You’re Going to Die (Eventually). Let’s Make Sure It Doesn’t Hurt the Environment

Nate Fisher’s burial scene in the HBO series “Six Feet Under” was a watershed moment in the green-burial movement: It introduced the idea of human composting to a mainstream audience, says Mark Harris, author of a book about natural burials, in a blog post on the subject. “I’ve long believed that [the episode], which aired on August 21, 2005, did more to sell the idea to the greater public than any newspaper story, newscast or magazine piece at the time,” he writes.
Yet despite such a prominent cultural marker (not to mention the myriad environmental benefits), human composting is not yet legal in any U.S. state. Over the last few years, 17 states have legalized a process called alkaline hydrolysis, also known as water cremation, where bodies are dissolved in a mix of water and lye. Alkaline hydrolysis is greener than regular cremation: While one single traditional cremation emits as much carbon dioxide as a 1,000-mile car trip, alkaline hydrolysis emits much lower rates of emissions and uses a quarter of the energy. But in most states, bodies must be buried, entombed, cremated or donated to science, which means you could be arrested for burying grandma beneath her favorite dogwood tree.
This is why a bill recently introduced to the Washington Legislature by state senator Jamie Pedersen is being watched very carefully by green burial enthusiasts. The bill — which seeks to expand the options for disposing of human remains after death, including the practice of composting human bodies — was passed in committee and may be up for a floor vote in the next few weeks, according to Chris West, Pedersen’s communications specialist.
As we’ve previously covered, green burials are becoming more popular in this country. In the U.S. in 2006, according to the Green Burial Council, there was only one council-approved provider of green burials; there are now more than 300 today, and that number is rising.

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Artist rendering of what a Recompose facility might look like.

This makes sense for financial as well as environmental reasons. Traditional burials can easily cost upwards of $10,000, and embalming fluids leach toxins like formaldehyde into our soil and groundwater supplies. Space is also a major concern, especially in urban centers: in New York City, no new cemeteries have been established in over 50 years, so the cost of each individual plot is also rising.
While cremation is already viewed by many as a more environmentally friendly option than a casket-and-concrete vault, it requires an input of fossil fuels and results in the production of CO2, around “a metric ton per body,” according to Katrina Spade, whose Seattle-based public benefit corporation, Recompose, is at the forefront of the human composting movement. “Recomposition uses one-eighth the energy of cremation,” Spade says. It also saves money: Spade estimates each human composting would cost a mere $5,500.
“I started this work because I saw the funeral experience as something worth improving, and I’ve since had several deaths of loved ones really affirm that idea,” Spade says.  “Decay and decomposition are amazing processes we are terrified of because they might seem icky and scary — your body aging, your food rotting — but without those processes, we would not be alive.”
If you’re a funeral traditionalist but also have our planet’s best interests at heart, the negative environmental impact of the rituals surrounding death in this country might be enough to change your mind. In the U.S., according to Grist, 30 million board feet of wood, 1.6 million tons of concrete, 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid and 90,000 tons of steel are used every year for conventional burials. Cremation releases 250,000 tons of CO2 each year, the equivalent of burning nearly 30 million gallons of gasoline.
By contrast, bodies that are cremated via composting generate about a cubic yard of compost per person, Spade says, nourishing the soil with needed minerals and other nutrients. In 2018, a team at Washington State University, led by compost science expert Lynne Carpenter-Boggs, showed that human bodies could be safely and efficiently converted to earthy organic material. The study used six bodies that were donated to the university for science. Carpenter-Boggs and Spade are currently working on an Urban Death prototype they anticipate to complete by 2023.
While the “ick” factor might remain, it seems attitudes around human composting are changing. In 2014, green burials only made up about five percent of funerals, and there were about 40 certified green burial grounds in the U.S. But according to a 2017 National Funeral Director Association survey, 53.8 percent of respondents indicated an interest in exploring green funeral services, and 72 percent of cemeteries are reporting an increase in demand.
“The funeral industry is a $20 billion industry,” says Spade, who was awarded an Ashoka “changemaker” fellowship in 2018. “The idea that every person can ‘own’ a piece of land for eternity, in the form of a cemetery plot… is not a sustainable model, especially for cities with space constraints.
More: Can Americans Accept This Environmentally-Friendly Burial Method?
Correction: A previous version of this article featured outdated pricing for Recompose’s services.

America Resurgent: Denver

In the 1980s, Denver’s economy faltered. Its steel industry contracted, resulting in the loss of 30,000 jobs in the city alone, while the overall unemployment rate in Colorado rose to 8.5 percent.
But the city has experienced an economic resurgence over the last two decades. Since 2000, the metro area’s GDP has almost doubled, while the population has grown 17 percent. Aerospace companies like Lockheed Martin and Boeing took advantage of Denver’s unique location in America and paved the way for over 130 aerospace companies to exist there today, with some support from local universities like the University of Colorado Boulder.
At the same time, recreational marijuana was legalized by Gov. John Hickenlooper in 2014, which brings $14 million in taxes to Denver every year, and, to date, $769 million to the state of Colorado.
Despite these advances and the growing Denver economy, the city’s homeless population grew over 20 percent in 2017 alone, while the average price of a one-bedroom home surpassed $500,000.
Watch the video above to see how Denver’s resurgence changed the trajectory of the Mile High City.

