The following is a conversation between Cheryl Dorsey, President and CEO of Echoing Green, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.
Denver: Every social entrepreneur who has ever had a great idea needs others to believe in him or her and that idea, especially in the very early stages. One of the first organizations that has taken this leap of faith, albeit a carefully thought out and calibrated one, is Echoing Green, which has helped to finance and launch some incredible organizations that have made the world a better place. And with us now is the President and CEO of Echoing Green, Cheryl Dorsey. Good evening, Cheryl, and welcome to The Business of Giving!
Cheryl: Denver, thank you so much for having me. It’s wonderful to see you again.
The mission of Echoing Green is simple and wonderful: It is to unleash next generation talent to solve the world’s greatest problems.
Denver: Likewise. Tell us about Echoing Green, how it got started and the work of the organization.
Cheryl: Yes, thank you for asking. Echoing Green has been around—it’s hard to believe— almost 30 years. We were founded in 1987 by the senior leadership of a private equity firm called General Atlantic, who were true pioneers in the space of social entrepreneurship. And the mission of Echoing Green is simple and wonderful: It is to unleash next generation talent to solve the world’s greatest problems.
We are probably best known for our world-class fellowship program, through which we go out across the world looking for next generation leadership who have good ideas to make their communities, regions, countries and world a better place… and ask them to submit their ideas for social change. And through a pretty rigorous, tough social business plan competition,we will ultimately winnow down the thousands of submissions we receive each year and ultimately make investments in anywhere from 20 to 40 great next-gen leaders with next-gen ideas, and help them get farther faster. So it is a wonderful collection of top talent.
Denver: Give us an idea of some of the people and ideas that you have supported early on and nurtured that maybe some of our listeners will recognize.
Cheryl: Sure and thank you for asking about that. It’s interesting. Most people don’t know Echoing Green, which is fine, but they know a number of our terrific social entrepreneurs who are out in the world doing terrific things. So, to date, we’ve invested in close to 700 social entrepreneurs now working in 60-plus countries around the world.
If you care about education reform here in the United States, you’re probably familiar with some of our investments and some of the key ed reform organizations like Teach for America; The SEED School–our nation’s first urban public boarding school; College Summit— a terrific college access program.
If you care about global development, you might have heard of a couple of terrific social innovations and social enterprises from SKS Microfinance, which, at one time, was the fastest growing microcredit institution in the world, and the first to go public in the stock exchange about six years ago… Terrific organization working with smallholder farmers in Africa called the One Acre Fund… Terrific organization seeking to build the global health equity movement called Global Health Corps.
Social entrepreneurship is really about an alliance-based model for change that allows different actors across society to come together to solve problems — social problems, environmental problems – at scale.
Social entrepreneurship has been a really powerful call to action, especially for millennials who have a real sense of agency about their role and function in making the world a better place. And social entrepreneurship gives them that on-ramp, the pathway to think about how they can be agents of change in society.
Denver: Those are some brand names. I tell you, when people talk about the One Acre Fund, they always talk about transparency. They are really the epitome of that. Why do you believe that social entrepreneurship is such a positive strategy for social change?
Cheryl: For a couple of reasons. So, social entrepreneurship, at its essence, is really about blurring of sectoral boundaries. The blurring of boundaries between the social sector or nonprofit sector, the state, and the market, and the notion that by blurring sectoral boundaries, it’s really sort of about better collaborating, better coordinating to create greater shared value. So it’s really about an alliance-based model for change that allows different actors across society to come together to solve problems — social problems, environmental problems – at scale.
In addition, I think from a human capital perspective, social entrepreneurship has been a really powerful call to action, especially for millennials who have a real sense of agency about their role and function in making the world a better place. And social entrepreneurship gives them that on-ramp, the pathway to think about how they can be agents of change in society.
At the end of the day, we really do believe if you back the right leader with the right vision and the right qualities, that’s the surest path to positive, long-term social change.
