Giving Back While Growing Your Business

Leigh-Ann Miyasato, Entrepreneurs Foundation
Leigh-Ann Miyasato, Entrepreneurs Foundation's President & Executive Director, shows some of the impact her organization has made locally. (photo credit: Danielle Scherman)

Everyone knows the story behind TOMS Shoes and their “one for one” movement where, for every pair of shoes that they sell, they give a pair to a child in need. Over the past few years, they’ve become a shining example of how a charitable idea can be part of a for-profit corporation. Other organizations, like 1% for the Planet, are making it easier for for-profit companies to support charitable causes. But for startups working on a tight budget or with little to no revenue (and even less extra time), it’s sometimes difficult to think about putting resources into anything but your business, which is why it was so inspiring to have such a large crowd at The Box Jelly last night to hear about the great work happening at Entrepreneurs Foundation of Hawai`i.

Leigh-Ann Miyasato, the organization’s President & Executive Director, gave a great overview of how her organization is helping local entrepreneurs give back to the community through both hands-on community programs and cash grants. By taking donations from startups in the form of equity, Entrepreneurs Foundation (EF) uses cash from liquidity events as their financial support. This allows member companies to be supportive without taking money out of the business. In return, member companies can get involved with community projects and have access to networking and educational events.

Currently, EF does require that a startup have equity financing as a precursor to membership, since equity is the basis of their funding. Therefore, many of Hawaii’s startups who have an urge to contribute but are still in the pre-funding stage of their business are not eligible to join. Leigh-Ann did talk about the local market’s lack of recent liquidity events being an issue, and that EF is considering relaxing this requirement or developing another way for early-stage startups to become involved.

In a state that is beginning to see a new generation of entrepreneurs crop up, plus today’s model for small, lean startups, thinking differently about corporate charity is also required. It’s encouraging to hear that EF is moving to keep pace with the changing nature of startups, especially when other local organizations aimed at entrepreneurs seem so slow to adapt to the new startup reality.

Entrepreneurs are Eager to Help

During the Q&A, Leigh-Ann asked the crowd of young entrepreneurs what types of charity work they were interested in or involved with, and it was inspiring to hear that so many people were actively involved with their communities. From coaching soccer to teaching robotics in local schools, from Lemonade Alley to cataloging the types of trash that wash up on our beaches (which was sadly described as “horrific”), the breadth of community involvement was just amazing—and shows that our entrepreneurs are putting their excess energy to great use.

Given the crowd at the event (about 40 people), the amount of potential charitable energy available to the overall community is huge. With support for such great events as Startup Weekend, HI Capacity, Ignite, and others, there’s no doubt that Hawaii’s younger entrepreneurs are eager to be involved. But, it’s also clear that they need a different approach that matches today’s entrepreneurial mindset and today’s work style.

Refreshing the Approach

Take the coworking movement, for example, brought to Hawaii by The Box Jelly but growing quickly with places such as Interisland Terminal/R&D and The Green House. Startups of today, which can launch in a weekend, don’t require a 10,000 square foot office space, a receptionist, a voicemail system, or even a partner; all you need are a laptop, a smartphone, and an internet connection. With the neighborhood “coffice” becoming too crowded, noisy, and messy to get any real work done (um, have you ever tried to find a seat at the Ward Starbucks?), these new coworking spaces provide a hipster professional space that merges lifestyle with work, and that’s the key. As much as the constantly-connected worker has let work permeate their life, they are now letting their life permeate their work.

Point being, work styles are changing and coworking spaces are filling that need. The same needs to happen with organizations that cater to, rely on, and serve today’s startups. With respect to corporate giving, philanthropy, and community involvement, the Startup Weekend and coworking models could serve as inspiration for redesigning the overall approach.

  • Be different. There will always be a need for cleanups and fundraisers, but think of new ways to create as much interest in the event as in the cause. How about a Startup Weekend-like event where teams are given bite-sized community projects and have the weekend to figure out how to complete them?
  • Make it fun. Turn the elementary school project into a competition (like Lemonade Alley), have a band blasting music during the beach cleanup, or make everyone wear a costume. Imagine a community project where everyone shows up dressed like a superhero!
  • Let them put their professional skills to use. Have techies redesign a website or teach kids how to code. Let marketing people redesign brochures or help with writing content or create a Facebook page. Community groups all need this type of help, but we too often think about money or physical labor as the only means of support. How about a website refresh sprint, where community groups can get teams to spend 90 minutes doing as much as they can to update their websites?
  • Adapt to them, don’t make them to adapt to you. They are mobile, smart, tech-savvy, fast-moving, and willing to help a good cause. On the other hand, they don’t have $5M in funding, a board of directors, or an office. If you are targeting young entrepreneurs, adapt to their way of thinking, or at least meet them half way.

Ultimately, it’s the “help” that is the important part, and getting more people involved is good for everyone. Hawaii’s startups are vibrant, growing, and eager to give back to their communities. Just as existing businesses need to change with the times, so do charitable organizations.

I’m sure you all have tons of other (and better) ideas, so share them with us!