#AmericaResurgent is a five-part series that elevates the changemakers, approaches and innovations that are driving urban revitalization across the nation. See the rest of the series here, and watch for the next three installments in the weeks to come.

Samsung NEXT Innovation Challenge

It can be hard enough to start a business — but what if you also want that business to create positive change in the world? Samsung NEXT and NationSwell teamed up for the Samsung NEXT Innovation Challenge, to reward innovators focused on bridging the opportunity gap across education, workforce development, and economic empowerment.
The five finalists were comprised of a diverse group of entrepreneurs from all parts of the country, each building businesses geared toward achieving positive social impact. All five presented their innovations at an awards ceremony in New York City, where one company, Literator, was announced the winner.

Here’s a look at the issues these five young innovators chose to tackle, and how they hope to make a difference.

The winner, Michelle Ching, set out to solve a major problem in education: literacy. As a second-grade teacher, she saw that her students were struggling with learning to read — but it was hard to track their progress and identify where they were getting stuck. Her app, Literator, helps teachers track their students’ reading proficiency in real time across the school year, and lets them know what kind of help each student needs. “Literacy is one of the things that is the biggest blocker for student success, so for us, it was a no-brainer that literacy would be the big systems-change work that we wanted to tackle first,” says Ching. “But it’s turned into a bigger vision beyond that.”

Brian Hill, CEO and founder of Edovo, wants to create a new model of education in correctional facilities while also helping incarcerated people stay in touch with their loved ones. By providing incarcerated people with secure tablets, Edovo helps them gain access to education and also communicate with loved ones on the outside. These tools can provide the skills and support that allow people to integrate back into the community when they’re released, and that in turn can reduce recidivism, says Hill. “If we’re not helping people, if we’re just opening the door and saying ‘Go home,’ we run the risk of very rapidly destroying any gains we make in [criminal justice reform],” Hill says. “It’s about helping people learn and develop and make choices.”

Fonta Gilliam founded Sou Sou as a way to modernize the informal credit clubs adopted by many cultures around the world. In Ghana, a sou-sou is a practice in which a group pools their money, allowing one member to use the full amount each month. Gilliam said she became aware of this and similar practices while working as a diplomat in the foreign service across Africa and Asia. Gilliam built an app that allows people to easily track and organize their pooled funds, while also linking up with banks to earn credit on the money. “There are so many communities abroad, even immigrant communities in the U.S., that are using these informal lending circles to save money amongst themselves, rotate money and fund their goals,” says Gilliam. “So I thought to myself, this is a system that’s working, what if we modernized it with tech?”
Preston Silverman said he realized that many high school students “check out” of the college track early because they assume they will not be able to afford to go — even if they might be eligible for scholarships after graduating from high school. His startup, RaiseMe, helps high school students access financial aid before they apply to college. “We focus on the financial aid part of the equation because we see that’s the biggest barrier for students and families, but ultimately we want to help all students discover and realize their college ambitions,” says Silverman. With RaiseMe, students can “follow” colleges they’re interested in and earn “micro-scholarships” from those colleges for a variety of achievements throughout high school, such as getting good grades, participating in extracurricular activities and playing sports. If they end up matriculating, they can collect the scholarship.
Like Michelle Ching, Heejae Lim wants to use technology to improve education — but while Literator is a tool for teachers, Lim’s company TalkingPoints is intended to help immigrant parents better support their children in school. As a Korean immigrant, Lim noticed that students whose parents spoke English communicated easily with teachers and became involved in the education process, while those whose parents didn’t speak English struggled to be involved. Her app allows teachers to message parents directly and automatically translates messages in English into over 20 languages. When parents reply in their home language, their response is translated into English for the teacher. “Most of the resources right now are going to school environments and teachers, which is also really important,” Lim says. “But we can also unlock the power of parents and families to be able to improve student performance.”

Article produced in partnership with Samsung NEXT, Samsung’s innovation group that works with entrepreneurs to build, grow, and scale great ideas. NationSwell has partnered with Samsung NEXT to find and elevate some of the most promising innovators working to close the opportunity gap in America. Click here to meet the finalists.

America Resurgent: Albany

Albany, New York is the epicenter of a workforce renaissance.
Following decades of manufacturing job losses, the city capitalized on its infrastructure and advances in technology to create thousands of new jobs and increase its GDP more than 60 percent between 2001 and 2015. More than $49 million worth of state and federal funding helped the Port of Albany-Rensselaer expand its shipping operations for clients like GE Power, while simultaneously creating 1,400 jobs.
At the same time, the construction of the Colleges of Nanoscale Science and Engineering at the University of Albany added an additional 4,000 jobs and helped the city become a leader in the worldwide semiconductor industry.
But despite these advances, Albany’s poverty rate still remains higher than at the turn of the century, with 36,827 residents living in poverty as of 2015.
Watch the video above to see how Albany’s growth has changed the nature of this capital city.

#AmericaResurgent is a five-part series that elevates the changemakers, approaches and innovations that are driving urban revitalization across the nation. Look for the next four installments in the weeks to come. 

