12. TAKE the first risk

“From the day I got here, everybody told me we’ll never fix education until we fix poverty in America. And I always say that’s exactly backwards. We’ll never fix poverty until we fix education.”
—Joel Klein, Chancellor, New York City Department of Education [from The Power of Social Innovation]

The last item in the Innovator’s Toolkit is an often overlooked but critical component of successful innovations.

As an innovator, being closely connected to the people and communities you are trying to help will allow you a deeper understanding of the risks—and rewards—of their entrance into employment, retail, and other markets. Similarly, you can increase your impact by understanding and helping to underwrite the political risk intrinsic to both new ideas and to disruptive ideas.

See below for a number of ways you can use risk to your unique advantage:

Seeing Opportunity Where Others See Liability

  • Mitigate risk by helping clients become better informed or trained.
  • View clients not as passive consumers but as potential producers.
  • Open markets to excluded or underserved citizens by recalculating potential rewards and risk.

Taking First Risk

  • Use deep knowledge of community to understand obstacles and barriers to market.
  • Invest financial or political capital to underwrite risk.
  • Spend reputational or political capital to open the space for innovation and change; assuming full responsibility for its outcome.
  • Overcome specific barriers by providing extensive supports yet insisting on quality and strict accountability.

Calculating (and Sharing) the Return on Investment

  • Share credit for success with your partners, especially those who have taken financial, political, or reputational risk including elected and other public officials
  • Recognize where investment success can lead to ancillary benefits.
  • Build broad-based good will and momentum for further growth and success.

In Action

Through New York’s Greyston Foundation and Bakery, CEO Julius Walls combines profit-making with social good.  The bakery takes first risk by hiring entry-level  employees with little or no education or experience and helps them achieve self-sufficiency while demanding a strong work ethic and strict performance accountability.  In hiring and working with the “unemployable” Walls sees opportunity where other see liability–and everyone involved reaps great rewards.

Learn more about Greyston here.

Philadelphia’s Jeremy Nowak brought a deep understanding of the retail grocery business to addressing the “grocery store gap” in Philadelphia – a gap that leaves lower income neighborhoods with few supermarkets and little fresh produce because many retailers see too many costs and too little return for locating stores in these communities.  Nowak saw potential where most retailers saw obstacles, and teamed up with Pennsylvania legislators to create a public-private Fresh Food Financing Initiative (FFFI). By stepping out in front of the crowd, he’s helping close the grocery gap and bringing healthier food to more neighborhoods.

Learn more about FFFI here.