Friday, September 30, 2016

"Bootstrapping" in Social Entrepreneurship -- and in Life

I often write about studying Creative Writing in college. What many readers might not know is that I was also a student of the Marshall School of Business during my four years at the University of Southern California. I majored in Creative Writing; I minored in Entrepreneurship.

I learned a great deal in my Business courses: about economics, accounting sales and marketing. I created revenue models, financial plans and costs/benefits analyses. For my final "capstone" course in Entrepreneurship, I wrote an entire Business Plan about creating a publishing company that would publish books written by young writers, for young audiences. That Business Plan became a reality when I founded my Dancing With The Pen series of books by young authors in 2011.

In the years since graduation, I still think of those Entrepreneurship courses often. My professors were encouraging, funny, and down-to-earth. Successful entrepreneurs themselves, they shared hard-earned lessons they had learned during their own business journeys. Something that has especially stayed with me is the idea of "bootstrapping."

This term comes from the famous expression to "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" (attribution: anonymous) which means to improve your situation by your own efforts. In entrepreneurship terms, the idea of "bootstrapping" means to use grit, hard work, and outside-the-box thinking to turn your business into reality, rather than renting fancy office space, trying to find a ton of venture capital, or investing lots of your own money into the venture. Metaphorically, other entrepreneurs might be planting seedlings --or even full-grown plants! -- they got from somewhere else; bootstrappers plant seeds, watering them diligently every day until they sprout forth from the soil. Bootstrapping might take more time and creativity, but it can yield huge return -- and lead to big change.

I thought of bootstrapping when I listened to this recent Innovate Podcast interview with Eric Sorensen, CEO and Co-Founder of Carbon Roots International, a business that encourages and enables the adoption of sustainable green charcoal in Haiti and the broader developing world. Because more than 90% of Haitians use charcoal for heating and cooking on a daily basis, deforestation is becoming a widespread problem. Carbon Roots International -- which is now the largest charcoal company in Haiti -- provides an innovative solution.

Here is a description of the "roots" of Carbon Roots International from their website:

In 2010, three friends arrived in Haiti armed with an idea about how sustainable charcoal might help a country still reeling from a devastating earthquake. Ideas were tested, and abandoned. Iteration ensued. One person contracted cholera, another typhoid. Two of them got married. The organization pivoted from agriculture to energy. They built a local team, then they built a factory, then they built a brand. Today, CRI is the largest charcoal company in Haiti.

Bootstrapping. Three friends had an idea about how they might make the world a better place. They didn't start with millions of dollars and fancy equipment. They began with a small idea that they tested, retested, changed and grew. They started locally and build their business from the ground up. They got the local citizens involved. They stayed humble, curious, and open to new possibilities.

Today, every ton of CRI's green charcoal consumed by Haitian households offsets an estimated 6.7 tons of wood harvested from live trees, and represents 8.8 tons of C02 emissions avoided. That's HUGE change.

Not only have I used this concept of bootstrapping in my own social entrepreneurship endeavors -- publishing the Dancing With The Pen series, holding contests for young writers, teaching writing camps and classes to empower youth to share their unique and important perspectives with the world -- I also think that bootstrapping is a terrific concept to apply to many different aspects of life.

Is there something you long to do, but you keep putting it off and putting it off? Maybe you think you need an expensive gadget, a fancy workspace, or a prestigious degree before you can pursue your dream. Maybe there's a project you are passionate about, but you're not quite sure of all the steps you would need to take to succeed. Or maybe you simply don't feel confident enough in yourself and your abilities to try.

Whatever your project or dream might be, I encourage you to revisit it with a new perspective: as a bootstrapper. What is the first small step you might take? Take that step, and then take the next step. Little by little, you'll be pulling yourself up towards your goal -- and using your own grit, grace and determination is what makes the whole experience that much more satisfying.

Good luck, and keep me posted -- I always love to hear your success stories! Also, you can listen to additional episodes of the inspiring Innovate Podcast at this link. Happy bootstrapping!