Startup Lessons From a Global Giant

When Samsung NEXT approached Emily Becher in 2013 to open its New York City presence and create an entrepreneur-in-residence program, she was hesitant to accept the position. She knew Samsung as a multinational electronics behemoth — would they welcome the new and untried ideas that startup founders  are known for? But after meeting with executives, Becher felt assured that they were more than willing to make the risky investments necessary to nurture startups. “Samsung NEXT was willing to commit and willing to understand that different outcomes need different processes,” Becher says.
Becher and Samsung NEXT were tackling a persistent problem in the world of entrepreneurship and venture capital: How might traditional companies work with lighter, nimbler startups to bring new ideas to the world? It’s not always easy, but from Samsung’s perspective, positioning the company to nurture startups is smart. It means the company can more easily be involved with new technologies and concepts, whether that means a partnership, acquisition or just access to an entrepreneurial point of view. But how could they make sure startups got enough out of the deal to make it worthwhile for them to work with Samsung NEXT?
Here are six tips Becher says she’s learned on the job.

Start with teams who have ideas, plans and goals

Early on, Becher tried to identify promising technologists and bring them in before they had a startup-ready idea. It didn’t go so well. “We tried a lot of things in the early days and some of them worked and some of them didn’t,” she says. As it turned out, the “random walk of a single technologist” didn’t always lead to actionable ideas. “It is very difficult to build a scalable company off a single individual,” says Becher. Now she makes sure that a startup already has a specific idea or goal and a team in place before they partner with Samsung NEXT.

Let startups keep the tools that work for them

If an entrepreneurial team is used to working in Slack, Google Docs, Trello or some other productivity application, imposing the corporation’s norms can break their rhythm and quash creativity, says Becher. She wanted to make sure that coming to Samsung NEXT didn’t mean a huge change in routine, even if some favored apps weren’t approved for use by Samsung employees. “We very quickly put rules in place giving exception to give them the right tools,” Becher says. “These are all the things we did in the background to make sure it seemed seamless.”

Leverage local ecosystems

“We’re a global organization,” Becher says. “We’re not sitting in the U.S., looking at best-of-breed technology and flying into Israel or Paris or Toronto. We have people on the ground there that are locals.” Instead of parachuting into a country and looking for talent, having offices staffed by people who understand the local landscape makes it easier to know who’s got the hottest ideas — and how to court them. “We have individuals in all those local markets building relationships with all those entrepreneurs,” says Becher.
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Cut red tape

It can be slow to get money from venture funds overseas, so Samsung NEXT set up an American venture fund so they could close deals faster. “In the beginning, there was a lot of dialog about putting new processes in place that allowed us to be nimble, fast-moving and responsive to what was required to work with entrepreneurs,” Becher says. This way, Samsung NEXT was able to compress what would have been a nine-to-12 month process down to a few weeks. “When a company wants to close its funding round, not having to wait two or three weeks for us is incredibly important,” she says.

Hire entrepreneurs to work with other entrepreneurs

The Samsung NEXT offices are staffed by former entrepreneurs who understand the pressures startups are under — and who can create an office culture that “feels authentic” to incoming teams. “Culture is where we spend a lot of time and energy,” Becher says. “If you don’t create a culture, a culture is created for you.” It’s important that entrepreneurs arriving at the Samsung NEXT officers don’t get the feeling that this was “an organization playing a game.”

Keep it open-ended

Becher says it’s important that Samsung NEXT is able to work with startups in a variety of different modes, and without a fixed timeframe. “What we have learned is that we work with entrepreneurs in a way that makes sense to them,” she says. “We meet the entrepreneurs where they are.” An entrepreneur might interact with Samsung NEXT as an entrepreneur in residence, using their offices and resources; or they might come to Samsung NEXT for venture capital funds; or they might end up being acquired by the corporation, working with them as a partner; or just “end up coming to build something with us,” Becher says. “Our model is open.”

Article produced in partnership with Samsung NEXT, Samsung’s innovation group that works with entrepreneurs to build, grow and scale great ideas. NationSwell has partnered with Samsung NEXT to find and elevate some of the most promising innovators working to close the opportunity gap in America. Click here to meet the finalists.

