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6 Things Silicon Valley Can Teach Social Entrepreneurs

Can a social enterprise have the breakthrough success of a Facebook or Twitter? Perhaps if they start emulating some of these characteristics of the most successful tech companies.

After nonprofit work in East Africa, and an MBA from Oxford University’s Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, I was not the most likely person to land at a small startup called Twitter in 2009. But that’s exactly what happened.

Based on my work leading social innovation at Twitter, here are six essential things that Silicon Valley can teach social entrepreneurs.

1: Take Risks

Continuing to take risks is essential to the success of any good social entrepreneur, and most credit their greatest successes to such risks. After all, big risks can reap big rewards. What starts in your garage can become bigger than you ever imagined—and not just for Steve Jobs. In 2009, Nanoice, a social enterprise transforming the sustainability of food preservation, started in the Seattle-area garage of founder Craig Rominger. Three years later, they boast 16,000 square feet of manufacturing space, and a host of accolades to boot.

2: Collaboration Is Key

At its core, successful social entrepreneurship relies on collaboration. Whether working with governments, foundations, civil society, corporate partners, or stakeholders, continue to seek out spaces of collaboration in your work. As I write this, I stand at the nexus of just such a space: Opportunity Collaboration, an annual event designed to bring together individuals from many sectors with one purpose: eliminating poverty. By coming together, we all learn more. By collaborating, we expand the efficacy of our work.

3: Listen to Others

The simplicity that Twitter is known for has proved a rich starting point for the most incredible of innovations. It is by listening to users of the platform that such innovations have occurred. Likewise, the best social entrepreneurs go into communities to ask what they need. Take Witness, an organization that puts filmmaking equipment into the hands of empowered community members so the rest of us can listen—and learn.

Organizations like Witness have found that true impact comes by building from the ground up. The power of engaging local communities, asking what they need, and then designing and crafting programming around such answers is the true path to positive change. For Witness, putting the power of filmmaking into the hands of citizen activists was the essential way they achieved the wide-scale impact they now boast.

4: Balance Is Essential

Life in Silicon Valley doesn’t work without balance, and some of the best top executives are promoting this message to their employees. Just as COO of Facebook Sheryl Sandberg famously states that she leaves the office at 5:30 p.m. to spend time with her family, social entrepreneurs should do the same, and not just after a burnout.

During one nonstop season of travel (and airplane movie watching), Yvette Alberdingk Thijm, the CEO of Witness, found herself in a movie theater in a far-flung country, instinctively reaching to buckle her seatbelt (!). In my life of frequent travel, one nonnegotiable is arriving in a far-flung city at least one day before I need to be there. This allows me the space I need to recharge, re-inspire, and prepare for the event or meetings at hand.

All social entrepreneurs would do well building balance and margin into their lives so they can tackle the challenges to come.

5: Get Your Tribe to Evangelize for You

Many Silicon Valley companies know the importance of finding users to evangelize their products and services—ultimately forming a loyal tribe of core consumers. Social enterprises and nonprofits should do the same. As a delegate on a recent trip to Honduras with the One Campaign, I saw firsthand the importance of getting an influencer to share your message.

Key takeaways? Influencers within your niche can often help build your message even better than you can. However, don’t focus on the vanity numbers of Facebook likes and Twitter followers when finding an influencer. Instead, focus on someone who is passionate about your space and has a dedicated tribe—even if it’s a small one.

Having others evangelize for you is more important—and reliable—than ever.

6: Marketing is Storytelling

On my first day at Twitter, in 2009, I asked who in the then 50-person company was responsible for "marketing." I got blank stares. Marketing, as I learned for many a lean startup (and many a social entrepreneur), is about a powerful story evangelized well. It was the compelling story of Charity: Water that made them the first nonprofit to reach 1 million followers on Twitter, and continues to draw in supporters worldwide. The speed of their rise on digital media, and their ability to consistently stay relevant by consistently engaging their ongoing story, have proved essential in driving the donations, awareness, and engagement they need to make a difference in the clean water space.

Find your story, and tell it well.