There’s something about just the passion as the “catalytic fuel” that keeps you going when the rest of the world says: “You’re crazy!” or doesn’t believe in your idea. That passion really is your North Star, and you can’t underestimate the power to be the wind beneath the wings of these entrepreneurs.
Resilience is a really important factor. Failure is part and parcel of what these entrepreneurs will face. It is not about getting knocked down; it’s more about: How do you get back up?
Denver: This is the time of year that the college acceptance letters go out. I was looking at some of the acceptance rates the other day at select schools, and I saw that Yale was at 6% and Harvard was at 5% and Stanford was just above 4%. But those numbers seem downright high when you look at it in terms of the competition to become an Echoing Green fellow. You have about 3,300 submissions, and you accept about 30 – 35 or so. I know you look at both human capital and the power of the idea. Tell us about some of the traits and characteristics you’re looking for when you’re looking at these applications.
Cheryl: It’s interesting when you talk to venture capitalists, they often quickly understand our process because in many ways, its essence is: You know it when you see it. You meet these incredible entrepreneurial leaders, and they just move you. And it’s alchemy — it’s not science, it’s more of an art – but you know it when you see it.
Denver: Like some other things.
Cheryl: Exactly. But trying to be a little more deliberative and thoughtful about: What does it mean to know it when you see it? We have spent the past couple of years trying to codify how we look at and ultimately select these social entrepreneurs that we ultimately invest in. We’ve got an eight-point framework that has some questions or filters that we look at – What type of leader are we looking to invest in? – and then a couple of filters that help us determine the quality, scale, boldness of the idea, and the feasibility of executing the business plan to achieve that idea at scale. But we most heavily lean on the type of leader we’re looking for because, at the end of the day, we really do believe if you back the right leader with the right vision and the right qualities, that’s the surest path to positive, long-term social change.
So, some examples of the qualities that we look for. First and foremost, we are looking for: Why- do-you-do-what-you-do passion, the level of passion and commitment. At the end of the day, we all know how hard it is to undertake entrepreneurial ventures. Most of them fail. So there’s something about just the passion as the catalytic fuel that keeps you going when the rest of the world says “You’re crazy!” or doesn’t believe in your idea. And that passion really is your North Star, and you can’t underestimate the power to be the wind beneath the wings of these entrepreneurs. So, that’s absolutely critical!
Secondly, we are looking for a particular type of leader. There are all sorts of leaders in society, and they all play a valuable role in helping societal progress. But we’re looking for a particular type of transformative social sector leader. Essentially, we’re looking for movement builders– people who, at the end of the day, are about building social movements that are far beyond their individual organization or their individual idea. It really is about movements for life, and the leaders that will help those movements take root.
Third, resilience. Really important factor. Failure is part and parcel of what these entrepreneurs will face. It is not about getting knocked down; it’s more about: How do you get back up?
Denver: How high you bounce.
Cheryl: How high you bounce, I love that! And we’ve got to have a real sense that these social entrepreneurs are resilient. Who can keep going in the face of lots of headwinds and lots of adversity?
And then last, but not least, we talk about a quality called “resource magnetism.” This is not charisma; it’s resource magnetism– How sticky are these leaders? Because it’s not just about the ability to raise financial resources; you also have to be able to recruit and mobilize volunteers. You’ve got to be able to attract media professionals, like yourself, who want to tell the stories of the work. And you have to be able to create evangelists for your cause that allow you to extend your reach far beyond your individual organization. So, we often will apply the cocktail party test, where if you’re in a room with a social entrepreneur, and everybody is just glommed onto them. They’re just so sticky, and you are hanging on their every word! And you’ve bought into their vision. And that’s what we mean by “resource magnetism.” It’s really quite powerful, but distinct from charisma.
