What Are ‘Political Entrepreneurs?’ This Guy Believes They’re the Heroes Who Will Disrupt Washington’s Gridlock

“Political entrepreneur” is a phrase NationSwell Council member Kahlil Byrd uses to describe nonprofit leaders and techies who are tackling America’s biggest problems “in a completely innovative, nontraditional, and entrepreneurial way.” And without a dose of partisanship.  

“Their bias is to create a tool, an idea or a process that will cut through the challenge,” Byrd wrote earlier this year in Forbes.

Byrd, a Republican, has been dedicated to cross-partisan policy reform for more than a decade. He’s worked with Massachusetts’ former governor Deval Patrick and Michelle Rhee, both Democrats. And during the 2012 presidential primary he ran Americans Elect, a startup that worked to get a bipartisan presidential ticket on all 50 state ballots. More recently, in the wake of the 2016 election, he’s noticed a new league of people across the political spectrum determined to reform American policy.

As he wrote in a December 2016 LinkedIn post, political entrepreneurs are “tackling the biggest issues that directly affect citizens’ lives [and] they refuse to accept the failure, division, and deadlock that dominates our politics.”

But as an investor with deep ties to the nonprofit and tech sectors, he knows firsthand the challenges his beloved “political entrepreneurs” face in getting the financing they need to transform their civic innovations into nonpartisan policies.  

“Even the best ideas — making it easier to vote, using data to connect citizens to Congress or deploying new talent into undervalued sectors like child welfare — have profound trouble finding the capital needed to scale,” the New York City–based Byrd says.

Taking action, Byrd co-founded the Invest America Fund, an advisory firm and seed fund that supports political entrepreneurs and matches them to what he says are “the business leaders, philanthropists and others who have already succeeded and want to spend their time and capital.”

Byrd and his co-founder, Kellen Arno, believe they are among the few investors focused on creating a financing pipeline for these types of policy innovators.

One organization they back is Foster America, a startup devoted to child welfare reform founded by Sherry Lachman, a foster child herself who later went on to serve as a policy adviser to former Vice President Joe Biden. The nonprofit’s fellowship program recruits talent from the business, education, technology and health fields, and supports them in their efforts to transform child welfare policy.

Early success has led Foster America to double its impact, expanding from eight fellows in 2016 to 16 this year. By 2020, Foster America plans to have 50 fellows working with 25 child welfare agencies nationwide.

“We are trying to bring together two groups on opposite ends of the success curve: Political entrepreneurs on one end, and on the other, successful and creative funders who can provide growth financing,” says Byrd. “Entrepreneurs are still trying to prove worth — both their own and of their ideas. Funders have sustained success and know how to build value from the ground up. Both care deeply about the country.

Kahlil Byrd is a NationSwell Council member and the founder of Invest America Fund, which provides seed money to entrepreneurs working on bipartisan policy reform.

10 Innovative Ideas That Propelled America Forward in 2016

The most contentious presidential election in modern history offered Americans abundant reasons to shut off the news. But if they looked past the front page’s daily jaw-droppers, our countrymen would see that there’s plenty of inspiring work being done. At NationSwell, we strive to find the nonprofit directors, the social entrepreneurs and the government officials testing new ways to solve America’s most intractable problems. In our reporting this year, we’ve found there’s no shortage of good being done. Here’s a look at our favorite solutions from 2016.

This Woman Has Collected 40,000 Feminine Products to Boost the Self-Esteem of Homeless Women
Already struggling to afford basic necessities, homeless women often forgo bras and menstrual hygiene products. Dana Marlowe, a mother of two in the Washington, D.C., area, restored these ladies’ dignity by distributing over 40,000 feminine products to the homeless before NationSwell met her in February. Since then, her organization Support the Girls has given out 212,000 more.
Why Sleeping in a Former Slave’s Home Will Make You Rethink Race Relations in America
Joseph McGill, a Civil War re-enactor and history consultant for Charleston’s Magnolia Plantation in South Carolina, believes we must not forget the history of slavery and its lasting impact to date. To remind us, he’s slept overnight in 80 dilapidated cabins — sometimes bringing along groups of people interested in the experience — that once held the enslaved.

