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The following is a conversation between Dave Blanchard, Co-founder and President of Praxis Labs, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer.
Denver: We have talked to some great organizations who have helped to inspire and launch budding social entrepreneurs, as well as many of those entrepreneurs themselves. Each has been moved to take on an extraordinary social challenge for a variety of reasons. Well, one reason that has been left out of the equation has been their religious faith. And tonight, we will have the opportunity to include just that with Dave Blanchard, the Co-founder and President of an organization called Praxis Labs. Good evening, Dave, and welcome to The Business of Giving!
Dave: It’s a privilege to be here. Thanks for having me, Denver.
…what we do is try to support entrepreneurs who are motivated by their faith to advance their ventures in the world. They’re targeting social and cultural impact. We want to help them increase their impact in the world while also helping them develop as individuals.
Denver: Tell us about Praxis Labs, the mission of the organization, and the job that you do.
Dave: So Praxis Labs was started a few years ago. And what we do is try to support entrepreneurs who are motivated by their faith to advance their ventures in the world. They’re targeting social and cultural impact. We want to help them increase their impact in the world while also helping them develop as individuals.
Entrepreneurship is a hard, hard journey, and it’s a personal journey that we have the privilege of walking alongside some of these founders in.
Denver: And this would be their Christian faith. How did this idea come to you? And how did you actually get it started?
Dave: Well, I suppose that it’s been a long journey in some sense. I was a pastor’s kid who’s also an entrepreneur, and I don’t think I had a very serious faith for a lot of my growing up years, actually between 16 to mid-20s frame.
Denver: Not many of us do.
Dave: But at that time, I really had a re-awakening of my own faith, and I started to think about what it would mean to use my own entrepreneurial capacities for things of larger purpose, particularly when it was connected to my Christian faith. And that was the journey that started the way to Praxis. We really started it with myself and my co-founder Josh Kwan, who’s out in San Francisco. He’s was the head of a family foundation that was funding a lot of nonprofits.
We both had this sense that there were a lot of organizations emerging, really at the intersection of what we would say is the “university and the incubator.” They were helping entrepreneurs in some really excellent ways, but there was not a lot of conversation that we could tell on who that founder was. What was really motivating them to do it? And then particularly within the context of Christian faith, how did they wrestle and think through things– like their own personal identity, how hard they should work, how they should see the multiple vocations, and ideas like” calling” in their life. These were things that when we started Praxis, we had a hunch that it would be transformational for these founders, and I think it has ended up being that.
Denver: You believe, I know, that you think that this is an absolutely unprecedented opportunity for Christian entrepreneurship. Why do you think that?
Dave: Well, for one, we are in an entrepreneurial age. Fifty-four percent of millennials right now, according to Kauffman Foundation, say they want to join a startup or be part of a startup. It’s just an incredible energy towards doing something, and you have to ask where that energy is going to be directed.
For the Christian in the world, I think there’s more receptivity than ever to the idea of a business being a carrier of a social mission. So we actually have consumers who are pulling on organizations saying “We want more than just buying goods and services. We want the businesses to be doing well.” And I think we have also more sophisticated donors, even at the smaller donor level, who are looking at how do we really impact the world. So there’s a lot of capital and talent moving around. And I think for the Christian entrepreneur, it’s a really great time for them to step into that.
Denver: And I know that your vision is that you have this picture of an entrepreneur, and then you have them creating these ripples outward, which will ultimately impact the culture. Walk us through your thinking on that.
Dave: We believe that the entrepreneur represents the seed of an idea, and they start to build around themselves an organization that obviously shapes the employees that are there; it shapes the folks that are involved, these different stakeholders in the venture – that could be the customers, the beneficiaries, the funders.
And then as those stakeholders start to get shaped by that entrepreneur’s idea, you begin to see best practices of industry take form. And I think we can see this in the situation like, let’s take Wendy Kopp from Teach for America, for example. She had this idea about educational equity in our country and through their programs have really reshaped how people think about education in our country through experiential learning, by sending really high-capacity people into some of these teaching environments to really understand what it is. So she has reshaped how people think about education in our country, and we believe that as those major industries go, so goes the broader culture at large, which we then inhabit as people and form and shape in an ongoing way.
Denver: I know you’re a fan of Jeff Skoll as well, correct?
Dave: Yes. Jeff, as one of the founders of eBay, had incredible impact through a variety of different channels, be it the Skoll Foundation, which gives out massive grants to leading social entrepreneurs, or even Participant Media, which is a unique mission-driven film studio that’s been behind major pictures including Spotlight, which won Best Picture two years ago.
…if we can take responsibility for each place that we inhabit as people and as professionals, we think that is going to lead to a better society.