The Reinvention of Small-Town America

In 2012, James and Deborah Fallows embarked on a journey in their single-engine Cirrus SR22 to explore American life on roads less traveled. Over five years and 100,000 miles later, the husband-and-wife team had flown to dozens of towns and cities across the country, listening to residents beaming with civic pride and witnessing firsthand evidence of economic reinvention. Their journey evolved into Our Towns: A 100,000 Mile Journey Into the Heart of America, a book that examines everything that’s going right in the country.
Exploring places that, on their surface, seem to have more differences than commonalities — Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Eastport, Maine; Allentown, Pennsylvania; and San Bernardino, California, are just a few — the Fallows unearth stories of resilience and creative pursuit.
These towns and cities are not places that pop up on many travel itineraries — which is why they are so often overlooked, James Fallows, a longtime national correspondent for The Atlantic, told NationSwell during a recent conversation. It doesn’t help that the opioid crisis looms large in many economically depressed areas, overwhelming any positive news that might otherwise register on a national scale. But many of these places are not just surviving; they’re thriving, say the Fallowses. While the national narrative has tilted toward chaos over the past few years, Our Towns can be read as a kind of corrective to the pessimism that currently pervades much of American society.
“I think it’s an actual struggle for the future of the country, between everything that is poisonous at the national level and everything that is potentially renewed and healthy at the local level,” James Fallows says. “And we think it matters to have these people who are doing ambitious things locally be known about, and be connected with one another too.”
NationSwell: Why did you choose the places you visited? And why not a city like Detroit, which has become something of a poster child for urban renewal?
James Fallows: So Detroit obviously has been on our mind because it’s such a classic case. There has been a fair amount of attention on the Detroit story, and we were looking generally for smaller places. And I say “smaller” rather than “small” partly because we went to a few biggish places like Columbus, Ohio, which is huge, and Pittsburgh, which is significant. But mainly the criteria was, places that weren’t getting much normal media attention, where they’d only be covered if there were some kind of disaster or a political race.

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For their cross-country tour, James and Deborah Fallows visited small towns that have been left out of the media narrative.

We were also looking for [places where] there was some kind of challenge and response; where there was something that was illustrative one way or the other about how the city was doing. We went to different parts of the country and different sizes of cities and saw different racial mixes and different degrees of economic recovery. This wasn’t meant to be scientific in any way, but I feel as if in the end it became representative.
NationSwell: Was it pretty easy to get people to talk to you? Did you encounter any suspicion about what you were doing?
Fallows: Even though I’ve worked for The Atlantic forever, both Deb and I think of ourselves as being small-town people. Many places were sort of similar to where we thought of ourselves as being from, so I think it wasn’t, “We are here from the big city to examine you as specimens.” Rather it was, “Hmm, this looks familiar. Tell us how it works.”
Also, we were not going there saying, “Why did you vote for Trump? What do you think about Obama? Are you a racist?” It was essentially, “What’s happening here? Are the kids moving in, or are they moving out? How does this school work? Is this business going to fly?” We never ask people about national politics, mainly because our experience was once you do, the results are never interesting. It’s going to be just like turning on the TV.
NationSwell: True. You don’t pass judgment on anything you learn, either, even when it’s kind of jarring, like when you talk about the giant pig slaughterhouse in Sioux Falls, or shipping pregnant cows to Turkey from Eastport. Is it ever hard to be neutral?
Fallows: For anybody who eats meat, it’s part of what things are. I am not a vegetarian and so therefore implicitly I endorse the existence of slaughterhouses. It’s been this really central, but also changing, part of the fabric of Sioux Falls. That’s where the Eastern European immigrants worked a hundred years ago, and then it had a sort of good job, union wage, and now it’s where all these Muslim immigrants are killing pigs. It really is surreal.
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The Fallowses point to innovation in K-12 education as a bright spot in small towns across the U.S.

NationSwell: Something that crops up in several places in the book is the idea of public-private partnerships being central to a city’s economic development. Why do you think such partnerships are important?  
Fallows: I think for anybody in D.C., if you hear that phrase, “public-private partnership,” you instantly think BS, because you think it’s just sort of a log-rolling or pork-barreling provision of some appropriations bill. I always thought of it as epitomizing the bad parts of combined corporate and public power.
But in many places [we visited], people could point to something specific and say, “This bridge, this library, this auditorium, this garden, this river walk was the result of a public-private partnership.” And I think that the simplest illustration is this thing in Greenville, South Carolina, the A.J. Whittenberg Elementary School of Engineering, a public school where engineers from BMW and GE are teaching these little kids from the poorest parts of town how to become engineers, and it wouldn’t work if both the public and the private weren’t engaged there. So I think my reflexive cynicism about it was incorrect.
NationSwell: You end the book on a chapter you call “10½ Signs of Civic Success.” Can you touch on your most important findings?
Fallows: The secret of U.S. vitality over the centuries has been [that] it’s always stronger when it makes itself more open and always weaker when it fails to do that. [Thriving towns] make themselves open, and by open I mean to immigration, to people at different stations in life, of allowing people to reinvent themselves, etc. To me, that is the idea of America, and it’s at its best when it does that and worst when it doesn’t. So that’s another way in which something is bad at the national level [but] now seems to be the opposite at the civic level.
Another component here is, I think, practical educational innovation. Not every place can have a big research university. That’s something you have or you don’t. But places that are innovating with community colleges and creative schools, K-12 schools, those are important to connect people with new opportunities, and that was surprising because [we found them] in the South, largely. Engagement and also innovation [like with libraries] — you think libraries would be doomed like the corner newsstand. The corner newsstand is in fact doomed, but libraries, even though they were created around physical books, in many places seem to be reinventing themselves. And then, of course, we have the brew pubs, sort of a show of hands for entrepreneurial arts community.
There’s a line in the book from a guy who said, “If you want to consume a great community, you move to Paris or Brooklyn. You want to create a great community, you move to some little podunk place and you’re part of creating it.” People decide that a certain place matters to them. They’re not just passing through there and just looking for a great restaurant and thinking of where they’re going to go next, but how this place will be in the future, both 10 years from now and when their children are deciding where to live.