This Is How You End the Foster Care to Prison Pipeline
Abandoned by an abusive dad and a mentally ill mom, Pamela Bolnick was placed into foster care at 6 years old. For a time, the system worked — that is, until she “aged out” of it. Bolnick sought help from First Place for Youth, an East Bay nonprofit that provides security deposits for emancipated children to transition into stable housing.

Would Your Opinions of Criminals Change if One Cooked and Served You Dinner?
Café Momentum, one of Dallas’s most popular restaurants, is staffed by formerly incarcerated young men without prior culinary experience. Owner Chad Houser says the kitchen jobs have almost entirely eliminated recidivism among his restaurant’s ranks.

This Proven Method Is How You Prevent Sexual Assault on College Campuses
Nearly three decades before Rolling Stone published its incendiary (and factually inaccurate) description of sexual assault at the University of Virginia, a gang rape occurred at the University of New Hampshire in 1987. Choosing the right ways to respond to the crisis, the public college has since become the undisputed leader in ending sex crimes on campus.

This Sustainable ‘Farm of the Future’ Is Changing How Food Is Grown
Once a commercial fisherman, Bren Smith now employs a more sustainable way to draw food from the ocean. Underwater, near Thimble Island, Conn., he’s grown a vertical farm, layered with kelp, mussels, scallops and oysters.

This Former Inmate Fights for Others’ Freedom from Life Sentences
Jason Hernandez was never supposed to leave prison. At age 21, a federal judge sentenced him to life for selling crack cocaine in McKinney, Texas — Hernandez’s first criminal offense. After President Obama granted him clemency in 2013, he’s advocated on behalf of those still behind bars for first-time, nonviolent drug offenses.

Eliminating Food Waste, One Sandwich (and App) at a Time
In 2012, Raj Karmani, a Pakistani immigrant studying computer science at the University of Illinois, built an app to redistribute leftover food to local nonprofits. So far, the nonprofit Zero Percent has delivered 1 million meals from restaurants, bakeries and supermarkets to Chicago’s needy. In recognition of his work, Karmani was awarded a $10,000 grant as part of NationSwell’s and Comcast NBCUniversal’s AllStars program.

Baltimore Explores a Bold Solution to Fight Heroin Addiction
Last year, someone in Baltimore died from an overdose every day: 393 in total, more than the number killed by guns. Dr. Leana Wen, the city’s tireless public health commissioner, issued a blanket prescription for naloxone, which can reverse overdoses, to every citizen — the first step in her ambitious plan to wean 20,000 residents off heroin.

How a Fake Ad Campaign Led to the Real-Life Launch of a Massive Infrastructure Project
Up until 1974, a streetcar made daily trips from El Paso, Texas, across the Mexican border to Ciudad Juárez. Recently, a public art project depicting fake ads for the trolley inspired locals to call for the line’s comeback, and the artist behind the poster campaign now sits on the city council.

Continue reading “10 Innovative Ideas That Propelled America Forward in 2016”

Music and Mentorship: How an Austin Org Is Helping Foster Kids Survive the System

