Starting Early in Social Enterprise: Q&A With Resolution Project Chair Oliver Libby

The Resolution ProjectJust as entrepreneurship is now becoming increasingly attractive to younger and younger people, social enterprise is increasingly a goal of college students. Max Luxe spoke to one of the founders of the nonprofit Resolution Project, a program that identifies and funds undergraduates who want to start a socially-conscious project. Oliver Libby, the co-founder and managing director at consulting firm Hatzimemos / Libby in New York City, is the chair and co-founder of Resolution. Libby talked to us about the innovative ways the Resolution Fellows are trying to change the world and how the project is helping them get there.

Max: What is the story behind the Resolution Project?

Oliver Libby: The co-founders of the Resolution Project, Howard Levine and George Tsiatis and myself, we used to run a big Model United Nations conference at Harvard. There was always a keynote speaker up there saying, “You guys are the future and some day you’ll make the world a better place,” but implicit in that was: not yet. It took us a few years after graduation to get our heads around this. We decided to build an alumni network around World MUN in 2007 and 2008. We even ran a mini-case competition because we heard from these students that they had ideas that could change the world but no one was giving them the resources to do it.

We were just blown away. We said, we have to come back to this conference and fund these ideas. We also have to give these students the resources an emerging social CEO would need.

The model hasn’t changed. With youth summits, we run a Social Venture Challenge that plugs right into the existing summit. It gives us an amazingly diverse group of students. We do this about eight times a year. They win a Resolution Fellowship and get assigned mentors for two years minimum. They get access to partners, peers, advisors, anything you would need to get a social venture off the group. We now have 220 fellows in 54 countries and 25 states. Those people have helped around 350,000 beneficiaries.

– Do these social enterprises become careers for the students?

We only have six years of data, but a couple dozen of the 130 that have started will be scalable full-time work for their founders to go the distance. The vast majority had impact, worked, and may not have been scalable but were a worthwhile pursuit. Every single fellow who has gotten the fellowship has started something that helped people. We don’t take equity from our students. This is a youth development program, not a social venture capital firm.

– Why fund students?

We could have found other charities to support, and we do support other charities regularly. There’s a very interesting dynamic here. There’s a grave need for a social responsibility project and business model in communities around the world. More importantly there’s this phenomenon of students who want to start changing the world. Who is out there helping them really get started at that early stage? Being enrolled in a college of some kind — we’re not just talking about Ivy League schools here, it’s students from all around the world — you are old enough to run a venture, you can open a bank account and travel on your own, but you are not so formed that it won’t change your life.

There are a lot of places that do bits and pieces of what we do, but Resolution is all of those things on an open-ended basis for a young social entrepreneur at the earliest stage. We don’t fund anything that has received prior funding.

They must go to one of the conferences. It’s tens of thousands of people who attend these conferences every year. Some of the conferences are Harvard World Model UN, the Youth Assembly at the UN, the Clinton Global Initiative University, and we’re starting a competition with the One Young World Summit in Bangkok in November. Plus four to five more. We’ve got kids whose first plane ride was to come to that conference.

– Can you share a few success stories?

Annie Ryu has a venture called Global Village Fruit. Annie travelled to India when she was at Harvard and saw jackfruit rotting on the side of the street. She asked what they were and was told, people don’t really want to use them around here. She did some research and there were a number of cool products that can be made from jackfruit, including flour and a meat substitute (which is pretty awesome). Annie started a company that empowers small farmers in India and Sri Lanka, employs about 40 people in the packaging plant that she has in India, and sells at Whole Foods and other places. She has raised $1 million in funding. That’s a social business, structured as a for-profit. She started it after she was a Fellow in 2012.

We also have a young man named Derrius Quarles, born in Chicago, whose father was killed and whose mother went to jail. He was resigned to not go to college, but a teacher in high school told him he should go. He raised $1 million in scholarships, went to Morehouse, did well there, and created a venture called Million Dollar Scholar, a web platform and educational product that helps underprivileged students like himself to unlock scholarships. He has served thousands of people so far and has raised several million dollars in scholarships for them. He’s now at the University of Pennsylvania.

– What’s next for the Resolution Project?

We’re focused on three key things: we’re strengthening our own infrastructure. We have a staff of five  now, raising money to build the program. We’re deepening the fellowship, with 60 to 70 new fellows coming in every year. We’re adding training materials and enhancing training for our mentors. Resolution was very conscious of having real impact evaluation metrics. Now we’re in a position to talk about the impact numbers and enhance the visibility of our fellows.