Advice To Changemakers: Lessons From The 2013 Ashoka-American Express Emerging Innovators U.S. Boot Camp

Grow in a disciplined way. Define your story—before someone else does. Constantly ask for feedback.That was some of the advice given to 15 social innovators at the American Express Emerging Innovators Leadership Boot Campheld at the recently opened Centre for Social Innovation in New York City. This boot camp, created in partnership with Ashoka Changemakers, was part of a series of three trainings (others to be held in Toronto and Mexico City in mid- and late-June) to offer leading social entrepreneurs a space to collaborate, strategize, and receive tips to grow their ventures.The first generations of social entrepreneurs—typified by innovators such as Muhammad Yunnus and Wendy Kopp—have increasingly blurred the line between private and public sectors by using business to solve social issues. But it will soon be, and increasingly has been, the millennial generation that steps up to begin solving problems. Boot camps like these seek to harness the power of these emerging innovators from across all fields of work, recognizing that with the right group of strong leaders collaborating on a range of solutions and bridging areas of expertise, innovation will not be contained within sectoral silos.Ai-jen Poo, an Ashoka Fellow and the director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, opened the boot camp by leading a workshop on questioning needs, testing assumptions and overcoming internal challenges. “The ability to be an incredible strategist is important,” Poo said. “A lot of social entrepreneurs are really good at execution and really good at vision, but there is a whole area in between these two areas of strategy.” According to Poo, knowing when and why to say no has been her greatest challenge—a challenge that many social entrepreneurs must grapple with—but it has also become her greatest strength.While Poo focused on the value of questioning oneself internally, boot camp speaker Catherine Rohr encouraged the innovators to receive as much external feedback as possible. “I ask people all the time, ‘How am I doing? What can I be doing better?’” said Rohr, a recently elected Ashoka Fellow and founder of Defy Ventures, an NYC-based entrepreneurship program and incubator that recognizes that many former drug dealers and gang leaders can become successful, legal entrepreneurs. “It’s like a basic customer service survey.”Running her non-profit like a for-profit by doing things such as hiring a business coach and refining an aggressive sales technique has helped Rohr embed accountability and structure into her work—two things that she thrives for.Koda Wang from The Huffington Post Media Group provided the innovators with concrete tips on how to manage organizational growth—in short, don’t try to run the show all by yourself. “Build the right team,” Wang said. “The team you have as a five-person show is very different than the team you need as a 500-person show. At The Huffington Post, we noticed there was an inflection point where we needed to hire a CEO that was going to run the business side.”Wang noted that certain processes are extremely valuable when organizations look to scale-up. Everything from incorporating a formal recruitment process to designing an on-boarding procedure for new hires are changes that an organization may need to consider and support when experiencing growth.“Koda’s presentation on scaling helped put all of our organization’s challenges and successes into amazing perspective,” Curt Bowden said. Bowden is the founder of Semilla Nueva, an organization that helps rural Guatemalan farmers with agriculture technologies and farmer-to-farmer education, and one of the 15 innovators invited to the boot camp. “He taught us by example what can work and what can lead to problems, and gave us detailed recommendations for scaling our ventures. For those of us wanting to make big changes, this is absolutely invaluable.”Seth Godin, one of “America’s most best-known marketers,” stressed the importance of defining your story. “The magic is, as founders, you get to define what the story is,” Godin said. “If you define it, then you decide what people see it as.” Godin stated that defining your story and clarifying the change you are asking consumers to make by purchasing your service or product is critical. However, to truly win over the public, founders must also create a product that goes viral: “You cannot win just by having people switch to your product, but rather by having people switch and bring eight of their friends.”Godin’s insight particularly resonated for Tinia Pina, another selected innovator and founder of the organic waste management venture Re-Nuble. “Seth’s advice on focusing our B2B communications on our target audience was spot-on. He helped me think about communicating the risks and opportunity costs with not purchasing our product, and clearly demonstrating the advantages that are inherent to adopting product.”Other speakers included president of the American Express Foundation, Tim McClimon, and Josh Silverman, president of U.S. consumer services for American Express  and former CEO of Skype. In his keynote address, Silverman talked about how finding a clear, deep mission strengthens business strategy and is also a powerful leadership tool in motivating teams. As an example, Silverman said, “Skype  was more than just the function of Internet calling. It was about bringing people together who couldn’t be together.”Over the next six weeks, two additional Emerging Innovators Boot Camps will take place in Toronto and Mexico City. Each boot camp will bring together some of the most promising, emerging social innovators from across Canada and Mexico. Stay tuned—we’ll be sharing lessons, best practices and inspiration from these events.–This article originally appeared in Forbes.com’s Change in the Making section. Click here to read the original post.