One of the most gratifying aspects of volunteering to mentor at MIT’s Venture Mentoring Service is that so many of the students are focused on solving a real problem – not creating a crazy app in the hopes it will go viral and make them rich. From helping create cleaner water to developing a smaller and more portable Braille reader, these students are focused on social impact ventures, though very few are set up as 501(c) 3 non-profits.
Due to a blanket confidential non-disclosure agreement I can’t write or even talk about many early stage companies. However, one social impact MIT startup has launched and now has a public web site: Candorful. Like many successful startups before them Candorful was founded based on a problem one of the founders had faced first hand: transitioning from military life to civilian life. But one of the many reasons I really liked Candorful from the get go – though I liked their working name Shortlist a lot better – was that they were founded to solve a very specific problem in the transition from the military to being a civilian: finding a job. And they are even more focused than that, at least initially: Candorful helps veterans nail their job interview. They found that veterans need to translate their military skills and experience to launch their careers, but had no experience with job interviews. Candorful has built a platform for veterans to practice job interviews under the watchful eyes of interview coaches. Candorful just succeeded in getting into the highly competitive MassChallenge incubator, as I understand it there were 2,500 startups applied for the 128 slots! Check out their testimonial page to get a first hand view of how they are helping veterans succeed in their transition to civilian life.
Not every social impact startup founded by students is at MIT, that’s just where I happen to mentor. Yesterday’s Boston Globe headline caught my eye: Two Harvard sophomores hope to fight homelessness, one doughnut at a time. Two sophomores at Harvard were volunteering at a youth shelter in Harvard Square. From their work there they found that a root cause of youth homelessness is the difficulty of both finding a job and maintaining a job once they found one.
The two sophomores came up with the idea of helping to solve this problem by creating a doughnut shop, which will be called Breaktime. What I really like about this venture is that the two founders have a very shrewd business model: rather than getting into food production, which requires licensing, equipment and space, they decided to purchase their food wholesale from businesses such as Union Square Donuts. They also have greatly reduced the risks of the venture, as one founder says: “We’re working with recipes and menus that have already been tested with customers. That way we’re operating efficiently, but we’re also in a way lowering our risk, because we don’t have to worry about testing our product.”
And of course mentoring plays a key role at Breaktime! The two founders plan to assign each employee a career mentor. Yet another very smart way the founders have generated leverage is using their Harvard connections to build a customer base: “We actually believe that our position as students is a huge advantage to us,” Schoen said. It “enables us to have a pool of 6,000 to 7,000 other undergraduate students who are interested in going to our cafe and supporting our mission.”
Note how both Candorful and Breaktime has drilled into a general problem, which might be overwhelming to tackles as an unfunded startup, to focus on very specific instances of that problem. And the founders of both ventures had firsthand experience with the problem they plan to solve. I can’t predict the success of a startup, most fail. But Candorful and Breaktime are off to great starts and provide terrific models of how to build a social impact venture.