Denver: And I think a corollary to all that kind of thinking is the fact that you see an interconnectedness of all these things– that something that happens over here in one area or one realm isn’t isolated, but it’s going to impact everything else, right?
Dave: Yes. That’s so true. We live in a time where perhaps we want to compartmentalize things. We want to put politics over here, and we want to put business over here and nonprofits over there. But the reality is these things are greatly influencing each other, and we end up kind of living in the world that we’ve created. So, if we can take responsibility for each place that we inhabit as people and as professionals, we think that is going to lead to a better society.
Denver: Before we get to the work that Praxis Labs does, I know that you’ve been inspired by something that dates all the way back to the 1700s or 1800s in London; it was called the Clapham Circle. Tell us about that and how they inform your work today.
Dave: They’re definitely an inspirational model. So, if the listener isn’t familiar with the Clapham Circle, they might be familiar with William Wilberforce. He was the leading, most visible figure. There was a film about him a few years back called Amazing Grace, which is a really beautiful picture. They were a group of people who were bound together by both their religion, but also their social mission. They, over the course of about 40 years, worked on about 65 different initiatives and campaigns that are really credited by historians with shaping how we think in the West.
Before, in their time, philanthropy was not a major conversation. How you interact with the poor… Do we care about them? Do we work on initiatives that support them? – Those were not a big thing in our culture then. And obviously, their major accomplishment is the abolition of the slave trade in England, which we’re still living in downstream consequences from, which is a beautiful thing. They’re also involved in education reform. They started a society against animal cruelty. If they thought it was important for the society, and they thought it actually, in their minds, represented what the earth should look like as a representation or approximate part of heaven, they wanted to make it come to life.
Denver: Well, they’re a great template for you because they didn’t talk about their faith. They actually displayed it so everybody could see what it looked like.
Dave: That’s exactly right, and that’s actually where our name “Praxis” comes from.
Denver: Well, let’s get to your work. You have these Praxis Fellows, which you can tell us about. And what they do is they go through a Christian-based accelerator program. What will be the training they’ll receive? And what skills will they come out with as a result of it?
Dave: So each year, we run two accelerator programs. They’re competitive to get into, and we take 12 businesses and 12 nonprofits over a six-month cycle that runs back to back. What we’re looking for there are really leading entrepreneurs who are motivated by their Christian faith who have some momentum in their venture, but they know they want to grow it; they want to scale it. And we try to come around them with mentorship– that’s both technical mentorship and how you run the organization, but also personal mentorship. We really believe that the best mentors are folks that people can say “I want to live a life like you did.”
Denver: And you have some great mentors, by the way. You really do.
Dave: Thanks! It’s really been one of the blessings of what we’ve done. Really privilege is to see the generosity of folks in giving back and even their posture of “Hey, this is inspiring to me as a mentor.” So that’s been great.
So mentorship is really at the core of what we do. We’re also interested in helping people find values-aligned capital. That’s a major part of any entrepreneurial endeavor – “Is the funder who’s sitting across the table for me (1) supporting me in a great way? and (2) Do they believe in the same things I do?” And (3) is peer community. I think although the mentorship and the capital are major things that hook people into our programs, the peer community of really sitting alongside other entrepreneurs going through the same struggles and challenges ends up being the thing that our entrepreneurs say: “I didn’t realize how much I needed this, and I can’t live without it anymore.” And so we see lifelong relationships formed in our programs in a small amount of time.
And then the last thing we do is really focus on spiritual formation of these founders. It is a hard world to be entrepreneur, both in success and failure. So much of the entrepreneurial ecosystem suggests to people that their whole identity and worth and value is wrapped up in how it goes and whether they’re able to accomplish what they say they’ll do. So we try to protect them from the outer bounds of both massive success– which comes with pride– and massive failure– which comes with devastation a lot of times.
Denver: And I think we read too much about the massive success because I think a lot of people who go into the field…it is all romanticized, right? When you talk to a lot of these social entrepreneurs, it is not at all. It is really hard. And you hope they leave this accelerator program and will go on to start a gospel-minded organization, whether it be a profit or nonprofit. What does that mean in Praxis? And how would it differ, let’s say, from a social enterprise just looking to do some really good work to help the common good?
Dave: It’s a great question. So we talk about redemptive entrepreneurship as something that we are really for. I think our theology inside of Praxis is actually that whether you’re a Christian or not, you can do beautiful, wonderful things in the world just in the way of how we were made as humans. And so we wouldn’t claim to have an exclusive on a particular way of doing things, but we do think that our faith pushes us beyond what we would traditionally talk about as ethics and doing the right thing. It asks us to do things that are, as David Brooks talks about this, kind of upside down.