So, again, we privilege those leadership qualities more than anything else. But, of course, in terms of the idea and the potential for the organization to gain traction, we’re looking for the boldness of the idea – Is it potentially game changing? There are many good ideas out there, many good organizations, many of whom will make a difference… but are really about symptomatic relief, versus really ultimately solving the problem. We want bold, audacious leaders with bold, audacious ideas who think they’re ultimately going to solve the problems. So, that’s the type of idea we’re looking for.
We’re also looking for impact and scale. I want to be very clear here. Echoing Green has a very particular definition about scale. It can be serving lots of folks across a wide swath of geography, but it can also mean going very deep in a place and radically transforming the lives of those you touch in that one particular community. So it’s about the scale of impact, not the scale of operations; that’s really, really important.
Denver: That’s a good distinction.
Cheryl: And then feasibility. We are fortunate and privileged that every year, thousands of individuals send us their ideas for making the world a better place. And again, that’s a real privilege, and it’s a sacred honor. We read every submission and take it very seriously. But as lofty and as wonderful as some of the goals are, quite often the plan for executing it… not feasible at all. So we’ve got to have some sense that you can feasibly execute against your plan and your idea.
Denver: And listening to you, I would sense that the person trumps the idea, if you had to pick one.
Cheryl: Absolutely, Denver. That’s right.
Denver: What do you for these fellows? I know you provide early stage funding, which is no easy thing to come by, but you also provide some additional support. Tell us a little bit about that.
Cheryl: Absolutely. We provide an array of supports. Again, we give a little bit of seed capital, and we say it’s valuable because of when we provide it and the type of capital it is. As you just said, it’s really hard to get that early stage capital because most funders and most people are not very risk-tolerant, right? No one wants to take that leap, and we’re in the business of taking that leap and taking that risk. So, the stage at which we provide the capital, but it’s also unrestricted capital, which is super-duper important, because often funders will apply restrictions to what you can do with the money; and we believe deeply that the entrepreneur knows best how to deploy it.
Denver: You’re betting on the person.
Cheryl: You’re exactly right. So if you bet on the person, you’ve got to bet on their vision for how to deploy that capital, and we take that very seriously.
But in addition, I would say: far more important than the money are the wraparound services that are provided by my colleagues who run the fellowship program. Each fellow is assigned to a portfolio manager, who is essentially a trusted advisor who works with that fellow and a cohort of fellows each year… to be a confidante, to be a sounding board, and to be a guide through a maze of opportunities that our global network provides for these fellows. It’s a really powerful relationship that if it works well, works phenomenally well.
Each portfolio managers works with each fellow organization, helping them execute against an IFP, which stands for an “individualized fellow plan”. It is built upon four building blocks of support that we believe, when executed well, will set that fellow and her organization up for success. So, the IFP is based on: “Can you raise necessary resources around your stated plan? How do you fundraise–whether you’re raising investment capital for a for-profit social enterprise, or philanthropic capital for a nonprofit or a for-profit enterprise?” So we’re making sure they are sticking to their fundraising plan and have a fundraising plan.
Secondly, can they measure what they’re doing? The whole notion of metrics and evaluation is super important. It often is overwhelming to early stage social entrepreneurs to think about metrics and evaluation when you’re just trying to think about the program you’re trying to run.
Denver: But you’ve got to do it really early on, or it gets almost impossible to try to lay it on later.
Cheryl: You have to! That’s exactly right, Denver. We try to demystify the process of metrics and evaluation and instill in our fellows that it can actually be a terrific tool to hold you accountable.
The third part of the individualized fellow plan is “Do you have short-term plan of action against what you’re executing, each and every day?” What does your program plan look like? And what are the activities that undergird that plan?
