If you could get anyone on the phone to help with the biggest issue you’re facing in your work, who would you call? That’s the question posed to participants of the GLG Social Impact Fellowship, week after week, for two years. The fellowship, sponsored by the membership-based learning platform GLG, aims to help top social entrepreneurs rise to the challenges, both strategic and operational, facing their companies as they scale their reach. Unlike a cash award, the unique program, which began in 2014, gives mission-driven leaders two years of free access to GLG’s vast network of experts and events; fellows utilize GLG just as traditional GLG clients do. The process is a huge benefit to the organizations that determine which critical questions they need answered.
Entrepreneurs who’ve been through the fellowship stress how important it is to be ready to jump on this massive opportunity. They talk about how the fellowship not only strengthens their own leadership skills but those of their teams as well. (Any employee of an organization whose leader is chosen as a fellow can tap GLG’s network of experts.) The results of all that learning can be truly transformational.
Here, 10 former and current fellows reflect on the impact the fellowship has had on propelling their organizations forward.
DONNEL BAIRD, 2015 FELLOW
Baird is the founder and CEO of Bloc Power, focusing on community development and energy efficiency.
“Being a CEO or founder can be quite lonely in terms of the difficulty of the decisions you have to make. So for me, the community of founders who won the GLG fellowship was really critical.
“For example, we were doing an interactive workshop setting five-year goals, and I had these audacious goals. And I got great feedback on the goals — and then the other CEOs were like, ‘Wait a second, Donnel, you don’t have a personal assistant.’ I grew up working-class, and I think that’s weird. They said, ‘You’re actually failing your organization.’ If it takes you two weeks to do something that should take an hour because you’re so backlogged, that sets your whole organization back.”
MINHAJ CHOWDHURY, 2016 FELLOW
Chowdhury is the co-founder and CEO of Drinkwell, focusing on water and sanitation.
“[Key lessons include:] 1) Reach out to experts who may seem unreachable. Some may donate their time due to your social mission, so it doesn’t hurt to ask. 2) Building a board of advisors is critical to succeeding as a company, as knowledge and experience is at times much more valuable than capital alone. 3) There are a lot of lessons learned from analog industries that initially may not seem related to your industry, but have applications. In fact, such applications can create unique advantages that others in your sector have not thought of.
“[A highlight of the fellowship was] being able to connect with experts who have previously conducted business with Dhaka WASA, a new customer in the urban segment. The experts saved us significant time and money, and helped us negotiate a good operating model with sound economics from the get-go. We were confident going into negotiations with the utility in a way that we could have never done had it not been for GLG.”
KRISTA DONALDSON, 2016 FELLOW
Donaldson is the CEO of D-Rev, focusing on healthcare technologies.
“We are super-users of GLG. On any given week we have probably three or four calls, minimum. To be able to talk to one of the three world experts in something on the phone for half an hour is amazing. A lot of people think it’s just coaching for the CEO, but our whole team uses them.
“At a 500-foot level one of the things I’ve learned is be bold in asking to talk to experts. It’s made us bolder as an organization. And sometimes they ask questions that make you realize that you haven’t really thought through the question you think you’re asking. When someone asks, ‘Why are you doing that?’ it just makes you go a level deeper than you might otherwise in the course of a busy day.”
MATILDA HO, 2017 FELLOW
Ho is the founder and CEO of Yimishiji, focusing on food and agriculture.
“Right from the get-go, Yimishiji has sought to achieve the highest level of sourcing standards and transparency, that no other e-commerce platform in China has done. This means there is tremendous learning we have had to do as a team, from the manager level to senior executive.
“So many teams have benefited from the program in such different ways. For example, when we were looking to set up objectives and key results for the engineering team, it was hugely valuable for our CTO to be able to talk with other CTOs with this experience from larger companies. And when we were assessing the possibility of setting up physical stores, we received great lessons on how we might approach planning and decision making. All of this access is very powerful.”
JUKAY HSU, 2017 FELLOW
Hsu is the founder and CEO of C4Q, focusing on tech vocational training.
