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Running A Startup For Social Good Is Exhausting But We Must Act Now

The challenges facing young people won’t solve themselves.

Alex Amouyel

Photo by Adam Schultz, courtesy of Solve MIT

This is an op-ed from Alex Amouyel, Executive Director for Solve, MIT's initiative for the world's best and brightest to fix global challenges.

I have spent many years supporting social entrepreneurs in my professional and extracurricular life. This is why I was excited to be offered the opportunity to lead MIT's new Solve initiative. Solve is all about finding great social entrepreneurs and helping scale their solutions globally.

Solve's challenges on Youth, Skills, and the Workforce of the Future, Brain Health, Sustainable Urban Communities, and Women and Technology are open to entrepreneurs and innovators. Applications to be a Solver are open to all. Solvers get support through connections, training, and other resources which help them make their solutions a reality.

"Entrepreneurs are the drivers, innovators, and job creators of our global economy. "

Entrepreneurs are the drivers, innovators, and job creators of our global economy. Small and medium enterprises provide two-thirds of the formal jobs in developing countries and the majority of jobs overall. In the US, 28 million small businesses account for 54% of all sales. On the other hand, social entrepreneurs are a bit different. Their organizations seek to make a positive impact on the world and are key to driving both social innovation and solving the world's most pressing challenges.

I didn't know what it actually felt like to be an entrepreneur until I started working at Solve. Solve is a start-up supporting start-ups (very meta, yes). Compared to other start-ups, we, of course, have a great leg up in having access to the most cutting-edge researchers and academics as well as MIT's shared services.

But in all other ways, we're just like every other start-up, recruiting a team from scratch, setting up entirely new processes and systems, designing a strategy and executing it. Everything we do has been exponential because we're new and it's exhilarating in many ways. We can make decisions fast. We can pivot quickly if things are not looking like they are going to work out. We can be opportunistic and say yes to things easily. We're a solid team where everyone pitches in and says yes, despite being tired and probably already a little burnt out.

I can now say that I and the amazing team I have hired have become expert social entrepreneurs. After nine months of work, I can now say that resilience and grit are the keys, but that these words barely even cover the emotional and even physical strains I put myself through the last nine months.

Not being able to fall asleep because you're running through your to-do list. Waking up at 3 am, heart beating fast, remembering you need to do something important. Not being able to think about anything else than Solve—day, night or anytime. Feeling, despite your great team and the support you are getting like it might all crumble if you don't hold it up. Trying to reassure your team that it's going to work out great in the end, even though you're not always sure it will. Feeling that despite every victory and every milestone passed, the next mountain is now bigger and steeper and wondering if you can do it. Taking every setback or failure—no matter how small or inconsequential in the grand scheme of things—as personal. Flip-flopping every 30 minutes to an hour between feeling like everything you are doing is going to change the world, and like you'll never get there.

"Being a social entrepreneur takes a lot of things—a great idea, a good business plan, the most amazing team, the right skills and connections. "

After our big event "Solve at MIT," I can now look back and really be proud of and celebrate all we have accomplished. I can be excited about our new plans. And, I can be confident that we as a team and a community can reach our great ambitions and vision to develop a true marketplace for social impact innovations that helps social entrepreneurs scale their solutions to the world's most pressing challenges. Still, the waking up at 3 am has not yet gone away, and I am sure other aspects will come back as we approach our next big milestone and have to climb the next big mountain.

Being a social entrepreneur takes a lot of things—a great idea, a good business plan, the most amazing team, the right skills and connections. You need to get things done quickly, raise money, form partnerships, and deliver your idea to the people who need it the most. And now, I know it also takes buckets full of grit, perseverance, resilience, emotional and physical stamina, and risk taking to the point of craziness. As Reid Hoffman once said, "Entrepreneurship is throwing yourself off a cliff and assembling an airplane on the way down."

Photo by Adam Schultz, courtesy of Solve MIT

Now more than ever, I can tip my hat off to social entrepreneurs, including our incredible 29 Solvers and the ones that will follow.

And if you want to join us, you can apply to one of Solve's new challenges by August 1. We don't have a magic wand that will make the throwing yourself off a cliff part of this go away, but we can connect you with the resources you need to pilot, grow, and scale your solution. We're here to connect you with MIT's community of foundations, corporations, impact investors, academics, and more. We're dedicated to supporting our Solvers scale their solutions to change the world, and we're social entrepreneurs ourselves so we're starting to know what it takes.

Solve's challenges on (1) Youth, Skills, and the Workforce of the Future, (2) Brain Health, (3) Sustainable Urban Communities and (4) Women and Technology are open to entrepreneurs and innovators until August 1, 2017. Anyone can apply for the chance to be a Solver. Solvers receive support from Solve in the form of connections and trainings to create partnerships to help their solutions scale. Prizes are available for these challenges including up to $2 million in grant funding from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Atlassian Foundation, and the Arts and Culture Mentorship prize curated by Yo-Yo Ma. More information is available at solve.mit.edu.