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Greater Social Impact [with Neetal Parekh of Innov8social]

Social entrepreneurship is that sweet spot where empathy meets innovation. Neetal Parekh is the founder of Innov8social and host of the Impact Podcast. Her work exemplifies the key ingredients of social impact: digital strategy, storytelling, and curiosity.

In this episode of In Times Like These, we talk about why relationship is so important, how we can all grow our abilities to generate positive social impact, and the key ingredients for human centered innovation and design.


Speaker 1:                           You’re listening to In Times Like These. A production of CLU Live at Claremont Lincoln University. In Times Like These explores the difficult spaces we humans navigate in culture and religion, in dialogue and doubt.

Social entrepreneurship is that sweet spot where empathy meets innovation. Neetal Parekh is the founder of Innov8social and host of the Impact podcast. Her work exemplifies the key ingredients of social impact digital strategy, storytelling, and curiosity.

In this episode of In Times Like These we talk about why relationship is so important. How we can all grow our abilities to generate positive social impact and the key ingredients for human centered innovation and design.

Speaker 2:                           So Neetal my first question is a hard one. And when I think about social impact I think about things like charities and Wounded Warrior Project. And I see those commercials and I think wow I want to help this organization. I feel like we should be doing something. But then I think, wait I already pay a lot of tax money. I think our veterans should be supported by our government. And not that I don’t want that organization or those individual men and women to have something. But how do I wrap my head around the idea of responsibilities for things like education and water and labor unions not being the responsibility of society.

Neetal Parekh:                  Yeah that’s a great question. Yes I think that’s a really good starting place to think about just connecting the dots in social impact.

For me I think of social entrepreneurship almost as a mind set and its like that problem solving mind set of… that an entrepreneur would have that when they see something in the marketplace an unmet need they look at is as a opportunity and they see how can we create a solution or build an innovative response to that. And that’s what I think the magic of social entrepreneurship is.

Because that is I think… it’s like looking at some of the challenges in society that we see. We see homelessness. We see veterans who may be coming back who don’t have jobs to go to. We see all these things and we can choose to either feel overwhelmed or kinda play the blame game and say hey the government aren’t you supposed to be taking care?

Speaker 2:                           So you’re saying playing the blame game.

Neetal Parekh:                  Yeah yeah. So that’s maybe a tendency that we have but when we have a social entrepreneurship mindset or problem solving mindset we almost look at that and say how can we do something different. How can we think of a solution that hasn’t been, you know if right now there is a problem that means something is not working. The solution is not working. Someone hasn’t identified the problem well. But something in the system is not working. So instead of looking at, well, we always say what we can do? We use the words like how might we make this better, how might we change this? And I think just that mindset y’know, kind of shifts our thinking. I always think of President Kennedy’s quote, ask not what the country can do for you, but what you can do for the country.

And I think that it’s a different kind of mindset, it’s kind of a very active problem solving. One of my favorite hashtags that I use a lot on my social media is go and do, and I think it’s that kind of energy that puts us a little bit more in the driver’s seat of like, of making change.

Speaker 2:                           Right, it’s an invitation. And honestly I’m so glad I asked that because I had never thought about seeing a problem, and I do despair, I get paralyzed by despair. I was a K through 12 teacher in St. Louis and the Bronx and every night I would be like oh my goodness, I don’t have, I don’t have, I don’t have I don’t have. And so instead of having that despairing mindset of who should fix this? The mindset of how might we. Which actually that’s an improv question. That’s a question for keeping balls up in the air. And it’s not just one answer because you’re inviting me to work and to come along with you. Cause I might say one thing and then, you know an improv, and this. And this. And this.

Neetal Parekh:                  Yes, yes, exactly, absolutely.

Speaker 2:                           So, when you’re thinking about this mindset, give me some character traits or leadership traits that exemplify. You’ve mentioned some of them, a can-do attitude, a curiosity, would curiosity be one?