And then last, but not the least, “How do you maintain your passion and keep doing this work?” Burnout is no small issue for hard-charging entrepreneurs, especially those who are working on the most difficult, heart-breaking social problems. So, providing them with the care and support of a community that truly cares about them and loves them is really super important. And I’m really proud – in Echoing Green, alum Eric Dawson, a phenomenal social entrepreneur who runs an organization called Peace First, also has a degree in Divinity. He and some of his colleagues provide secular chaplaincy services for our fellow– confidential services where people will have a shoulder to cry on; they can vent on them, but also just a safe place to talk about all the hard things that come with being a social entrepreneur.
It’s not to set them in competition with their for-profit brethren; it’s about: How do we all talk together about sustainability and learn from one another because each model has something really important to share? So we’re trying to learn lessons learned from both sides of the house to make the entire house stronger.
Denver: That’s wonderful, because I think in those leadership positions, you’re afraid to show weakness. And you have to let people know sometimes that: Hey! You’re overwhelmed! But you can’t show it publicly. Having a place to do that is wonderful.
Echoing Green supports social entrepreneurs. Pretty much, it started out exclusively in the nonprofit sector. And then around 2005-2006, you began to see some social businesses begin to creep into the equation. These were businesses that wanted to have a social impact, but also wanted to make a profit and maybe even have an environmental impact as well. And they were about 15% of your applicants. Now, you’re pushing 50%. So my question I have for you is: What do you think this means to existing traditional nonprofit organizations? Do they have something to be worried about? Is the world changing under their feet?
Cheryl: I don’t know if it’s something to be worried about. I like to think of this moment in time as the social sector having a really important conversation about sustainability. We all know how difficult it is for nonprofits to be sustainable, and, in fact, most of us do this work because we have walked into market failures. We’re doing the work because there’s no market-based solution to get these problems solved, or the capital is not running towards these issues or these problems. So, baked into the cake, you’re going to have difficulties related to sustainability.
But what I like about this burgeoning impact investing movement is just this critical insight that: Wow! These problems seem so big, so intractable, so overwhelming, but if we’re ever going to think about solving them at scale, you’ve got to figure out a way to engage the capital markets. I think that’s just very thoughtful. We’re still very early on in the conversation if impact investing is the way that we’re going to get there. I don’t think we moved enough capital. It still seems to me and to many of our entrepreneurs who are on the vanguard of this movement, that investors don’t necessarily understand the risk profile of the social impact for its businesses.
Denver: Hard to get deals done. Lots of talk, but very hard to get those deals done.
Cheryl: That’s exactly right. And for those of us who are at least interested in this and think that we should at least try, are worried that the hype and the hyperbole are going to overtake justf the hard work of trying to build the early stage capital marketplace, which is where we play. So I think the jury is still out. We don’t know how this is all going to shake out.
We exist in a world where now 50% of our applicant pool are proposing these double bottom line and triple bottom line social enterprises. We run now a recoverable grants program where instead of offering philanthropic grants to our for-profit and hybrid fellows, we simply ask if they meet certain triggers– either in terms of the valuation of the company, or in terms of revenue raised– that they just pay the capital back. We’re a few years into the recoverable grant program. We’re collecting lots of data, and we’re watching this very closely. About 20-plus percent or so of these businesses have triggered in the short term, which I think is not too bad. But they’ve all triggered around valuation, as opposed to revenue. So, again, the jury is still out, and we’re still sort of watching the fundraising strategies.
And I have to say, our social entrepreneurs who are trying to raise investment capital are having a really tough time as well. It’s just hard at this early stage, and they’re stacking capital– sort of mixing philanthropic capital with investment capital. They’re having to talk to many different investors, some of whom are not social impact first; they’re financial return first. It is all very hard. But I think for us– because still the preponderance of our social entrepreneurs are starting not-for-profits–it’s not to set them in competition with their for-profit brethren; it’s about: How do we all talk together about sustainability and learn from one another because each model has something really important to share? So we’re trying to learn lessons learned from both sides of the house to make the entire house stronger.
