In these uncertain times, pivoting is the name of the game for social entrepreneurs, as well as everyone else in the ecosystem. Case in point: Unreasonable Group.
Since the Covid-19 crisis hit, Unreasonable, which runs a variety of business mentorship programs for social entrepreneurs, has pivoted by finding ways to turn initiatives that usually take place in-person into virtual occasions. Plus, it’s stepped up activities linking struggling Unreasonable enterprises that are themselves trying to pivot with funders.
Furthermore, together with Barclays, it just held The Unreasonable Impact Covid-19 Global Summit, a live virtual event featuring 10 social enterprises that pivoted to address long-term challenges resulting from the pandemic. Each business was awarded a $ 100,000 grant. Barclays and Unreasonable formed a program called Unreasonable Impact about four years ago.
From Physical to Virtual
With just over 200 businesses headquartered in over 50 countries, The Unreasonable Fellowship includes companies currently in a program and alumni. Programs are usually just 10 days to two weeks, aimed at enterprises that are further along than those in typical accelerators.
In other words, the real work takes place after a program is over, in the form of support and advice provided in perpetuity, as long as entrepreneurs are CEOs of for-profit companies trying to solve a societal or environmental issue. (Meaning entrepreneurs can sell the business they were working on while at Unreasonable and remain in the fold if they start another, relevant enterprise).
Thus, Unreasonable has always had to find ways to stay in touch with far-flung alumni. But the Covid crisis added a new urgency to expanding those efforts. “We needed to triple down,” says founder Daniel Epstein.
With that in mind, Epstein took some elements of Unreasonable’s physical programs and made them available to their fellows digitally. Example: “brain trusts”, sessions during which entrepreneurs meet with mentors to zero in on specific problems. According to Epstein, running those sessions remotely also has had unanticipated advantages—namely, the ability to hold them year round and enlist experts who can best address the targeted issues faced by a particular entrepreneur, but who might not have had the time or availability to fly half-way around the world to meet in person. Epstein and his team are running about one a week, planning to increase that to five a week. During a normal, in-person program, they typically run 20 or so.
Take Classcraft, an online learning platform using gamification to motivate students. It experienced sudden, dramatic growth after Covid-19 hit and needed advice about how to handle the spike in demand, according to Epstein. So Unreasonable pulled together a cadre of experts to offer advice.
In addition, when they checked in with their fellows, the Unreasonable team found high levels of anxiety, perhaps not a surprise. With that in mind, they decided to move their in-person “deep dives”, usually held during the course of programs, to online; these are highly confidential, 90-minute, peer-to-peer coaching sessions held every other week during which four to five CEOs focus on topics ranging from scenario planning to avoiding layoffs. (Participants have to pledge not to divulge anything to anyone outside the group).
Plus, on a different note, weekly meditation sessions usually for only Unreasonable employees were opened up to fellows and their teams, as well.
At the same time, Unreasonable also stepped up connecting struggling fellows looking for ways to pivot to new sources of capital. Example: Pittsburgh-based Thread International, which provides jobs to impoverished residents of Haiti who collect plastic trash from waterways that the company turns into thread and then sells to corporations. According to Epstein, the company ended up expanding the focus to creating material for making face shields and other PPE; that required finding financing to retool their manufacturing facility and supply chain operations.