Neetal Parekh:                  Yes. Curiosity, empathy, there’s so much that fits well with human centered design or design thinking. If you’re familiar with that. And that is kind of like, it is almost a way of problem solving but the center, the core of that is empathy for your user or for the person that you are supporting. And it’s not sympathy, and I think that’s sometimes when we get into the non-profit world, sympathy is so important. Especially for disaster relief, and something where you’re saying I am not you but I feel for you. Empathy is like when you kind of say I put myself in your shoes and I try to feel what you’re feeling. So if we can do that then we can always problem solve and ask a lot of questions and really understand what the other person is going through and not be in a place of judgment, but be almost thinking if I was there. And then design and solutions kind of with that mindset.

So I think empathy is a great trait of a social entrepreneur. I think adaptability is like, a tried and true trait and it’s because especially in this space you are often trying to create a business with a business model. You’re trying to serve a population or serve a need and you’re trying to figure out how to make this sustainable. So you have to really be able to roll with the punches. And if you face a setback not feel like it’s your whole idea that doesn’t work, but just say okay how do we sidestep this and adapt?

Also in this space everything’s changing a lot with technology, with funding mechanisms, with legal structures so that adaptability can be a really core survival trait or mechanism for this space, so.

Speaker 2:                           Are these traits people either have or don’t have, or are they traits like skills, like muscles that we get better at?

Neetal Parekh:                  I think, I’d like to think that maybe if we’re on a spectrum for greatest traits, you can definitely learn more and maybe that might be the place of where you grow. I’m sure some of these traits if they are innate then you might have a combination of some that are innate and some that are kind of learned and tried and true.

So I think that some of them exist innately and that might draw you into this space. Because in other ways, if none of those traits were maybe built in, it’s a lot of risk, it’s a lot of challenge, it can be … there are studies that show that depression and some of those things are higher with entrepreneurs because you are in your own little world, trying to create, trying to solve problems and the world may not fully understand and you have to just believe so deeply in that.

But I think that the fact that you can be in a community with other people who are trying to solve that problem or trying to think big, I think that magic can definitely happen and it does happen all the time. Which is great.

Speaker 2:                           Okay so I was thinking about sympathy and empathy and empathy to me feels riskier. You just used the word risk. It feels like, if I’m gonna imagine myself as the Episcopal church lady with the hat, and I am Episcopalian I’m not talking about a school, but I am going to do a fundraising Easter egg hunt to raise money for Stephanie’s school in the city. I have a lot of sympathy. Right? It almost feels like I don’t have to change or give up a worldview to do that. And that’s good, we need that, I want that fundraiser, but what do we do to help activate empathy in our community members?

And why is that hard for us?

Neetal Parekh:                  Yeah, these are awesome questions, by the way, these are really really thoughtful. I think that if more people asked questions like this I think we could almost, I don’t know, get to the next level of innovation and social impact. I think a lot of it starts with genuine curiosity and asking questions. Because if we ask questions from a genuine and curious place that’s very different from a judgment right? If a question is asked a certain way without curiosity, that can feel like judgment.

And so what the answer and the response you get maybe is kind of matching that, it’s maybe defensive, it’s maybe evasive. It’s trying to react to the judgment. But if you ask from a place of genuine curiosity. And so I think, how do you do that in practicality? I think you might have to do a few little tricks to be in a place where that is possible so I would almost think location suddenly matters. Like where are you having these questions? Where are they being asked?

Are they asked in a neutral place where no one is feeling judged? Or maybe they’re asked in a place of the person that you’re trying to gain empathy from so that you can see the full environment and they’re not out of their environment. But I think it really starts with, I think, in that place of curiosity. How are you downloading that information, how are you getting that? And that’s why talking in person may be better than just reading articles because reading articles may be a start to developing that empathy but then the next level may be actually engaging and maybe the next level is visiting and spending time and being immersed in that environment.

And then suddenly you go from a place of oh this is me and this is you, and then you can start where we can exist. Or I understand this community and I may not be in this community or I may be only temporarily in this community but now I have an understanding of it or maybe an affection or some connection to it rather than it being very much not me or being the other, you know?

Speaker 2:                           Right. You’re talking about like power and privilege, and how we center ourselves and our own needs and ideas. And how we walk alongside someone and how we amplify instead of telling.

