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Why Changemaking: Chat with Taylor, Founder Open Function and former-CEO Vera Solutions

I recently got a chance to chat with Taylor Downs is a Senior Atlantic Fellow for Social & Economic Equity, focusing on the securitization of national artificial intelligence policy and how it influences democratic participation in the regulation of technology. He received the first annual Harvard SECON Social Impact Award and the 2017 Antonio Pizzigati Prize for software development in the public interest. He was named to Forbes’ 30 under 30 list, is a 2012 Echoing Green Fellow, a 2014 Rainer Arnhold Fellow, and a 2015 PopTech Fellow.

To get started, can you talk about what got you started on Open Function?

In 2008, I was working for an HIV-prevention organization in South Africa. Two colleagues and I realized that this NGO was spending lots of time and money capturing data, but for the most part it was just sitting in spreadsheets — it wasn’t being proactively to drive decision making. This is an organization that’s tracking kids going through an HIV prevention program, so information on attendance or changes in knowledge and attitudes shouldn’t just be used for year-end retrospectives — they should inform day-to-day program management. It seemed like such a waste of time and money to be spending all this effort to gather information, but not unleash its day-to-day power.

We interacted with lots of different NGOs, and back in 2008 this was the step quo in the sector. We founded Vera Solutions to create decision-making feedback loops through data systems for nonprofit organizations. We’ve now worked with more than 300 different NGOs around the world, and back in 2014 it became clear that for so many of these projects — where the goal was to to strengthen the data systems and strengthen the decision making capacity of nonprofit organizations or government projects — we actually needed to connect multiple different technologies to get the job done. It was never enough to just have one piece of technology running all the systems for all the different users at an organization. We began work on a data integration/interoperability platform that we could use internally, to reduce the cost and increase the scalability of these solutions for our clients, but soon found that the demand exceeded our clientele and spun OpenFn out as a new, sister organization to Vera Solutions.

At OpenFn, our mission is to scale the world’s most innovative social sector interventions via data integration, interoperability, and process automation. We work with groups like UNICEF, enabling scale in child protection systems in Cambodia, and Wildlife Conservation Society, helping to take wildlife and wildlands monitoring systems global, by integrating and by connecting all these different technologies they use to get the job done. We help them grow by reducing errors reducing the time it takes to perform certain data related tasks, and ultimately reducing the cost to deliver their interventions via algorithms running on OpenFn.

Why social entrepreneurship?

When I was in college I majored in religion, with a focus on Tibetan Buddhism. In my junior year of university I studied abroad in northern India and was struck by the stark inequality. While wealth and health inequality are huge issues in the US, there are many parts of the country where they’re hidden from sight more than in Delhi, for example. It was eye opening at the time and I decided I wanted to address it in some way with my work. I was always a science and technology guy, and had completed almost all of the required pre-medical studies at college, despite my humanities major, so the most immediate pathway I saw for myself to have an impact on inequality was through healthcare and public health policy.

I finished up my pre-med courses, took the MCAT, and then applied for a volunteership with an organization doing HIV-prevention work in southern and eastern Africa to develop a little bit of public health experience that would serve to strengthen my CV for med school and open some doors to public health work after I finished. By the end of my first year I realized that I was happy, working on interesting problems, and felt like there was a legitimate path for me in the public health space, so I scrapped my med school application and continued working with Grassroot Soccer for two more years. Over that time I became closer with two unbelievably talented and driven human beings, Karti Subramanian and Zak Kaufman. We three were all working at Grassroot Soccer, helping with internal data systems and then with the systems of GRS’s regional partners. Soon enough, it became clear that the type of work we were doing would benefit the whole sector, so the three of us founded Vera Solutions and everything led from there.

What does social entrepreneurship mean for you?

Social entrepreneurship, for me, is about alignment and sustainability. It’s about creating interventions which serve the poor, rather than extracting wealth from them, but are not beholden to philanthropy. In a certain sense, philanthropic interventions are those which are chosen by and paid for by the world’s richest. That’s not to say that philanthropy isn’t a powerful force for good, but it’s something that you’ve got to keep in mind — asking yourself who your program is catering towards.