I would say, given the conversation we’re having across society about inequity, racial equity issues, gender equity issues, this generation is really speaking truth to power and is demanding of all of us that we show up and think about the world differently. And I think it’s wonderful… Echoing Green always recognizes that we’ve got to follow these leaders, and we will, and so equity proposals are a big part of what we’re doing.
Denver: Are you seeing, Cheryl, social innovation more closely coupled with social justice– more submissions coming in through the lens of gender and race and economic inequality?
Cheryl: We are. So, again, relative to other social entrepreneurship funders in this space, our DNA was really built out of a social justice approach to social innovation. Thus, when you look at many of our early investments and Echoing Green alums like me, we all sort of came out of a social justice tradition and a social justice approach to this work. So, 25 years ago, when I got my Echoing Green fellowship, I was starting an infant mortality—
Denver: Family Van.
Cheryl: Exactly. Thank you for remembering this wonderful program that is still in existence today on the streets of Boston, and was really taking on the issue of health disparities between black residents of Boston and white residents of Boston. At the time, black babies were dying at three times the rate of white babies– which is terrible enough– but in the shadow of some the world’s best medical facilities was just horrific.
Denver: Just a block or two away.
Cheryl: A block or two away, absolutely. It’s just unconscionable. Echoing Green backed me, people in the Echoing Green community like Van Jones–who started Bay Area Police Watch, which was, at the time, the first police hotline to report police brutality in communities of color in the East Bay and Oakland. People like Byron Hurt who did a terrific documentary with Echoing Green support called I Am a Man: Black Masculinity in America, and then the list goes on and on. But I would say, given the conversation we’re having across society about inequity, racial equity issues, gender equity issues, this generation is really speaking truth to power and is demanding of all of us that we show up and think about the world differently. And I think it’s wonderful. So, again, Echoing Green always recognizes that we’ve got to follow these leaders, and we will, and so equity proposals are a big part of what we’re doing.
These young people are recognizing that a number of institutions across their societies have failed them – from the government to educational institutions to business institutions – and they are at the vanguard of saying: “We are going to disrupt the heck out of this place, and if these institutions are failing us, we’re going to create our own.”
Denver: I’ve always looked at Echoing Green and the fellows you select as the leading indicator of sorts– the way that people look at the stock market. And one thing that I’ve observed recently is that Africa seems to be a really, really hot continent. What is going on there to make it such a burgeoning place?
Cheryl: You’re spot on about that, Denver. It’s really fascinating, and this is one of the most interesting things that we’re seeing and are super excited about here at Echoing Green. So, when you look at the 2,000-plus submissions we get each year, you’re right! About a third of that deal flow is coming out of Africa. It’s just extraordinary!
I think a couple of things are happening, and this is our take on it. Number one is that the population growth across the continent is being driven by young people. And so these millennials are remarkably talented. Many of them are entering education systems–especially higher education systems– and are just ready to unleash their thinking and their talent and their energies to make the continent a better, stronger place, and are completely committed to it. So, again, I’m just blown away by the level of talent that we see coming from the continent. I think that’s one thing.
I think some of our strongest and some of our most interesting impact investing proposals are coming from that continent as well. These young people are recognizing that a number of institutions across their societies have failed them – from the government to educational institutions to business institutions – and they are at the vanguard of saying: “We are going to disrupt the heck out of this place, and if these institutions are failing us, we’re going to create our own.” I think they are being really innovative and creative and thoughtful about: What do 21st century institutions in Africa need to look like? And they are taking the bull by the horns and not waiting for anybody else to do it. They’re going to do it. And I think it’s an incredibly exciting time.
And again, when you look at some of the hottest emerging markets and the explosion and growth of the middle class, a lot of that is coming out of Africa. I think that all pushes forward this next gen talent focused on social enterprise. It’s amazing.
And the message is: How do you apply your excellence in the way that makes sense to make the world a better place? And if it means being the best investment banker that Goldman Sachs has ever seen, that’s what you should be doing. Or, if you’re supposed to be the best second grade teacher that your school in Brooklyn has ever seen, that’s the message we should be sending.