And some of this is ego, right? Like I might have a beautiful idea for what the orphanage and my community needs, right? I’ve been planning for ten years what it needs and I get there and that’s where you talked about adaptability. And humility right? Some humility. To learn from others. And this is, it sounds to me, building a social enterprise. Is that what it’s called? A social enterprise?

The way you’re describing it feels relational, right? Like meeting someone, meeting a community, willing to take risks, willing to learn, posture of curiosity, willing to [crosstalk 00:11:23]. It doesn’t sound like the same kind of business as, you know, setting up a market to sharpen scissors, and it’s very concrete? And I know there’s a lot of barbers in this network so I’m gonna set up here. There’s more to it than that.

Neetal Parekh:                  Yeah, yeah, and that’s what’s maybe a challenge in this space is that you’re adding variables entrepreneurship on its own is hard if you decide to start a restaurant down the street there’s a fifty fifty chance that you just won’t make it through year one. That’s without any lay on top. If on top of that you say we want to serve this many meals to the homeless and they come and have the exact same dining experience, and every diner that pays, part of their payment goes to pay it forward or you know. So if you start setting up a model like that you’re adding variables on that impact and so that can be a huge challenge.

But what I love about the space and the time we’re in is some people especially some of the young people getting into entrepreneurship say why would I go through all of this effort to create a business if it’s not benefiting the world in some way? And I think that  is like, that’s a game changer. So they would say, but for, if I wasn’t making impact why would I do all the work just to make money and be part of the cycle of entrepreneurship that can also be suppressing and have some negative effects?

So, I think that’s that core mindset like, you can teach people but sometimes that are coming to the space and saying this is why I wanna an entrepreneur and maybe entrepreneurship becomes the means to deliver the positive impact versus the other way around which you know, a lot of CSR, we have this amazing business so we create a foundation or we create some CSR. But now I think some folks are getting into the space with almost like the opposite view.

Like, I wanna do something amazing but and I see that some of the limitations of being in the nonprofit sector what if I just create a business that can deliver that impact and that can also be sustainable, you know?

Speaker 2:                           So what is it about these times, and you seem like you have a lot of hope. And I see from your website and similar voices there’s a lot. Is it increasing, the space is growing? Not just in the US but internationally. Why?

Neetal Parekh:                  Yeah, I think that the space is growing and we’re seeing it in the different kind of vertical. In law let’s say, that’s my background is, law, and when I started my work Innov8Social, as a blog that was following these legal structures that were passing. So if you think about corporate law, corporate law is actually kind of built for corporations to maximize shareholder wealth. It’s kind of like, there’s case law, that’s kind of … So in a way if you’re this really impact oriented entrepreneur you might start worrying, if I start doing too much good or social impact my shareholders could sue me.

So to kind of shift that there was an idea around this legal structure what if we change this idea of shareholder and expand it to stakeholder, so now you’re trying to maximize stakeholder wealth or benefit and that stakeholder is not only the shareholder, but also the environment and the community. So now you’re kind of expanding that view. When California, well, it was actually the sixth state when I was starting my work in this space, to pass benefit corporation legislation, and now 36 states or jurisdictions have passed some form.

So, law is often very slow to change. So that’s one little indication that there’s something happening and something is changing if the fact that all these laws are passing. And even in the legal community some of the folks I know in law are so excited to help. They would love for a hundred percent of their practice to with social impact companies. This space hasn’t necessarily grown to be there but that’s also hopeful. So I think that’s kind of one area is the law.

And then on the business side you see these companies, a few companies that have gained a lot of success and popularity like Toms Shoes. Have you heard of Toms? So they, since day one, have a buy one get one. Like it’s in their logo, it’s in their byline, and they are also a very cool brand. Like, they’re kind of trendy and so they kind of I think were one of the first brands to really shift people’s view especially when it comes to pop culture. And that kind of space, that, hey, you can be a cool successful brand and also have social impact.

As core to your mission. And since then there are like hundreds of business models, they have a buy one give one. Some companies have like a percent, like one one one, that’s a sales force. Sales force is not a social impact company but since day one they’ve had a one one one business model, where one percent of their product, one percent of their employee time, and one percent of their revenue goes to charitable causes.