And so when we think about “What does generosity look like inside of the organization? How do we think about forgiveness?” which is a bit of a strange concept in today’s corporate culture – concepts like that. And then overarching in another way, too, is as we start different organizations that are producing products and services: How are we mostly, ultimately minded about what are the consequences of those products and services on the lives of people?… instead of simply the bottom line of what we make in the world.
Denver: Supply chains and things of that sort.
Dave: That’s right.
Denver: Everything that’s impacted in our entire ecosystem in terms of getting the product to market.
…suffering, which is I think actually one of the places that the most creativity comes out in the culture.
Denver: Well, you got 125, 150 of these entrepreneurs who have come out of the Praxis accelerator program, a hundred ventures or so. Give us a few examples of some.
Dave: Sure! It’s always a privilege to tell the stories of our entrepreneurs because as we tell them, we wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for their work. And they’re really doing the hard work out on the field.
I’ll give you just three quick examples. I think one is a couple in Grand Rapids, Michigan. They run an organization called Jonas Paul Eyewear. Ben and Laura Harrison are their names. Ben and Laura have a very unique story that starts with suffering, which is I think actually one of the places that the most creativity comes out in the culture. Jonas Paul is their son. He was born blind. He’s been through over 20 surgeries to recover some eyesight, which you can imagine the difficulties on parents who have this young baby who’s going through all these different things. And so somehow, in the midst of all this, they decided their best response would be to create an eyeglasses company for kids. They realized that there’s an interesting cultural phenomenon in the sense that when we’re in our teenage years and beyond, we all want to go out and get the latest Warby Parkers and…
Denver: And braces, too.
Dave: Yes. And so there’s this social stigma that exists for younger kids. And they wanted to up-end that. They said, “Why can’t we create fashion-forward glasses that kids could be proud taking into their elementary school and also have a giving program that’s similar to what Warby Parker has?” And so it’s just been a beautiful example of how you can take a personal circumstance and materialize it into something that’s a gift to the rest of the culture.
Denver: And then LensCrafters got involved, correct?
Dave: Yes. So the former CEO of LensCrafters is on their board.
Denver: That’s great. That’s a way to scale up.
Dave: That is. And it’s actually a great example of how we hope the ecosystem works inside of Praxis. One of our mentors was at one of our presentation events. He said, “Hey. I’m friends with the former CEO of LensCrafters. Let me get him involved.” He came in, provided both values-aligned capital and a board seat and brought one of his friends in who is Vice President of Luxottica, the biggest sunglasses retailers.
Denver: Then things happened.
Dave: Yes. That’s what we hoped to see.
Denver: Your second example?
Dave: So another example I would raise is a company called TreeHouse. They were started by Jason Ballard, who’s their co-founder and CEO. They describe themselves as the Whole Foods version of Home Depot. They sensed that there’s an opportunity for a new set of products, a new group of people who are interested in sustainable housing, realizing that so much of the environment is dependent upon what the house is constructed of. And so they started a company in Austin. It was their first location. They’re now opening two more in Texas. I think their evaluation has gone through the roof. But their hope is that they could recast an imagination for how the built home interacts with our larger environmental challenges.
So Jason is one of these founders who is what we call an” idea entrepreneur.” He’s operating off of this cherished topic of his, which is the sustainability and environmental care that he grew up in as someone who was training to be an Episcopal priest before he decided to be an entrepreneur. So interesting story.
The third example I would use is an international nonprofit called OneWorld Health. This was started by Matt Alexander and Michael O’Neal who were on our program a couple of years back. They were unique in the sense that they didn’t have experience in the medical space, but they had the sense that they could bring a way of thinking about sustainable development to international health care. And so they’ve ended up starting a number of different hospitals in Africa and Central America, actually in partnership with a major rock band, NEEDTOBREATHE, who’s helped fund them through giving a dollar from, I think, every concert ticket over the last decade or so. And that partnership has really blossomed into beautiful financially sustainable and replicable health care clinics for the poor in these different places. And it’s actually now a model that’s being studied by much larger organizations so that they can help deploy it over a larger infrastructure.
Denver: Some great examples. Are there some advantages, David, as well as challenges that a faith-based social entrepreneur might encounter?
Dave: I think there are some unique ones that we see. One is just their question around how to exactly integrate their faith into their work. I think more and more, the idea of a faith-based nonprofit is not the first place that our entrepreneurs go because of the ability to get funding from larger resources, the ability to personally embody their faith, but want to involve the broader society in what they do. And so I think there can be a tension there in how they do that.
And I think also, it’s a time where they are…I would say one of their major wrestlings is ambition. When you see, and this time where in media, we can see the global problems that we face, and there’s almost no end to it. I think the internal inclination can be “I need to solve all this. I need to go after all of it. I need to scale, scale, scale.” So we have this back and forth in our minds as Christian entrepreneurs about trusting that God is working through a lot of different people and a lot of different places and that we also, for those of us who are married and have kids, have multiple vocations and callings. So thinking about how do we do all of that in a way that our whole lives have integrity, instead of doing one thing really well, but having a bunch of chaos behind us.
