Unique institute unites capitalists who want to save the world
The consultant holds a russet ankle boot in his right hand, gesturing as if it were a conductor’s baton.
Robert Reich, a University of Colorado business professor, is providing some blunt-spoken mentoring at the Unreasonable Institute, a summer camp for capitalists who want to change the world.
Facing Reich, a self-confessed serial entrepreneur, is Patrick Woodyard, whose Tennessee-based company markets shoes made by Peruvian craftspeople under the slogan “Join us, and wear change.”
Woodyard has told Reich that with each pair of shoes he ships, he includes information about the makers he hopes to help out of poverty.
“If you tried to convince me now that I should buy this shoe because of Pedro, I would say, ‘What do I care about Pedro?’” Reich said.
“If you give me a pair of shoes that I love, then I will care about Pedro, and I will come back to you.”
“I’m coming at it not just from the social impact side. I want your business to succeed,” Reich said. “If you don’t succeed, the shoemaker doesn’t succeed. To succeed, the product has to come first.”
The Unreasonable Institute, founded by University of Colorado graduates Teju Ravilochan and Daniel Epstein in this college town at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, is an attempt to solve real-world problems by linking innovative thinkers from around the world.
The name was inspired by playwright George Bernard Shaw, who said: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable.”
On a visit to India when he was about 10, Ravilochan, the US-born son of Indian immigrants, recalls seeing a boy his own age begging. It sparked a conversation with his father, a doctor, about why most people look away from poverty.
“He said people are sometimes unsure of how to solve problems that are so big,” said Ravilochan, who now is 26.
That day, the seed of what Ravilochan calls a “medical school for people who want to solve poverty” was planted.
Ravilochan said Epstein came to him with the idea that would become their institute after attending an international leadership summit in 2008.
Their institute provides a way “to be a part of many different experiments,” Epstein said. “Some will fail, but the learning is valuable.”
In its fourth year, the institute drew 21 entrepreneurs to the camp, which holds its sessions from an ivy-covered fraternity house abandoned for the summer, dubbed The Mansion.
Some were looking for investors to help them grow. Some wanted management or other advice, or just the support of a network of like-minded people.
Their ventures included campaigns to turn gang members in Chicago into community leaders; disabled craftspeople in New Delhi into design trendsetters; and failing students in Kenya’s Rift Valley into high school graduates.
Reich was among 50 mentors who volunteered to offer legal and design advice and act as sounding boards for pitches.
Some mentors have ended up investors after staying as long as a week, sharing The Mansion, its worn leather armchairs, sand volleyball court and other back-to-college-basics amenities.
Reich, who has been a part of every Unreasonable event since the first summer, said mentoring is his chosen form of charity.
The 48-year-old said he also takes part out of enlightened self-interest, saying working with entrepreneurs in their 20s and 30s keeps him in touch with new global concerns and the latest thinking in problem-solving.
“It keeps me active and in the game and aware,” he said.
Other mentors this year included Tom Suddess, a former director of development for the University of Notre Dame, whose Suddess Group designs fundraising campaigns for colleges and start-ups.
Entrepreneurs wanting to join the camp submit written applications and go through a series of interviews. Successful applicants pay $10,000 for a single and $12,000 for a pair to take part.
The institute helps participants raise the fee through crowd-sourcing and the support of donors like Hewlett-Packard and Vodafone.
Kago Kagichiri, a Kenyan mobile phone application developer, and Toni Maraviglia, a teacher, co-founded a company that provides tutoring via cellphone instant messages to schoolchildren in rural Kenya.
“Kids are very open to the world. If you give them the best content, they might decide to change the world,” Kagichiri said.
Kagichiri said when he first arrived in Boulder this summer, he wondered if the institute was the best use of his crowd-sourced funds.
But his concerns disappeared as he listened to mentors and made connections with entrepreneurs who shared his vision about the difference that could be made by viable businesses and new technologies.
Kagichiri said he learned in Boulder that “human connections are the most important thing.”
“Three weeks ago, I would have said work, time spent on work, is the most important.”
["Stock Photo: A Young Teacher Or Student Wearing Glasses Is In In Deep Thought While Standing In Front Of A Modern Pattern" on Shutterstock.]