For the Global Good, Mayors Move to the Spotlight

City leaders are thinking globally, even as they act locally. More than 300 mayors brought local government to the international stage in June when they promised to uphold the Paris climate accord. “We can’t wait for governments to act on climate change. For solutions, look to cities,” former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said on Twitter.
This is part of a larger trend of cities embracing their power to change the world by activating their residents. Set against a backdrop of population growth that predicts that two-thirds of the world’s population will live in urban areas by 2030, cities are seeding interest in civic engagement and local government with citizens who are eager to create more inclusive communities. “Inequality — in access and quality of services, and therefore, opportunity — is one of the single largest threats our society faces today,” says Jeff Senne, corporate responsibility operations leader and senior director at PwC. “Cities possess the highest levels of inequality and consequently provide the greater opportunity to address the root drivers of this issue.”
Global players appear to be taking notice. At this year’s Social Innovation Summit in Chicago, representatives from city offices around the globe met with business and philanthropy leaders to discuss insights and innovations related to local and global issues.  
Unlike their larger counterparts, local initiatives benefit from their scale and speed. City governments are smaller and more nimble than state and national governments. “At the city level, we can quickly impact and change residents’ lives,” says summit speaker Sharone April, director of the Jerusalem Innovation Team.
Technology also plays a role in a city’s ability to act quickly and agilely while serving its public. New online platforms, aimed at information exchanges between residents and local governments, have allowed cities to promote two-way conversations and civic engagement. In Philadelphia, a mobile lab called PHL Participatory Design Lab travels around town to give residents a chance to voice their thoughts on ways to improve their city. The city of Charlotte, N.C., plans to start a weekly podcast called Your Move, featuring city officials conversing with Millennials.
Members of the Minneapolis Innovation Team, one of about 20 innovation teams funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, discussed their web portal for small business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs. The portal offers resources to fledgling entrepreneurs, such as starter guides for common business types and information on how to navigate regulatory processes.
“It’s all in response to what communities said they want,” says Brian K. Smith, director of the Minneapolis Innovation Team. “When we make it easier for small businesses and minority and immigrant entrepreneurs to access the knowledge, financial and social capital they need to be successful, we not only help the business owners at the margins. We also make everybody’s lives easier.”
A similar online platform has gained popularity in Los Angeles. In September 2016, Mayor Eric Garcetti and the Los Angeles Innovation Team introduced a program that helps small business owners cut through red tape. The open-source platform offers step-by-step guidance to overcome hurdles such as finding a location, negotiating a lease and getting a business loan. “We worked with city leaders and residents to design and test the portal and are consistently sharing the process and tools we used with other cities so that they can start with what we did and hopefully launch something even better that we can take from in the future,” says Amanda Daflos, director of the Innovation Team in the Los Angeles Mayor’s Office of Budget and Innovation.
That spirit of collaboration could be felt in another city, halfway around the world: An app called Coming Soon, based in Jerusalem, Israel, allows locals to name the types of businesses their neighborhoods lack. Coming Soon shares that information with entrepreneurs to help them target, refine and optimize their new ventures. “It provides powerful data for business owners so that they can open the right business in the right location,” April says. That data is especially powerful in a city where half of new businesses shutter within five years.
“Residents will be able to influence what is happening in their neighborhoods,” Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat said in a statement. “This will impact the city through enhanced quality of life for residents and advance the business sector—a win-win for all involved.”
The focus is specific, but the ambition is broad. By creating hyper-local initiatives that encourage an engaged public, city and industry leaders hope to affect quality of life across diverse sectors, including climate, economy, technology and opportunity. Local mayors to the world: Perhaps there’s also room to act globally, but think locally.  
Presented by Social Innovation Summit. NationSwell and PwC are Social Innovation Summit partners.
Social Innovation Summit is an annual global convening of black swans and wayward thinkers. In June 2017, more than 1,400 Fortune 500 corporate executives, venture capitalists, CSR and foundation heads, government leaders, social entrepreneurs, philanthropists, activists, emerging market investors and nonprofit heads convened in Chicago to investigate solutions and catalyze inspired partnerships that are disrupting history.

How Do You Make a Good Idea Even Better?

Digital technology is unleashing potential across the global economy. As CEO of the Gramercy Fund, NationSwell Council member T. Trent Gegax is trying to identify which early-stage companies in web services, social media, biotech and education technology software are poised to harness that energy. NationSwell spoke to Gegax recently about how he’s picking investments at the outset of a third industrial revolution.

I’ve heard some venture capital firms say they have a thesis they play out in their portfolio. In those terms, what’s Gramercy Fund’s “thesis” for what you choose to back?
It comes down to a strong personality, an individual who’s both extremely confident and extremely coachable, someone who knows what they don’t know and is assured in what they do. Investing in people — a real solid founder that we trust — is first and foremost what we look for. Second, it’s marketplaces that are compelling or interesting. Timing is the third element, and probably the hardest. If you’re too early, you’re Friendster or MySpace, not Facebook. Knowing the market sometimes that requires a crystal ball. I said no to Kickstarter because I wasn’t sure if the timing was right for crowdfunding projects. I still kick myself on that one.