The rest of us should figure out what we’re “best in class” at and put our shoulder to the wheel on that. So I think a lot of what Echoing Green tries to talk about is: “How do you find that thing? What is your purpose and yours uniquely to own?” And that’s how you should show up in the world.
Denver: It really is. Looking at all this next gen talent, it seems that every single one of them who gets involved in this space wants to start a social enterprise, and that’s good. But I do get a little worried about “founder’s syndrome.” Nobody seems to want to work with an existing organization and start something within the context of that organization. They all have to be a “founder.” What are your thoughts on that?
Cheryl: That is such an important conversation and question, Denver. When we were talking earlier, you were saying you have a daughter, a millennial, in your home. I don’t have any kids but I spend a lot of time travelling the country and the world, really talking to young people. And I get invited to all these forums because people want me to come and talk about “How do you start something new?” There is silence that falls across the room when I start my talk by saying, “I beg of you, smart young people, please don’t start anything new.” It’s just so incongruent because I’m the person who’s representing Echoing Green that funds people starting something new. But it’s the right message. Again, I think one of the Achilles heels of the social entrepreneurship movement is: We’re sending the wrong message to young people who are conflating success with ”founding something.” That’s a terrible message, and that’s not at all what we should be doing.
The beauty to me and the lasting power of social entrepreneurship is really about a model of leadership where these social entrepreneurs, at least the ones that we fund at Echoing Green, have aligned their passion and their purpose and their skills so beautifully that they are putting their best talent and thinking out into the world to be a better place. And it just happens for them that that sliver of the population who is entrepreneurial, that their talents and their passion is aligned to make the world a better place through social entrepreneurship. And the message is: How do you apply your excellence in the way that makes sense to make the world a better place? And if it means being the best investment banker that Goldman Sachs has ever seen, that’s what you should be doing. Or, if you’re supposed to be the best second grade teacher that your school in Brooklyn has ever seen, that’s the message we should be sending.
The movement, the social entrepreneurship movement, has not done a good job of translating the lessons learned from the social entrepreneurship movement to the broader population. And we’ve got to figure it out because, again, human beings–we didn’t survive all these years being entrepreneurial. We are all, pretty much 99.9% of us, are risk averse, and that’s a good thing because that allows us to maintain and thrive and survive. But there are a small number of folks who should be starting entrepreneurial ventures. The rest of us should figure out what we’re “best in class” at and put our shoulder to the wheel on that. So I think a lot of what Echoing Green tries to talk about is: “How do you find that thing? What is your purpose and yours uniquely to own?” And that’s how you should show up in the world.
Denver: That is great advice. You are a wise woman.
Cheryl: I work around a lot of wise young people, and I listen to them, and I learn well from them.
Denver: When Echoing Green started back in the late ‘80s, you were pretty much alone in the social enterprise space. If you weren’t the first, you were certainly among the first two or three. And now you’ve started something where there’s been a tidal wave that has followed you. How does Echoing Green stay distinctive and unique and keep your competitive edge in this competitive marketplace?
Cheryl: That’s a great question. Again, all credit to the founders of Echoing Green– the senior leadership of General Atlantic. They really were prescient in this space, and I hope one day when the definitive history of social entrepreneurship is written, that General Atlantic will be given its due because they really were out there first. And you’re right, as best I can tell, we were only the second or third earliest founded funder of social entrepreneurs.. so really there first.
And then, you’re right, new entrants sort of trickled in in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s. And now there’s been a flood of entrants. I think that’s a good thing because there’s not enough capital, not enough support, and there’s not enough commitment to the human capital development side of unleashing talent into the world. Again, I don’t believe that most of us should be funding more new enterprises, but I do like this approach of: How do you invest in talent across the world? Because indigenous leadership, place-based leadership, smart leadership applied to community problems is a really powerful solution. So, I’m game for more organizations to ultimately do that.