It’s not how much you give out to other things, but how do you do that inside of things?
Denver: Creating that balance is always the key. We’ve talked about culture in the larger sense of the world, but let’s turn our attention to corporate culture at Praxis Labs and to some of the ventures that you have been discussing. You touched on it a little bit, but I want you to speak to it more if you would. What’s distinct and unique about them as it relates inside this organizations, how people interact with one another, the way things get done, how decisions are made, and the overall operations of a faith-based venture?
Dave: It’s a great question and a challenging one, I think, because you have to practice what you preach, right? And so we try to hold ourselves to a couple of ways of thinking. One is saying this shouldn’t be just a nice Christian thing in a sense that nobody actually tells each other the truth. But we also have to speak the truth in love, and we have to operate around some of those concepts I mentioned earlier– around forgiveness and generosity and patience with each other. So part of that is having honest conversations, but also a part of that is cultivating our spiritual lives together. So we’ve taken a cue from a $50 million a year nonprofit International Justice Mission. We have daily prayers as a team. We were able to put our work and each other’s work and each other’s life in front of our God. So things like that end up being grounding for us, allow us to see each other not as machines that are producing, but as humans who are all in the struggle of life. So we try to do that.
I have a couple of other examples, too, real quickly. I think of folks in our community who’ve done this really interestingly. One is a great friend of ours, David Weekley who runs the largest private homebuilder in the country. In 2008 during the crisis of the homebuilding world, he and his team got together, looked at their own cash position and said, “You know, we would typically have to lay everybody off and just give them a basic severance.” But what they did is they decided to– which was three months– they decided to triple the severance of their community, going into their own cash reserves, to help provide a bridge from the homebuilding world– which was just not going to have jobs for a while– into something else. Help train them into what they were going to go into, and then kept that list of folks. And those were the first people that they hired back when things got back on track. So I think there’s a generosity inside of the business. It’s not how much you give out to other things, but how do you do that inside of things?
And then another example would be a woman, Nancy Duarte, runs Duarte design.
Denver: I know it well.
Dave: She does a lot of the TED Talks, and she tells this beautiful story – forgiveness is one of their three corporate culture principles there – and tells a beautiful story about how that was one of the first things they did organizationally. They had the opportunity to put another company out of business based on some debts that were owed to them… and decided not to do that, decided to wipe those debts away, and allow that person to go on in their company, and it ended up being kind of a foundational story of how they operate.
So, I think it’s things like that are a little non-traditional that allow us this opportunity to, as I said before, go beyond just ethics.
Denver: Well, that certainly is a core value in Praxis, no question about that. Let me close with this, Dave. You have a bold vision for Praxis Labs. I know you want to have a thousand social entrepreneurs guided by their Christian faith over the course of the next 30 years. How are you organizing yourself to achieve that ambitious goal?
Dave: Well, we really see ourselves in three different ways. First as a university that is saying: How do we find those entrepreneurs and equip them and train them to be the best entrepreneurs they can be with that gospel-centricity at their core? We also are trying to, alongside that, build a venture services platform which we really believe is needed to actually, in a hands-on way, help the entrepreneur with capital and talent expertise.
Denver: Nothing happens without that.
Dave: Yes. That’s really why the entrepreneurs come to us in the first place because we care about that. We’re not just a leadership development organization.
And then finally, we think the community that surrounds these entrepreneurs is really what makes it work. We can’t really be a centralized, everybody-comes-to-us-on-the-Praxis team to support a community that large. So we’re trying to convene these investors and these philanthropists and these mentors around our organization where we may not even know what’s exactly happening between them, but we know there are relationships going on and exchange of resources and time. And so we think those things can kind of come together to help build this community of a thousand great entrepreneurs who we hope are this kind of beautiful expression of faith out in the world.
Denver: Well, Dave Blanchard, the Co-founder and President of Praxis Labs, I want to thank you for being here this evening. Tell us about your website and some of the information you have there that people will find when they go visit.
Dave: You can visit us at praxislabs.org. There you can find out about our Business Accelerator, our Nonprofit Accelerator. If you are an entrepreneur or you know one, that’s where you can find out more about our program. There are also resources that are available for free in the idea section of our site, videos you can watch about what we do. You can watch videos from our entrepreneurs if you want to hear a quick five-minute story. And we also have something called the Praxis Course, which allows you to take the best of our programs and use them in your local environment.
Denver: Fantastic! Well, thanks so much, Dave. It was a real pleasure to have you on the program.
Dave: My pleasure.
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