Innovators

Forget Dating Apps. These Millennials Want to Use Start-Ups to Save the World.

A profound generational shift is shaping new approaches to addressing civic problems.

National Journal
Oct. 28, 2014, 6:23 a.m.

SAN FRAN­CISCO—The new tech­no­logy eco­nomy has trans­formed com­mu­nic­a­tions, re­tail­ing, travel, journ­al­ism, dat­ing, and pretty much everything else it has touched. Now it’s also chan­ging the form and fo­cus of civic en­gage­ment.

For a case in point, con­sider Clara Bren­ner and Ju­lie Lein, cofounders of a two-year-old “busi­ness ac­cel­er­at­or” known as Tumml. Bren­ner, 29, and Lein, 30 op­er­ate from a glam­or­ously scruffy neo-in­dus­tri­al space that could be lif­ted from a movie about the start-up ex­per­i­ence, with its loc­a­tion in San Fran­cisco’s trendy SoMa (South of Mar­ket) neigh­bor­hood, ex­posed pipes on the ceil­ing, and re­pur­posed vin­tage diner booths in the com­mun­al kit­chen. Bren­ner didn’t even look up from her con­ver­sa­tion the oth­er day when one as­pir­ing en­tre­pren­eur rolled by on a skate­board.

Most of the young people hud­dling at the long tables around Bren­ner and Lein in the sprawl­ing of­fice are dream­ing of launch­ing the next Face­book or Uber. The two young wo­men have a dif­fer­ent goal: sup­port­ing a new gen­er­a­tion of “urb­an im­pact start-ups” that aim to tackle civic prob­lems, while turn­ing a profit along the way. Their firm provides fund­ing, ment­or­ing, and prac­tic­al guid­ance for start-ups that aim to ad­dress chal­lenges from edu­ca­tion to trans­port­a­tion to boost­ing loc­al small busi­ness.

“You open Tech­Crunch or The Wall Street Journ­al, and you read about start-ups chan­ging the world through the next dat­ing app or on-de­mand but­ler ser­vice,” Bren­ner says. “It’s pretty dis­heart­en­ing. They’re not solv­ing prob­lems that at least Ju­lie or I par­tic­u­larly care about. We wanted to see more start-ups solv­ing real prob­lems like home­less­ness and trans­port­a­tion.”

In their in­stinct to tackle such civic prob­lems by in­cub­at­ing start-ups, Bren­ner and Lein cap­ture a pro­found gen­er­a­tion­al shift that is chan­ging the way many young people think about con­trib­ut­ing to their com­munit­ies. Two or three dec­ades ago, it’s easy to ima­gine that someone like these wo­men con­cerned with say, home­less­ness, might have ex­pressed her val­ues by try­ing to elect a loc­al or na­tion­al politi­cian who prom­ised to con­front the prob­lem by passing new laws. Or she might have vo­lun­teered at a non­profit or­gan­iz­a­tion that dir­ectly provided a ser­vice.

Bren­ner and Lein say they re­spect both of those op­tions—Lein, in fact, did try to elect politi­cians while work­ing for a Demo­crat­ic poll­ster after fin­ish­ing her un­der­gradu­ate de­gree. But each has con­cluded she can make a big­ger and faster im­pact on the is­sues she cares about by nur­tur­ing private busi­nesses that ad­dress them. “I thought if you get in­volved in polit­ics, that’s how you ef­fect real change,” says Lein. “But it’s clear that the people get­ting fund­ing and hav­ing the most rap­id take-up of their ideas are in the en­tre­pren­eur­i­al world. That’s what drew me, even though I’m a do-gooder, bleed­ing heart.”

To Lein and Bren­ner, and the com­pan­ies they are work­ing with, start­ing a busi­ness isn’t an al­tern­at­ive to civic en­gage­ment; it’s a form of it. “More money equals more im­pact,” Bren­ner in­sists. “So mak­ing sure [these com­pan­ies] have a ro­bust rev­en­ue mod­el is crit­ic­al to their abil­ity to be good so­cial en­tre­pren­eurs. That’s something so­cial en­tre­pren­eurs don’t talk about enough.”