But I think Echoing Green has maintained its distinction for a couple of reasons. Number one, when you look at most funders, most of them still are not doing as early stage investing as we are–so that risk tolerance, that first-in funding is still valuable, and we continue to be quite comfortable with taking that risk. So, there’s still a need for our work.
I think secondly, the type of entrepreneur in which we invest is still fairly distinctive. One of the knocks in the field of social entrepreneurship is that it remains too exclusive. It’s too elitist; it’s too non-diverse, and it’s not reaching the last-mile talent that is really going to be the game changing talent to make the world a better place… or especially indigenous communities better places. So Echoing Green has made a unique commitment to figuring out: How do you build that last-mile distribution capacity to find those next gen leaders that are not yet showing up on other radar screens? That’s a real commitment for us going forward in the next 5, 10, 20 years.
And then I think, last but not least, we’ve started to really talk about our work– not just being a fellowship program, but being a real innovation platform. You can’t get 30-plus new leaders together every year, and then a collection of 700 plus of them, without really being a fount of innovation and next gen thinking. In the past five to six years, as a result of this really smart community of leaders, we’ve started additional programming that I think has really allowed us to be good field builders. We now have an impact investing program that is really dedicated to: How do you build out the early stage capital market and ecosystem to better support this early stage social enterprises? So, from new financial tools like recoverable grants, to a new mission-first impact note that we’re about to unveil in the next couple of months, to investment readiness tools for early stage social entrepreneurs. I think that’s a real differentiator for us to the rest of the field.
We have a terrific program, which I’m so proud of, called Direct Impact, where we’re now working with young business leaders to train them in board governance. Everybody recognizes that what is so wonderful, and I think particular, about the United States, is our engagement as civic leaders. But people just typically place folks on boards without thinking about all of the training and tools that go along with being a really good board member.
Denver: All the time.
Cheryl: All the time.
Denver: If you go to work at McDonalds, they’re going to train you. But if you go to serve on a board, they just hand you a book.
Cheryl: Absolutely! And how silly of all of us! We’ve all been part of that process – certainly, I have – for decades. And just the “Aha!” moment when one of my colleagues said, “That’s not good enough.” How do we really build the curriculum and the training that goes into investing in these next gen civic leaders? So we’ve just launched our second cohort of trainees, and it’s just, I think, going to be a game changer. So that’s terrific. And we’ve got our Work On Purpose program that really has tried to diffuse content and curriculum across the country on: How do you work with young people on career exploration that helps them align their passion, their purpose? So, I think all of these new programs spring out of this innovation platform.
Denver: Yes. Very distinctive.
Cheryl: Yes, exactly.
Denver: And I’ll add one, if I may. You have an alumni network, which is one of a kind. You guys really do support each other.
Cheryl: Yes. Absolutely. And it was interesting. Last night, I went to an event for an Echoing Green alum, Becca Heller, who started the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, which is now called International Refugee Assistance Project because it has expanded.
Denver: She was on the program with you a number of years ago.
Cheryl: She was indeed, Denver, which is why I brought Becca up– who was just such an extraordinary social entrepreneur. And she was receiving the Charles Bronfman Prize last night at the New York Historical Society.
Denver: That’s a big deal.
Cheryl: It is a really big deal! And the work that she is doing is game changing and lifesaving. We heard from one of her clients, an incredible woman named Farrah, whose husband was murdered at the hands of Saddam Hussein’s army after the Iraq invasion– and whom Becca helped bring to the United States– who is now thriving here with her children. And it was just the most moving evening, not only because of Becca’s work that is just game changing in terms of refugee services, but also the fact that in her remark, she thanked another Echoing Green fellow, Sasha Chanoff from RefugePoint, as one of the key leaders in building out this new way of thinking about refugee services. And a number of us from the Echoing Green community– Katie Orenstein from the Op-Ed Project, myself, were in the audience to support Becca. That’s how our alumni network shows up all day, every day.