So it’s very defined, they can explain it, They can account for it. So similarly we’re starting to see these interesting business models emerge. So now, the social entrepreneur that starts today doesn’t have to start from zero. And they don’t have to necessarily reinvent the wheel, they can see other companies, what they’ve done, you know, and kind of engage in that way.

The other thing that we’re seeing that is another factor in this is that like, companies, even large companies that are kind of considered cool to work at like Google and Facebook and all, they are always trying to find the top talent of students. Of talent that’s out there. And what they’re starting to see is that folks that are working at companies like this, they’re starting to ask more questions and they want to work at companies that are mission driven, or mission aligned. They don’t want to check their values at the door when they go to work at a company.

So now for these companies there’s like another factor. If they wanna continue to attract some of the best talent they are almost saying, okay let’s take a closer look at what kinds of policies do we have around, diversity included. Around employee time to do volunteer work. I recently visited AirBnB and they have an amazing policy that supports their employees to go out and do volunteer work you know. And so I think that they are probably reflecting a little of what they’re seeing of their, you know, their team and their workforce. And the employees.

So now just to stay competitive companies may say hey, we want to be more impact aligned, because we wanna you know, continue to attract great talent, you know. So I think there are all these different … It’s a great time to be thinking about some of these things. So.

Speaker 2:                           And some of the same pieces that we talked about individually, curiosity, like what’s going on, what more can we find, what more can we do, wanting to be in relationship with others who are doing better or doing good, wanting to do problem solving. It’s not just an individual thing but a cultural thing. Like businesses are feeling this way, legal communities are feeling this way, innovators and workforces are feeling this way. So then it’s happening [crosstalk 00:18:39]

Neetal Parekh:                  Exactly, absolutely, totally. And then it’s kind of one thing affects the other, right? So you have, you know, now you have entrepreneurs meeting their trainees and saying hey we wanna be impact oriented, now these legal structures, they go and research that, and then they learn more about that. You know, so. I think so one side kind of informs the other and hopefully supports the other too because these things are not … I always say another area that’s growing a lot is impact measurement. So, if we’re doing all this impact how are we measuring it? How are we sharing it? So that I think is one of the areas that is most ripe for the next level of innovation.

Because we have like the NASDAQ that gives us a number of how our stock is doing or how our company is doing. We don’t yet have that exactly for impact. And I think, I feel like in the next five to ten years, sooner or later, who knows, we’ll have some kind of more universal measurement whether it’s I don’t know, a number an emoji, or something.

Speaker 2:                           What do you mean? What would it look like? Like when I look at charities and see how much of a[crosstalk 00:19:51]

Neetal Parekh:                  Yeah, like, so there’s like Charity Navigator and that’s really valuable but I think for companies the way that companies look at the impact. And there are some criteria and you know, groups now that look at that so B-Lab, B Corp, is a certification. They have a self assessment and you get a number score, so then you can kind of assess where you are on the, you know, as how impactful you are. The UN has this sustainable development goals, The SDGs, and a lot of companies and countries are kind of aligning to those kinds of goals.

So I think that there is a precedent for that, but I think that’s an area that is still being figured out a little bit. Like, you know? Cause if you are offering a service that is impactful, or for me I started with content, so the way I measure impact is gonna be very different from the way an organization that distributes mosquito nets is gonna measure impact. So people are trying to figure out how to create a common language around that.

And then I think that’ll be very disruptive in a good way because now we have, any company can work through this and have a number and of course if you have a number or a measure, you might be inclined to improve that year over year you know? Or assess why did this go down over the course of a year. So then we can have some more common language and a way to kind of measure it, so.

Speaker 2:                           It all feels so risky, it always feels so risky. And I am like, I’m trying to grow into my ability to embrace places of vulnerability. Are you personally, as a leader, you’ve always just been here embracing this? Or are there practices that you do as you lead and as you grow and as you teach that help you stay okay in that space of not knowing?