Besides confidence, what other qualities do you look for in founders that indicate they’ll be successful?
A single-minded obsession with the problem they’re trying to solve. Basically, having the passion for the business that a baseball player has for the game, who gets to wear funny uniforms and play for a living. We look for founders that pinch themselves because they can’t imagine getting paid to do something they love so much.

How do you coach these founders?
I learned early on, being a board member on companies, that when I said, “You should do this or that,” the CEOs never took my advice. They really shut down. I quickly learned that recommending ideas and options was more effective, couching statements as, “This worked for others,” or “Have you thought about this?” It’s also important to be an ear that listens and doesn’t automatically try to solve the problem that the founder is talking about. Sometimes, founders want to talk to a shrink, and they don’t really want to hear answers. They just want to have an ear to spill into. And finally, always tell them they’re not alone, because a founder in trouble is one of the loneliest people. I can give them context, that these are the problems that everyone’s had and gets through. It’s the Churchill line, “When you go through hell, keep going.”

Founders can be extremely lonely in those dark moments, but if they’re successful, it can also be extremely glamorous. Why do you choose to work behind the scenes, supporting these other ventures?
I’m a former reporter, and I covered the early days of the Internet, war and presidential elections back in the ’90s. I love having a front row seat in history, being the first to see things and investigating whatever I’m seeing. It’s not a big jump between being a reporter and investing. I probably take five to seven calls a week looking at new businesses. It’s hard for me to say no, just because I never know when the next Kickstarter’s going to come. I’m terminally curious. This moment in time — the third Industrial Revolution, from analog to digital — is a transformation. There’s more opportunities than meets the eye. I tell you, it’s exciting. The big risk is if I bet on a bunch of bad ideas and the fund goes to zero, but so far, we’ve had some decent exits and nice markups.

What book would you recommend to someone who wanted to understand your work?
The book that really taught me how startups work and how difficult it is to succeed in this area is Ben Horowitz’s “The Hard Thing About Hard Things.”

What innovations are you eyeing as opportunities for growth?
This isn’t breaking news: the combination of artificial intelligence and sensors of all sorts capturing data everywhere around us is creating the opportunities for automation that we can’t even begin to understand yet. (That’s why you have so much talk of the impending domination of our robot overlords.) Also, in transportation, transforming how we relate to vehicles will transform cities. I’m a bit of an urban planning geek, and you can imagine automated vehicles in the future literally changing the cityscape: street parking, off-ramps, the opportunity to bike and get around.

What do you wish someone had told you when you first started this job?
There’s an old saying in journalism, “If your mother says she loves you, get a second source on it.” I didn’t take that to heart with some of the very initial investments. I was new and didn’t know much, so I erred on the side of being a little too trusting. That didn’t last long: my journalism expertise kicked in after I made a few mistakes in my first few investments. You always fall in love with an idea the first time you hear it. Now, I always sleep on it.

To learn more about the NationSwell Council, click here.

This article has been edited and condensed for length.

The Journey of an Idea: This Entrepreneur Took a Cross-Country Trip to Fine-Tune His Higher Education Gamechanger