Working as a prosecutor in the juvenile justice system can be a daily lesson in despair, so when Karyn Scott left her job as a felony prosecutor in Austin, Texas, in 2000 she wanted to find some way to work with troubled youth, especially children in foster care. She had grown discouraged watching a parade of foster kids get shuffled through a burdened system, failing to receive the added help many needed to overcome upheaval, neglect and sometimes abuse.
The courts just don’t have the resources to keep up. There are some 400,000 kids in foster care in the United States and about 30,000 in Texas, according to federal and state agencies. About 59 percent eventually are reunited with a parent, legal caretaker or a family member, and only 22 percent are legally adopted, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The rest are left under court supervision or transferred to a variety of agencies, including, unfortunately for a few, juvenile correctional facilities. Some 10 percent are emancipated, given adult status, by the courts and 1 percent run away. During their time in foster care, most children live in family homes, while a small minority are placed in group homes. Many kids bounce in and out of the system.
Scott wanted to find a way to keep children from becoming unmoored as they traveled through the foster care system, a tempestuous journey that can be dispiriting and difficult. She also wanted to offer the courts more resources to address each kid’s particular needs. “They need a consistent friend in their life,” Scott says, especially since their lives are marked by so much volatility — they’re moved often from one care setting to another, disrupting their home and school routines.
Scott’s mission was to create a program that would help encourage bonds with a child or teenager that would last. In 2009, after exploring various programs targeting foster kids, she came up with the idea of using music to ease that connection. Austin, which touts itself in true Texas style as the “live music capital of the world,” seemed like the perfect spot to launch her new initiative: Kids in a New Groove (KING). In its early days, the program, which pairs music teacher-mentors with foster kids in one-on-one relationships, “grew organically,” says Scott, as word spread quickly among Austin’s abundance of music teachers. To date, hundreds of kids have graduated from KING, with 80 children in the program at any one time.
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KING uses both volunteer and paid teachers — the latter are those who have served with the program over the long haul. One veteran is Missy Hance, who studied music education at West Virginia University, before moving to Austin to teach music to both public- and private-school kids. She’s been teaching and mentoring KING students for more than four years. Working with foster care children requires her to be “more sensitive to their needs,” Hance says, since many of them are “down on themselves and do give up a lot easier.” It’s taught Hance a lot of patience, and led her to explore new methods of instruction and communication to better reach foster kids, many of whom may have been neglected or abused. She says music allows her students “to express emotions that they are not always able to express in words. It gives them a voice.”
The program uses a reward system that offers both stability and motivation. Each student earns stickers as they reach a series of curriculum goals set by their teacher. Achievements are continually reinforced: Five stickers earn a small reward, perhaps a T-shirt. Then, as students progress, the rewards grow larger, and if they complete the program, the ultimate reward — they get their own instrument. “I always push myself and try to get the child to get better,” says Hance. “Foster kids or not, theyʼre kids and they are just like any other kids.”
But the programʼs true success stems from its core element, says Scott — mentoring. KING emphasizes developing each teacherʼs mentoring skills and the cementing of a steady, personal connection between teacher and student. Over time, the kids learn to trust an adult, even though so many grown-ups have failed them in other areas of their lives. That “consistent friend in their life,” as Scott characterizes it, never deserts them, not when the child is adopted, moves on or comes of age and graduates from the program. One student, Anthony (his last name is withheld for privacy), learned to play the guitar during his stay in a group home. He was so enthusiastic that he began teaching his roommates how to play. Eventually Anthony, now 14, was placed in a rural home outside of Austin, but he continued to get lessons from his teacher via Skype.
ALSO: Meet the “Million-Dollar Scholar” Who Wants to Help Other Disadvantaged Kids Pay for College
The act of learning an instrument may confer immeasurable benefits too. Research has shown that studying music can rewire the brain in ways that may affect the processing of emotion and self-awareness, which is “why this program works for kids who have been abused,” Scott says. A 2012 study by the National Endowment for the Arts showed socially and economically disadvantaged children and teenagers exposed to the arts did better both in academic and social development. Studies by the Society for Neuroscience released in 2013 also found that music education helped boost neural pathways in the parts of the brain associated with creativity and decision-making.
One of the programʼs notable graduates is Joshua Moore, a member of the Austin alternative pop band Scarecrow Birdy, which plays in the city’s clubs and, thanks to KING underwriting, recently recorded its first EP. As a child, Moore was in and out of foster care, living in various temporary homes and a shelter while his parents grappled with drug addiction and prison. Moore, a guitar player and songwriter, credits KING for helping him survive his childhood, and has performed at the program’s fundraisers to give back. “Music is not so much expression of life as it is and life as it should be. It’s life as you want it to be,” he told the newspaper Austin American-Statesman in 2012.
Austin’s music community has come out to support KINGʼs efforts wholeheartedly. The organization relies on donations — it holds an annual major fundraiser — to pay for kids’ lessons. A yearʼs worth of instruction for each KING student costs about $1,000. This yearʼs Music for the Soul fundraiser, which will take place on May 1, will headline Martie Maguire and Emily Robison, the founding members of the Dixie Chicks, who now perform as the Court Yard Hounds.
Further down the line, Scott is planning to expand KING’s mentoring-teaching model beyond its current geographic limits — for now, KING works primarily with children in Austin, and also with some in Houston and Dallas. But wherever KING’s future students may come from, Scott has the same aspiration for all of them: using long-term loving relationships to teach them skills like goal setting, accountability and perseverance that will help them navigate the foster care system and life thereafter.
DON’T MISS: Foster Kids Need One Thing to Succeed in School. A Former Teacher’s Goal Is to Give It to Every Single One