“C4Q is at a critical stage of growth. We began as a small community startup, and we saw the opportunity to use our model to not just transform the lives of people with the most need and potential in New York City, but also across the country. So we were in need of expertise to help us achieve that large scale and sustain it.
“When we applied, our organization was just beginning an extensive rebrand. Working with GLG, we were able to receive best practices from industry leaders, and conduct research and surveys to get feedback on our direction and help inform decision-making.”
Learn more about the GLG Social Impact Fellowship,
including information on applying.
JOSH MCALISTER, 2017 FELLOW
McAlister is the founder and CEO of Frontline, focusing on child welfare and social work.
“The group itself of fellows is tremendously diverse. In terms of bits of the planet that people come from, it’s really different. The social issues we’re working to address are really varied. The models of interventions are different. And yet there are really common challenges across the different organizations.
“A highlight is having that forced space with a group of really impressive peers and facilitators to think about the big issues you don’t normally spend much time thinking about. The example I used in Austin last year was, How do we make sure that our alumni group is a real movement for change? That is not an everyday question for us. Having that space and time with a group of people who can challenge and help you in your thinking is really great.”
ANUSHKA RATNAYAKE, 2017 FELLOW
Ratnayake is the founder and CEO of myAGRO, focusing on rural agribusiness financing.
“There’s this new worm that destroys maize fields in a matter of minutes. The pest wasn’t going to wait for us to develop a solution. Our agriculture team was able to tap into the GLG learning network and talk to companies in India that are used to spraying smallholder farms. We were able to find a sprayer that uses 10 times less water. We solved a problem that we didn’t even know was a problem before rolling it out to farmers.
“I’ve worked in a number of nonprofits. It’s easy to be insular. You have a problem and you really know the clients, it’s easy to think that the resources you have in front of you are the only resources. There’s a lot of learning we can get from looking at other organizations who might be doing different things but have asked very similar questions of themselves.”
REBECCA VAN BERGEN, 2015 FELLOW
Van Bergen is the founder and executive director of Nest, focusing on global artisan empowerment.
“The trend toward funding social entrepreneurs is exciting but can be limiting, because I alone could never make our work happen. This fellowship allowed my team to access it — because we had access to the GLG network, we really were deliberate. We had a calendar invite for an hour weekly for people to spend time thinking about what they were working on that GLG could help with. That was a valuable exercise.
“It was a non-monetary award, but the value you get out of two years’ worth of these incredible people we would never have been able to afford as consultants is incalculable. It allowed us to invest in things that were really instrumental, but would have been really hard for us to justify [spending money on] or to raise additional funds for.”
KIAH WILLIAMS, 2017 FELLOW
Williams is the co-founder of SIRUM, focusing on healthcare access.
“As SIRUM explores expansion, GLG is able to help us understand at a state and local level what are areas that might be more in need of our work. What we’re getting out of it is the ability to go very high level and understand national trends, but also go very local and be able to ask a nursing home in Missouri how they handle their unused medicine.
“Instead of taking all of the zigzags that it often takes to find an expert who can answer these questions, it is a straight shot — you to GLG to expert. It’s not only helping you make these decisions, but it also saves a lot of time. Time is money, especially in social enterprises and startups.”
JAKE WOOD, 2016 FELLOW
Wood is the co-founder and CEO of Team Rubicon, focusing on veterans’ empowerment and disaster relief.
“The people I met through the program were just fantastic. When I travel across the country I’m always looking them up to grab beers with them and catch up. One of the things I remember us talking about was the unspoken rules that we imbue in our organization. Usually you have these explicit values and rules for how people should be conducting themselves, but there are always these unwritten rules that develop, and some of them are good and some of them are actually fairly negative. It’s useful to try to pull out what some of those unspoken rules are.
“[Thanks to the fellowship,] we’re just smarter. We have the ability to ask really hard questions and get really thorough and thoughtful answers. We’re a faster, more efficient organization.”