Life throws you curve balls, and you just have to listen to the universe.
Denver: That’s fantastic. Let me ask you one final thing about your own personal journey. You went to Harvard Medical School, perhaps somewhat at the insistence of your parents. You were never really that keen on being a doctor, as I recall. But you’ve had a very interesting trip since then. Tell us a little bit about it.
Cheryl: Yes, it’s been an interesting, circuitous journey. So, yes, I went to medical school in the late ‘80s, in part because in my generation, if you had a family that was committed to education, your guidance counsellor – my mom was a high school guidance counsellor in Baltimore City Schools – you were told you can either be a lawyer, engineer, or a doctor. That is what success looked like. But that’s what you’re told growing up, so you’re like, “OK,” and I was the first person in my family to become a medical doctor.
I think when your family wants only the best for you and for the upward mobility of your family, that’s the push that you get. And I went off to medical school– not in my heart of hearts thinking it was the right thing, but not quite knowing what else to do. But again, life throws you curve balls, and you just have to listen to the universe. I had the opportunity to work with the woman who ultimately became my mentor and co-founder of the Family Van, Nancy Oriol, the Dean of students at Harvard Medical School, and we just started attacking a problem that we were very passionate about. And it really did change both of our lives forever.
So it was a wonderful example– of Nancy coming into my life, Echoing Green coming into my life, and sending me off on a completely different trajectory. So it’s been a wild ride. It’s been great.
I do think the intensity of the training… and the way you go about learning your craft is something that stays with you for life. The way you approach problems, and the way that you work your way through problems is really important… the discipline that you have to acquire, and just the ability to grind… recognizing that until you take a structural approach, you’re not going to get to the heart of the matter.
Denver: Has anything from your medical training background helped you or influenced you, in terms of the way you carry out your present duties? And maybe there isn’t.
Cheryl: I would say: “Surely.” I do think the intensity of the training… and the way you go about learning your craft is something that stays with you for life. The way you approach problems, and the way that you work your way through problems is really important…the discipline that you have to acquire, and just the ability to grind.
From being on call every second to third night… to just never knowing that there’s going to be a light at the end of the tunnel because you’re exhausted, but having to push through anyway is a skill set that is always helpful when you’re trying to push through. And recognizing a view of the world that there are millions of amazing medical professionals around the world who are doing lifesaving work every day, but quite often they are putting a band aid on the problem and sending people back out into communities and to systems that have such great structural barriers, that you’re just sending them back into the same inequities that will send them back to the ER or to the hospital anyway. So recognizing that until you take a structural approach, you’re not going to get to the heart of the matter…. I think you learn that when you’re sitting in the ER at two in the morning, and a kid comes in, and you’re just like: “What am I doing? And why are we not really holistically helping this child?” I think that was a good lesson learned.
Denver: If listeners want to learn more about Echoing Green, or perhaps maybe even fund the next great social entrepreneur, what do they need to do?
Cheryl: Thank you for asking. That’s an awesome question. So, please check out Echoing Green at echoinggreen.org. We’re very active on social media, so check out our Facebook page; send us a tweet; stay in contact with us. And in the next month, we will be announcing the finalists for the 2016 Fellowship Program. There is a surfeit of good ideas and good talent, and Echoing Green, like most nonprofits and most intermediaries, doesn’t ever have enough resources to support this game changing talent. So if you’re so inspired, please check out Echoing Green’s webpage. Donate; stay in touch with us; send us more great people. We’d love to have you along for the ride.
Denver: Well, Cheryl Dorsey, the President and CEO of Echoing Green, it’s hard to believe what you guys started back in the 1980s has come as far as it has come. It was a real pleasure having you on the program.
Cheryl: Denver, thank you so much for having me back. It was a real honor. Thank you.
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