Bren­ner and Lein hatched the idea for Tumml when they met at the MIT Sloan School of Man­age­ment. Bren­ner had spent four years work­ing in real es­tate in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., be­fore re­turn­ing to busi­ness school, ini­tially with the idea of ac­quir­ing the skills to launch her own real-es­tate de­vel­op­ment com­pany. Lein worked in San Fran­cisco for an eco­nom­ic con­sult­ing com­pany, and then joined the firm of Stan­ley Green­berg, a prom­in­ent Demo­crat­ic polit­ic­al poll­ster, be­fore de­cid­ing on busi­ness school as well.

As they grew friendly at MIT, the two wo­men be­came in­creas­ingly in­ter­ested in com­pan­ies that com­bined a so­cial mis­sion with the profit motive. Dur­ing busi­ness school, Bren­ner worked for a firm that cre­ated a crowd-sourcing tool that al­lowed com­munity res­id­ents to in­vest in loc­al real es­tate; Lein worked for an Oak­land com­pany that provided healthy school meals while also train­ing loc­al res­id­ents to con­trib­ute. “We were just so amazed by these com­pan­ies in terms of the com­munity im­pact they were hav­ing, but also their abil­ity to scale really rap­idly in a way that more tra­di­tion­al com­munity or­gan­iz­a­tions out there are just not cap­able of do­ing,” Bren­ner re­called. “And we were won­der­ing why there wer­en’t more [of these] com­pan­ies out there.”

While many busi­ness ac­cel­er­at­ors ex­ist to nur­ture start-up firms in an ar­ray of in­dus­tries, the two wo­men could not find any­thing com­par­able to help en­tre­pren­eurs who wanted to tackle civic chal­lenges. “If you want to solve a prob­lem in your own com­munity, in your own back­yard, there isn’t really a place for you to go,” says Bren­ner. “Where would you go find money to do that? I couldn’t have told you two years ago. So we de­cided an or­gan­iz­a­tion to try to change that.”

In­terest be­came avoca­tion after the two wo­men fin­ished busi­ness school in 2012: With fund­ing ini­tially from the char­it­able arm of the Black­stone Group, they formed Tumml and moved to San Fran­cisco. Since sum­mer 2013, they have se­lec­ted three groups of young com­pan­ies (some 17 in all) from hun­dreds of ap­plic­ants based every­where from Kan­sas City to France and Ger­many. For each firm that makes the cut, Tumml provides some ini­tial fund­ing, a place to work, ac­cess to ment­ors, a cur­riculum that of­fers guid­ance on the usu­al chal­lenges of busi­ness form­a­tion—and, most dis­tinct­ive of all, op­por­tun­it­ies to in­ter­act with loc­al gov­ern­ment and non­profit lead­ers work­ing on the same is­sues that the en­tre­pren­eurs are tack­ling. “They have a won­der­ful net­work of en­tre­pren­eurs, in­vestors, civic lead­ers that were in­tro­duced to us once or twice a week,” says Ali Va­habz­a­deh, cofounder and chief ex­ec­ut­ive of Chari­ot, one of the firms Tumml has sup­por­ted.

Though slightly older, Va­habz­a­deh, 37, em­bod­ies the same gen­er­a­tion­al shift in per­spect­ive as Bren­ner and Lein. When he saw a prob­lem in his com­munity, he con­cluded that the best way to ad­dress it was not to lobby gov­ern­ment, but to start a com­pany that dir­ectly ad­dressed the need.

The prob­lem that mo­tiv­ated Va­habz­a­deh was pub­lic trans­port­a­tion in San Fran­cisco, which didn’t match his pre­vi­ous ex­per­i­ences in Lon­don and New York City. After re­lo­cat­ing to the Bay Area in 2010, he re­called, “The first thing I real­ized was, I can’t get around this town.” He bought a bi­cycle, but re­cog­nized that wasn’t an op­tion for every­one.