I would rather be catering directly to our customers. So it’s it for me, it’s really important to have autonomy and to keep us completely focused on delivering something that is valuable to the people who are actually using it. Of course, there are some levels of complication — for example, some of the orgs we serve are funded by philanthropy. But some of them are democratic governments — which, elite capture and corruption notwithstanding, amount to interventions chosen by the people. Still other clients are social businesses themselves. These different groups are beholden to the whims of donors, voters, or investors in certain cases, but, at the end of the day, it’s less complicated for us to focus on building products that our customers want to buy, than those that donors want to fund. We’re hoping that this kind of autonomy and sustainability will help us outlast changes in the stock market or changes in public opinion, which have huge impacts on philanthropy.

Why are we seeing so few social entrepreneurs?

That’s a complicated question — in some ways I think we’re seeing too many and I’d like to come back to that in a moment. To not dodge the question, let me offer two reasons.

First, interventions that serve the poorest of the poor simply don’t offer large margins, and we’ve got a society that is obsessed (at the moment) with extracting profits. Very few in business seem to be interested in making an “honest living” — instead the goal of entrepreneurship seems to be to create some sort of outsized return on investment that allows the owners of the business (and their investors) to live off rents for the rest of their days. Setting aside how problematic this ethos is (and how mythologized the individuals who are able to extract those massive rents from the poor are), it’s currently a legitimate deterrent to social entrepreneurship.

Second — and this ties into my point about there being too much social entrepreneurship — it’s very hard; specifically, the downsides are real and enormous. I’m not saying that building a billion dollar iPhone app isn’t difficult, and doesn’t bring all sorts of fascinating technological, marketing, management, and design challenges with it, but it doesn’t matter if it fails. It might be heartbreaking for the founder, uninteresting for the investor, and could even cost a small group of people their livelihoods if they’ve truly risked everything on the venture, but in social entrepreneurship you’re often attempting to provide desperately needed goods or services to the poor and failure, once you’ve stepped in to play that role and people put their faith in you, could result in absolute disaster.

One of my good friends and role models in the social entrepreneurship world is Anushka Ratnayake. Her organization, myAgro, provides a savings and seed delivery program for poor farmers in West Africa. They’re an client and I’ve lost countless hours of sleep worrying that if our systems fail them at a critical moment during delivery, a group of farmers could have to delay their planting, lose their savings, or not be able to make ends meet. For the record, you had better believe that Anushka, in turn, stays up at night too — making multiple contingency plans so that the livelihoods of these farmers wouldn’t be endangered if some business failure like this took place!

It might be OK, even applauded, to “fail fast” in Silicon Valley, but that’s often not an option in social entrepreneurship.

Sure, you’ve got to prototype and test and base your designs on reliable, reproducible research, but once you step in and attempt to interfere with the lives of the poor, you have got to be absolutely certain that you’re not going to make things worse. I think it’s a daunting challenge, on top of all the typical challenges folks face in starting a regular for-profit business. In that sense, I’d almost like to see less gung-ho attitudes in social entrepreneurship. I don’t mean for this to turn people away, but I do hope that folks entering the sector do so with an incredibly deep respect for and willingness to listen to those that they claim to serve, along with a commitment to evidence-based interventions.

So how can we rectify this situation as a society?

If we cut the word “entrepreneurship” out, but just look at how to get more people to focus on creating or supporting programs or interventions that address poverty and inequality, I think the answer is to stop actively silencing the poor. That probably starts with voting reform and campaign finance reform; we need to make an attempt to provide meaningfulfreedom of speech to all people, politically. We haven’t got that most places in the world — the rich are allowed to drown out the voices of the poor with advertising dollars.

From there, the narrative about what’s important in life will start to be written by more voices. We may see more interest in sustainable business, philanthropy-free non-profits, working in the civil service, or ways of “creating value” that lead to widespread human flourishing, rather than a concentration of wealth among an elite few.

To be certain, these are some massive issues, but I’ve never felt more hopeful about young people, their interest in social justice, the fragility of some current systems of oppression, and the opportunities afforded us by modern communications technologies. I think we’re going places as a society.

To know more about the fantastic work done by Open Function, click here

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