it’s the banking issues, it’s the procedures that need building. It’s the smaller things that really make a company function well, and those are the things you can’t really anticipate what it’s going to take.
I’m actually doing two companies right now, I have ThinkImpact and then I have another office and another company downtown called Unleesh. With the second company, I get to enter it with the knowledge of everything I didn’t get right at first here, so I can get started faster, but I’m still making tons of mistakes. And that is just the nature of the thing. Anytime you are doing something new that no one understands, it is going to be hard. Hard in the sense that it’s going to be full of surprises that are disappointing, but you work through them and take them one day at a time.
Anchor & Leap: As you push through all of these obstacles, what continues to inspire you to keep going?
Saul: The way I described it in another interview is that there is this tiny tiny light down the path, and you see it and you know what it could be—you just have to get there. And you think, “I’m going to get there, I’m going to get to that little tiny thing that I see that is far off in the distance, and I’m not going to shake it.” You know that you will not shake it. I’m not the kind of entrepreneur who just wants to build something that I can exit. I’m not trying to flip a business or make quick wins and I really don’t think that is very inspiring.
What I think is inspiring and I am motivated by is solving a broader societal problem. So for me, that broader problem is lack of access to opportunity—it’s unfair that I was born here and therefore I have more opportunity in my life than someone who was born in Dixie, South Africa. That’s not fair, because we are all people. Something I say to all of the scholars on our program is, “People are people everywhere,” because as you spend time in a community, you realize that we are all exactly the same and it’s crazy that people don’t have equal access to opportunity. So with everything I am doing, whether with ThinkImpact or Unleesh, everything is about developing opportunities. And, that is also an unwinnable goal, because I am never going to be done.
I also think that when I’m in the worst moments of the rollercoaster ride of entrepreneurship, there are two things that I can do to recalibrate. One is to reassess my vision and to ask myself what I’m doing here and what is worth working for. When I remember that I’m doing this because there are people’s lives that could be getting access to new opportunity, then it’s worth working for.
A scholar in Panama designing pots
The second thing is that you always need to get perspective on what hardship is. I could have a really long day at the office and get some really bad news, but okay, I have food, I have a family, I have my health—things are good. I remember when I was in South Africa many years ago and went into a gold mine for my first time and saw what miners used to do in South Africa. They would risk their lives every day to extract rocks for rich white people, and then I think to myself, “They had it hard. I don’t have it hard, I have it challenging, I have it interesting, I have it disappointing sometimes.” It’s about getting perspective on what other people have to do to make a living.
Anchor & Leap: Definitely. I think perspective is something that ties through so much. For example, the perspective created when you say to the scholars, “People are people everywhere.” I think that is a perspective that really shifts someone’s ability to impact a community; when they view someone as another human just like themselves. Period.
Saul: Right, and every person you come across has a story. Every person you come across has something on their mind that’s bothering them and something that they are hoping for. If you think about that with every person you meet along the way, suddenly you start behaving like a person. Every person you meet has something to offer. Not in the way that you should use people, but that everyone has value and I am reminded of that every day. It’s amazing how narrow I can get about things and then someone who has a completely different background from me can just throw me off, and in an awesome way.So making sure we are really empowering people to explore their potential, to me, is one of the most important things.
Anchor & Leap: From our conversation, it sounds like ThinkImpact also serves to awaken people to their potential?
Saul: It is a little like that, but the truth of the matter is that it’s actually the hard skills that we train too, because it’s not just about awareness. Awareness definitely matters, but it is what we do that matters. What we think is fine, but what we do in the world is actually what effects people in the world.
Anchor & Leap: Is there anything I have not asked that you would like to cover?
Saul: The cliché—anything worth doing is hard and challenging. I really believe that we think we are taking a leap, but really it’s just the first hurdle and there will be lots of hurdles after that, and there will be lots of hurdles no matter what we do.I would rather the hurdle of how to raise $150,000 in a week, over the hurdle of having been in a job I hate for a year and figuring out how to get out of it. I would rather never regret and push myself to try something and overcome whatever economic or human resource hurdle that exists, than feel like I’m not making a difference, or contributing, or living to my full potential. So what I would say to is to do whatever you think is going to be the path to your full potential.
Anchor & Leap: I definitely hear that philosophy; I just left my job! I think any program that makes you think in a way that you haven’t thought before, or question your work on a deeper level is critical. It is not easy to get yourself to go against what is viewed as “success” and what the common track is. It really takes a lot.
Saul: Right, and you don’t want to be numb to the world; the world is way too interesting. At ThinkImpact we call it, acurious culture of creativity, and I love that energy.