Launch for Social Impact

I just spent three thought-provoking days at Launch2013, a San Francisco conference of 5000 startup founders, and was struck by the parallels between those involved in startups and those of us in social impact: the messy, not-quite-sure-what-will-work challenges combined with our crazy optimism, intellect and creativity.

First of all, I need to give a huge shout-out to keynote speaker Chamath Palihapitiya. After taking Facebook from 30M to 850M users, he’s bringing the same extraordinary vision to Social + Capital Partnership, his new VC firm whose aim is to “use tech to break barriers and solve big problems.” When he asked the key questions, “What’s the value?” he meant value the same way nonprofits mean value. “It’s not the exit check,” he said, “it’s the legacy. If I spend every bit of my Facebook money trying to cure cancer, I’m OK with that.” He was a remarkable speaker, both charming and sincere. And he has the means to make a very big impact. I hope for more people like Chamath on our side.


Launch is a big conference, and I expected to be surrounded by 5,000 super smart young men who had already figured out the elements of creating a successful business. Indeed, I was surrounded by about 4500 men and most of the ones I met were smart, but the rest came as a surprise.

A major part of the conference is the “pitch” sessions, where entrepreneurs have 20 minutes to present a concept and convince a tough panel of judges (from the venture cap or angel investing worlds) that their products can fly.  Far from what I expected, most of the judges on the panel, along with the presenters, were … old guys. Some may have been a little younger than myself (just shy of 50), but I didn’t see any 20-year-olds up there. That was a huge surprise and it made me feel like “one of the guys.” I mean, I could have been up there with them. My fear of feeling outdated among gads of youthful, confident startup geniuses was completely unfounded – from an age standpoint, I fit right in.

Shock #2: Although their vision seemed crystal clear, many of the “pitchers” struggled with concrete metrics for the initial tests (aka betas) of their products. No bold, audacious vision was lacking. They knew what they wanted to do, just not how to do it. So like nonprofits! Most of presenters hemmed and hawed about the number of actual users, average revenue per user, and so on. But while the judges may have been frustrated by these responses, from my perspective, it was refreshing to hear (and a little funny). Again, I felt like each of them was one of us.

Lastly, I was stunned by the enormous gap between creative ideas and concrete action. Less than 25% of attendees had taken steps to try to bring their vision to reality.  Few of them had created an actual demo or applied to an accelerator (boot-camp for startups). Most of them came with little more than a dream.

As I sat there, I realized that the people behind these startups may not be all that different than the rest of us.

In another regard, a special kudos to Jason Calacanis, conference organizer and host ofThis Week in Startups, for his efforts to get more women in the room. Judging from his opening comments and the women speakers he invited to the Launch diversity panel, I believe his efforts were sincere. But in terms of the attendees themselves, there was only a smattering of us – maybe 10%.

Finally, I could feel the humility when Vivek Wadhwa, who writes about the tech world and is an advocate for more inclusion of women and other underrepresented groups, admitted “I used to be so adamant that Silicon Valley was the ultimate meritocracy,” because he saw so much ethnic diversity. True. It doesn't look all white when you have so many shades of East Asian. He humbly admitted that diversity includes a breadth of perspectives that aren't (yet) mainstream in tech: women, blacks, latinos. It’s all in how we choose to see it. And I thank his wife, whom Vivek credits with helping to expand the lens through which he now sees these issues.

After three full days of Launch2013, I’m left with a tremendous sense of hope, possibility and camaraderie. Social entrepreneurs like myself and other Catalytic Women aren’t the only ones who haven’t figured it all out.