Seated in a 1930s Pullman train car, Phillip Ellison carved a broad arc across the country: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, Milwaukee, Detroit. Ellison had no final endpoint toward which his locomotive was rushing: he was simply riding the rails, as part of the Millennial Trains Project (MTP), a nonprofit venture with Comcast NBCUniversal, a lead partner of the journey. Along with 25 other young adults, he was making a nine-day, transcontinental trek this August to open himself to new ideas for ULink, his new startup that’s in the works. “[MTP is promoting] American innovation, entrepreneurship and trans-regional understanding of the United States, by allowing people doing social impact to come together,” Ellison says.
In the early stages of developing a tech platform to assist community college students, Ellison wanted to spend the 3,100-mile journey homing in on his product’s capabilities and its growth potential, while discovering what other young people were doing in their hometowns. As the American West rushed by his window, he engaged the other social entrepreneurs and rising nonprofit leaders in conversation: Where were they all headed, and how could they help each other get there?
Onboard MTP, Ellison hammered out ideas for ULink, a website that will help community college students engage with on-campus resources (such as advising sessions to map out the credits that four-year colleges require or counseling to help deal with tough emotional situations) and successfully transfer to a four-year university. Ellison, a one-time dropout wrapping up his bachelor’s degree at Tufts University in Massachusetts, wanted to hear what had helped his peers navigate their undergraduate experience and whether community college counselors and transfer advisors, faculty members, students and IT programmers in each of MTP’s five stops would be open to using the platform. Aided by their insights, he’s planning to launch a beta pilot of the website within the next year at a community college in the Boston area.
“Community college is often a head-down experience. Students do not know what’s happening on campus, and they’re not accessing resources until it’s too late,” Ellison explains to NationSwell. On the administrative side, counseling “processes are not quite modernized, digital or up to date. You see the limitations of a human being in terms of resources.” ULink is still in beta development, but once launched, it will help counselors manage their students, see who’s coming in and who’s been out of touch and send text message check-ins through a mobile app — allowing them to reach more students all at once.
Ellison knows about the necessity of college advising more acutely than most. He was forced to leave Penn State University prematurely due to a lack of financial aid. “That was one of the darkest times in my life, to be frank,” he says. Like many students arriving at four-year institutions, he says he didn’t fully comprehend higher education’s blockbuster price tag, even at a public school. Looking back, he wishes he had known more about the financial aspects of college. (For instance, public schools charge more to out-of-state residents, and with rare exception, student loans stick with most people even after a declaration of bankruptcy.) Constantly worrying about his bank accounts, Ellison’s grades fell precipitously. He dropped out and returned home to East Harlem.
That’s not to say Ellison was giving up. “I decided to go home and spend some time thinking about what I was going to do, to right the ship basically,” he explains. Almost immediately, he went to work as a manual laborer. Alongside middle-aged underrepresented workers, the teenager manned demolition projects in Brooklyn and moved corporate furniture in Manhattan. No boss seemed to value worker contributions at those temp jobs, he noticed. They didn’t provide healthcare benefits, and they offered no job security — a daily reality for millions of Americans who never obtained a college degree, he saw.
Eventually, Ellison was accepted to serve as an AmeriCorps member with City Year, assisting a green energy startup. (There, he met one of ULink’s current co-founders, Parisa Esmaili.) He leveraged that into a job at Citizen Schools, a nonprofit that provides extra hours of instruction at public middle schools. He also worked on campaigns for Obama’s reelection and a failed primary bid by Reshma Saujani (the founder of Girls Who Code) to be New York City’s public advocate. In retrospect, he says the series of jobs taught him leadership: by watching how a founder made tough decisions, by practicing at the front of a classroom and by trying to elect principled leaders.
In his off-hours, Ellison started attending classes at Eugenio María de Hostos Community College, one of the City University of New York schools near the Bronx’s Grand Concourse. Once again, working families surrounded him. He saw many of his classmates pulled away from their education by the need to get a job to pay for their kids. Others, closer to him in age, didn’t seem to know how to navigate the school’s bureaucracy. On his second attempt at higher education, Ellison realized that community college students don’t know what four-year universities are looking for in applicants and understaffed counseling departments couldn’t provide all the help needed. “I saw folks stopping sometimes, because they didn’t know what their end goal could be or how to get to that point,” he says. “The mentors were not checking in on them. It’s not a seamless transition.”
After a long hiatus from a four-year college, Ellison returned to school at Tufts last year. At times, he feels out of place, coming from the South Bronx to a bucolic research institution with a billion-dollar endowment that predates the Civil War. There, he lived with Jubril Lawal (a former classmate at Hostos and current co-founder of ULink), and together they translated their own experience negotiating educational barriers into ULink’s platform. ”By merging tech and human interactions in a strategic way,” says Ellison, who regularly folds business school lingo into ULink’s sales pitch, “our premise is that closing some of the advising and engagement gaps will promote completion and persistence and improve the overall student experience.” Where Ellison once felt disconnected, he hopes the app will provide clarity and direction, those touch points that tie a person to a larger institution.
Through conversations with other train ride participants and with people at various city stops, Ellison deepened his understanding of the community college system. He asked why certain schools have off-the-charts transfer rates, while others are dropout factories. How can his platform make a student feel at home on a two-year commuter campus, in the same way that a student living in the dorms at a four-year institution participates in the school’s history and traditions? Will a few text messages be enough?
His cross-country sojourn confirmed that he’s asking the right questions. At a City College of San Francisco, he showed the school’s chief technology officer his beta product, and the administrator shared insights about the inadequacies of older education planning software and his decision-making calculus for new technology. Ellison speculated ULink may have just gained “a key adviser.” Back on the train, he discussed his ideas with his mentors and other social entrepreneurs. Fauzia Musa, from the design firm IDEO, reminded him that if students found some real value in the product and used it to solve their challenges, then colleges would quickly fall into line. Those “new understandings and unique opportunities for growth” proved vital to understanding what ULink could be.
Now it’s a matter of Ellison putting his answers into practice. The steaming train may have pulled into the final station, but his real journey is just beginning.
This article is part of the What’s Possible series produced by NationSwell and Comcast NBCUniversal, which shines a light on changemakers who are creating opportunities to help people and communities thrive in a 21st century world. These social entrepreneurs and their future forward ideas represent what’s possible when people come together to create solutions that connect, educate and empower others and move America forward.
Homepage photo courtesy of Millennial Trains Project.