And so, last winter, after leav­ing a job at a real-es­tate start-up, Va­habz­a­deh foun­ded Chari­ot, a private trans­port­a­tion com­pany that runs vans along crowded com­mut­ing cor­ridors in the city. “I just de­cided that most likely it was not go­ing to be the city or trans­it agen­cies that [would] overnight have an awaken­ing and im­prove all of our com­mutes, and I didn’t see any private op­tions ad­dress­ing this need either,” he says. “So I took it un­der my own hands, and I thought an en­tre­pren­eur­i­al solu­tion was the fast­est way to al­le­vi­ate the com­mut­ing is­sues we had.” Only about six months after launch­ing, Va­habz­a­deh is now fer­ry­ing 2,000 riders a week and ex­pand­ing to a second route that he de­vised with crowd-sourcing in­put from po­ten­tial riders.

Te­jal Shah, the founder of Kid­Ad­mit, an­oth­er com­pany Tumml has sup­por­ted, par­alleled Va­habz­a­deh’s ex­per­i­ence and re­sponse. When Shah, 37, sought to en­roll her child in a private preschool a few years ago, she grew frus­trated at how the pro­cess seemed frozen in the pre-di­git­al age: “Each school had a pa­per ap­plic­a­tion; it was the same thing over and over again,” she re­called. “There was a lot of time be­ing spent with very few ques­tions be­ing answered.” The thought of work­ing through loc­al gov­ern­ment to en­cour­age or com­pel preschools to stream­line the pro­cess nev­er crossed her mind; in­stead, after re­cruit­ing a cous­in to join her, she formed a com­pany to cre­ate an on-line com­mon ap­plic­a­tion for preschools in the area, much as col­leges use. Now she is work­ing with 152 San Fran­cisco private schools—provid­ing par­ents not only a com­mon ap­plic­a­tion but also more eas­ily ac­cess­ible data about the schools—and ex­pand­ing in­to eight counties sur­round­ing the city.

Neither Va­habz­a­deh nor Shah see them­selves as sup­plant­ing gov­ern­ment or non­profit or­gan­iz­a­tions; their goal is to sup­ple­ment them with com­pan­ies they be­lieve can re­spond more nimbly to com­munity needs. That’s the per­spect­ive Bren­ner and Lein share as well. “This is cer­tainly not a liber­tari­an op­er­a­tion, we are not look­ing to re­place gov­ern­ment,” says Bren­ner. “Many of the in­di­vidu­als who have gone through our pro­gram wouldn’t think of them­selves as par­tic­u­larly polit­ic­ally act­ive or civically savvy”¦. I think this is a way of mak­ing people feel like they ac­tu­ally can ex­ert some con­trol over the prob­lems they en­counter every day. And that’s good, but it’s not like they’re try­ing to take over the job of a politi­cian or put non­profits out of busi­ness. It’s more that whatever we have done so far has not been ad­equate to solve the prob­lem, so why not add an­oth­er tool to the tool kit.”

Not all chal­lenges fa­cing Amer­ica’s cit­ies may re­spond to this hy­brid ap­proach of private profit and pub­lic pur­pose (though one start-up that Tumml has sup­por­ted provides a way for people to con­trib­ute dir­ectly to the home­less). And do­ing well may col­lide with do­ing good more of­ten than these young en­tre­pren­eurs now an­ti­cip­ate. But Tumml and the like-minded young en­tre­pren­eurs in its or­bit are re­mix­ing char­ac­ter­ist­ic mil­len­ni­al-gen­er­a­tion at­ti­tudes of so­cial re­spons­ib­il­ity, skep­ti­cism of big in­sti­tu­tions, trust in tech­no­logy, and a pref­er­ence for dir­ect ac­tion—and, in the pro­cess, re­de­fin­ing civic act­iv­ism for the di­git­al age.

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