Blog: Rishi & Anuja Jaitly

In Detroit, arguably even more important than dollars is the currency of social entrepreneurship. Keeping both financial and human capital circulating regionally are Rishi and Anuja Jaitly, co-founders of the Michigan Corps and co-launchers of Kiva Detroit. This week they give us the crash course on organizing for social change.

A Crash Course in Social Entrepreneurship: Lessons from Detroit

Valentine's Day evenings are supposed to be romantic, right? Well, whatever the norm, St. Valentine struck the two of us with a peculiar dose of inspiration on Valentine's Day 2010.

On Sunday evening, February 14 of that year, we were on the road, driving from Detroit to D.C.. having just finished up a couple of weeks with family to celebrate the arrival of our eight-week old daughter. After our daughter had fallen asleep in her car seat, the two of us began talking about the home we had just left: Michigan.

Our conversation quickly turned to people: how could a place with such an extraordinary human network – both in state and out of state – not be the most vibrant place in our country? We reflected on friends and colleagues for whom Michigan was home and wondered why their loyalty and sophistication was not even more evident in the life of our state.

By the time we reached D.C., we had already decided: why don't we – yes, the two of us – try and build a social change organization that figures all this out? Looking back, with a baby girl and a not-so-baked idea, it's sometimes hard to believe we actually moved on from our jobs, drove back to Michigan, and together began a journey in social entrepreneurship.   

We launched Michigan Corps in August 2010 and initially aspired for it to serve as a new national philanthropy that raised resources from a global network of Michiganders and invested dollars back in the state's economic ecosystem (whatever that meant). Within weeks, we realized we were being awfully naïve, for there were many people within the state who were also interested in giving and leading through a new philanthropic vehicle.

Months later, another "a ha!" moment: raising money is hard, especially if you're simply serving as a broad-based intermediary. Why not, we thought, instead focus on growing the state's social capital – that is, the net sum of all of our potential relationships and collaborations? We began to present Michigan Corps as a new, social network that makes it easy for Michiganders to find, connect, and work with one another on social change.

This approach proved promising. Through Michigan Corps' digital and real-world platforms, entrepreneurs found venture capitalists, non-profits found private-sector consultants, young people started idea-generating clubs at their schools, and much more.

But that's not the end of the story. We realized quickly that it wasn't enough for a social network focused on social change to merely convene individuals, to sit back, and assume that our special identity as Michiganders would alone fuel productive social change activity. Like our counterparts in Silicon Valley, we realized we needed to launch products – no, wait, projects – that made it even easier for Michiganders to work with one another on consensus issues.

We dreamed up Kiva Detroit this past January rather serendipitously and envisioned the kind of social and economic impact that might be possible if Detroiters themselves were more easily able to champion small businesses in their own community. Little did we know that our idea would help shape the first big microlending effort in the United States and's first Kiva City.

What is Kiva Detroit? It's a growing, volunteer citizen network of Detroiters who source, lend to, and champion small businesses in their own community. The fact that average citizens – pastors, social service workers, restaurant owners, journalists, students, and more – are empowered to source small businesses in  the community and walk them through a loan application of up to $50,000 is a powerful notion. What's even more exciting about Kiva Detroit is that these Detroit small businesses – a new newspaper, restaurant, bike shop, concierge service, fashion label, and more – are then featured online, where Detroiters and others make loans to them $25 at a time. A new, horizontal model that builds community. While the likes of former President Clinton and the founder of Kiva joined us for our first events, our launch was just the beginning. Kiva Detroit is here to stay for as long as Detroiters are energetic about local small businesses: the momentum continues with a new advisory board that leads Team Kiva Detroit and many more entrepreneurs who will soon be featured for the community to rally around.   

Through all of this, Rishi was recruited to lead the Knight Foundation's grant making across Detroit while Anuja, after the successful launch of Kiva Detroit, decided to return to family for the time being. This was not part of the plan. We were named global semifinalists in the Echoing Green Fellowship for Social Entrepreneurs and were asked to join the Michigan Governor-elect's transition team. Like many social-change start-ups, we enjoyed launch PR and then anxiously awaited being able to claim that big difference we first set out to make.

Along the way, we've learned five big lessons about social entrepreneurship that we hope resonate with you.

Why does all of this matter in Detroit? Put simply, we see Detroit as the new epicenter of social entrepreneurship, a place where individuals are pursuing public service with enormous creativity and purpose. We think of artists who renew homes to create a sense of place, entrepreneurs who help one another build businesses, men who come together to form new public-safety networks, and young professionals who find time to engage the entire city in retail-business contests.

Be social about your entrepreneurship. We believe it's no coincidence that Michigan Corps – and our larger journey here
began together and during a conversation. In fact, we'd been talking for years about our ideas, about websites, about URL names, and about geographies. It all happened to culminate in Michigan Corps but it's clear to us we wouldn't have been able to make progress had we not already and together entered the "mental space" of entrepreneurship.

Know your market. Not unlike the commercial world, the social change space is full of markets and product opportunities. While we had an instinctual sense about our target market – i.e. Michigan – we could have put more work into market smarts. Had we done so, we likely would have launched Michigan Corps from the beginning with a focus on growing a local, social network through which resourceful Michiganders can connect on change – as opposed to a global organization raising and redistributing financial resources.

Start small, be realistic. Throughout our journey, we've had to temper our lofty goals with initiatives that set up the all-important baby steps. Next time, we'll start with the baby steps which, in our case, had to do with bringing wide ranges of people together and giving them easy opportunities to lead change. We would start there and then generalize to bigger goals and mission statements. This way, we'd learn more quickly about what it is what we've started and take a lot of pressure off of ourselves.

Be social about your organization, too. We believe that the future of social entrepreneurship, especially in a Detroit where there is palpable citizen energy everywhere, wrests with organizations that know how to engage networks of citizens, and not FTEs, on behalf of their missions, i.e. thinking horizontally and vertically. Not only has this never been easier, but resource constraints around the world demand it.  In the spirit of a true "Corps", every single one of our initiatives is volunteer driven – a true testament to the opportunity in Detroit and what we might, as a city, showcase to the world.

Chase inputs and outputs. We started out aspiring to create jobs, increase college enrollment rates, and pursue wealth creation across Detroit and Michigan. PowerPoint decks and Excel spreadsheets abounded. What we've realized, though, is that inputs matter as much as outputs. That is, the human narratives that our work set in motion are just as, if not more, important. Through all of our initiatives to date, from Michigan Corps and Kiva Detroit to Knight Foundation and the Black Male Engagement Challenge, we're most proud of the number and quality of human relationships and collaborations we have set in motion across Detroit and Michigan.

In the end, that's the story of all of our lives, isn't it?