These Two Millennials Are Taking on Big Urban Problems — and Winning

As Scott Benner sneakily took a few sheets of blank paper from the public library’s copy machine, he kept an eye out for employees who could bust him for stealing. Walking between the public library’s bookshelves, he recognized several men from the local homeless shelter in Quincy, Mass., where he was living, waiting in line for the bathroom or surfing the web. Slumping in a chair, Benner used a ballpoint pen to doodle, distracting himself from the travails of his life. In the five years prior, Benner had lost everything: his 20-year foreman job at a steel plant, his two-bedroom house. Even his wife left. Kept awake at night in the shelter by men moaning from withdrawal and hacking with sickness, Benner doubted he would ever experience the life he once imagined for himself.
For weeks, Benner kept sketching, giving away his artwork until a shelter worker suggested he sell it. Some brief online research using the library’s wifi led Benner to ArtLifting, an online marketplace like Etsy for homeless and disabled artists. A couple of months later, in May 2014, he sold his first piece. Investing his earnings in a pad of high-quality paper and a set of pens led to even more sales. “It’s selling in ways that I’ve never imagined,” he says. But beyond the cash, “it was just that sense of hope that I was going to get out of the mess that I was in. There was a light at the end of the tunnel now because ArtLifting was there.” Recently, Benner moved into permanent housing.
Behind Benner’s success is a little-known group working to maximize ArtLifting’s reach. Tumml, a nonprofit San Francisco incubator, assists for-profit entrepreneurs scale their companies to solve urban problems. For ArtLifting and the 32 other young urban ventures it’s assisting, Tumml attempts to bridge the funding and mentorship gap business founders face by connecting them to investors, city officials, journalists and advisors from Silicon Valley giants like Airbnb and Yelp. On average, participating businesses raise $1.1 million and hire 10 new employees. Collectively, 2.2 million people have used the products and services offered by companies in Tumml’s portfolio.
Tumml co-founders Julie Lein, a one-time political consultant, and Clara Brenner, formerly in real estate development, caught the highly infectious “startup bug” while at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. (“When you are surrounded by talented technologists and entrepreneurs, it makes you want to push yourself to do more and to solve big, hairy challenges,” Brenner explains.) There, they collaborated on a white paper about the challenges entrepreneurs confront. Combining their findings with their love of cities led the business-savvy duo to launch Tumml. “We saw a lot of people talking about these issues, and we want to see more people actually going out there and tackling these challenges,” says Lein.
APPLY: Tumml is an NBCUniversal Foundation 21st Century Solutions grant winner. Apply to the 2016 program here.
During its four-month-long program, Tumml provides entrepreneurs with free office space, trainings and lectures and any other support they need to obtain seed funding. “Usually, we are the first outside person for these enterprises,” says Lein. “They are at a critical juncture, and they need help getting their business off the ground.” For ArtLifting specifically, the two women helped the nonprofit network with government personnel, investors and journalists.
Applicants undergo a rigorous vetting process (Tumml’s acceptance rate rivals Harvard), and at first glance, there’s little commonality among participants. A handful create software platforms that make government work more efficiently: Sprokit helps corrections departments transition former inmates back into society by allowing agencies to share real-time data on a single platform, and Valor Water Analytics assists utilities conserve through meter technology. Several are social enterprises that benefit vulnerable populations: HandUp replaces panhandling by allowing those in need to crowdfund donations on a mobile app; WorkHands is a LinkedIn for tradesmen looking for work. And many simply ease the stress of urban life for city-dwellers: Farmery sells high-quality fresh food grown indoors, and Hitch (recently acquired by Lyft) allows passengers to carpool on ride-sharing apps. What unites the enterprises, however, is the belief that the markets can offer a solution when government or charitable services aren’t enough.
“Maybe two generations ago, if you wanted to solve a problem, you ran for office; maybe a generation ago, you ran a nonprofit or set up a group to lobby on behalf of the issues you care about,” says Brenner, Tumml’s CEO. Today, “the success of the entrepreneur presents a path forward to see a difference in their communities,” she continues. Her colleague Lein explains, “People see the power in taking the bull by the horns in a startup that directly addresses challenges. It’s a really powerful motivator to make the change that you want to see.”
After losing his job in 2009, Scott Benner personally experienced how the business, government and nonprofit sectors weren’t enough. Short-term gigs and unemployment checks couldn’t keep him afloat, and he was forced to enter the shelter system — shocked and enraged — with just a backpack of clothing.
But ArtLifting’s social enterprise seemed to provide a new, self-sustaining way to offer services to the homeless. Thanks to assistance from Tumml, ArtLifting has networked with government personnel and investors and has received media coverage. Benner’s drawings — explosive black-and-white symbols that repeat across the page — now hang in homes across the country. With his bank account replenished, he says his whole world-view has been changed by his interaction with ArtLifting. He wants to see more social enterprises like the ones Tumml fosters: “I would never think of running a business and not giving back anything now. I wasn’t callous and uncaring before, but I just didn’t entertain the idea. Today, it’s why not?” he says.
Currently, four out of five Americans live in urban areas, a figure that only continues to grow. Tumml’s co-founders recognize their importance to improving 21st century living, but Brenner stresses that no one can solve urban problems (homelessness, crime, overstressed infrastructure) on their own. “We need startups dedicated to solving the challenges that come with this massive population shift,” she says. Across the country, ambitious, young entrepreneurs are leading the charge for urban innovation, and Tumml is fueling the groundswell behind them.
Tumml is a recipient of last year’s 21st Century Solutions grant powered by the NBCUniversal Foundation, in partnership with the NBCUniversal Owned Television Stations. The grant celebrates nonprofits that are embracing innovative solutions to advance community-based programs in the areas of civic engagement, education, environment, jobs and economic empowerment, media, and technology for good. Apply here for a chance to be one of the 2016 winners!
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated where Benner’s artwork hangs, how Tumml provided assistance to ArtLifting and ArtLifting’s revenue and expenditures. NationSwell apologizes for the errors.