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.

This Plug-in Makes it Easy to Track Campaign Donations

Campaign finance laws have made it easier for politicians to shadow donors, but despite a national push toward more transparency, most Americans remain unaware of who’s handing out cash to elect their local, state and federal lawmakers.
Which is why the new plug-in Greenhouse is an exciting development in helping citizens make connections between their elected officials and special interest groups or industries.
Created by 16-year-old Nick Rubin, Greenhouse collects data from the nonprofit Center of Responsive Politics project Opensecrets.org and lets a user track a politician’s funding portfolio simply by hovering over his or her name. Users can immediately see a scorecard for any member of Congress who pops up in an article or online site, breaking down not only which industries are supporting the candidate, but also how much money they give in total, as well as percentages of donations from individuals contributing less than $200.
“Even though I am only 16 years old, not quite old enough to vote, I am old enough to know that our political system desperately needs fixing,” the Seattle native said on the Greenhouse website.
Self-taught in computer coding, Rubin was in seventh grade when he first took interest in how money shapes politics. He pursued his idea after participating in a project on corporate personhood and hearing Harvard professor and campaign-finance activist Lawrence Lessig speak. According to Fast Company, Lessig consulted with Rubin on the launch of the beta version.
Since the plug-in went live in June, it’s amassed more than 41,000 users.
The project has garnered interest on both the left and right and helped illuminate an issue that’s important for American politics in general, regardless of ideology. As Greenhouse’s tagline states, “Some are red. Some are blue. All are green.”
“What it signifies is that the influence of money on our government isn’t a partisan issue. Whether Democrat or Republican, we should all want a political system that is independent of the influence of big money and not dependent on endless cycles of fundraising from special interests,” Rubin said.
Indeed, it’s refreshing to see the next generation — especially one that is not even of voting age — taking interest in reforming the political process into one that all Americans can be proud of.
MORE: Washington Needs to Be Fixed. These Innovators Aren’t Waiting for Congress to Do It.

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