Neetal Parekh:                  Yeah, that’s great. My dad is a civil engineer so I moved a lot growing up. I moved twenty times before I was twenty, so I think some of the not knowing, cause we would be in, you know. Being in grade school it’s a tough time to move, especially if you’re moving in the middle of a school year or something. So that was a lot of our childhood experience so, in some ways I think we became adaptable but I always joke with my sister that I don’t know if it was a survival skill or it was innate because it was just part of … So I think some part of that is just going with the flow is a little bit just the way I think about things.

But I think building a community or a network is really valuable to stay grounded, and to not feel like you’re the only one, you know? So, even when I do workshops I feel like one of the things I always like to say is, let’s look at the resources that are out there. That you’re not alone in all of this, there are fellowship programs, there are accelerator programs, there are coworking spaces. Like you guys have, your university has a graduate program. So you know, not only are you learning but you’re in community with other people whoa re trying to balance the same variables.

And suddenly that feeling of, I’m not alone doing this, all by myself, can be enough to make you feel like, okay let’s see what more we can do, or let’s see how we can make sense of this, you know. It can shift the energy and shift the mindset.

Speaker 2:                           Shift the energy.

Neetal Parekh:                  Yeah.

Speaker 2:                           Ah, thank you so much, Neetal. You’ve given us so much I’m so excited. I’m fired up I wanna go do more. I wanna learn.

Neetal Parekh:                  Good, yes, well I love your questions, thank you for the thoughtful questions. I can tell you’ve been thinking deeply about this And I love it.

Speaker 1:                           Thanks for listening to In Times Like These, where we explore issues of politics and faith, and learn from one another how to navigate difference, for maximum flourishing. In Times Like These is a product of CLU Live at Claremont Lincoln University. For more, subscribe, share, and visit us at claremontlincoln.edu.


Ways to listen to this episode:

In this episode, we discuss:

  • How to cultivate a problem solving mindset as a leader
  • Why relationship is necessary for non-profit and social impact innovators
  • How ego can get in the way of positive impact, and how to cultivate humility
  • Key ingredients to say grounded and successful as a social entrepreneur
  1. “The core of human-centered design is empathy for your user.”

Lots of us get into charity or non-profit work because we want to make a difference for those in need. But this is sympathy, not empathy. As long as we act on our own ideas about what a community needs, we’re operating from a place of ego and our project isn’t best set up to succeed. Successful social impact designers and leaders know how to meet their clients where they are, live in relationship, and journey alongside potential users.

‘The core of human-centered design is empathy for your user. Listen now: Click To Tweet

2. “social entrepreneurship = a problem solving mindset”

When a social entrepreneur sees an unmet need, she thinks, “How can I build a solution?” This is a skill that all of us can practice. When we see great need in our community (homelessness, children being separated from their parents at our borders, mass incarceration, fake news) we don’t have to despair, or accept those things as part of life. We can cultivate a problem solving mindset and seek collaborators to explore new ways to solve intractable problems.

‘social entrepreneurship = a problem solving mindset. Listen now: Click To Tweet

3. “The world may not fully understand so you have to believe so deeply.”

Social entrepreneuers are at risk for depression and feelings of isolation—they take risks, they often are singular in their ability to see new ways of thinking about an issue, and they often experience failure. Being in community with likeminded thinkers, and having sources of inspiration and support, can be key to sustainable efforts. What do you need to support your ideas for positive social change?

‘The world may not fully understand so you have to believe so deeply. Listen now: Click To Tweet

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About the Podcast

In Times Like These explores the difficult spaces we humans navigate in culture and religion, in dialogue and doubt. We talk to voices from the field, in law, activism, civil rights, and from places of struggle and places of deep learning. In Times Like These, we unpack the most troubling issues of politics and faith we face, together.

In Times Like These is hosted by Dr. Stephanie Varnon-Hughes and is a CLU Live production by Claremont Lincoln University.

Claremont Lincoln University offers a social entrepreneurship master’s degree program called Social Impact.

Stephanie Varnon-Hughes

Stephanie Varnon-Hughes

Stephanie Varnon-Hughes, Ph.D., is the Director of the Claremont Core at Claremont Lincoln University, and an award winning teacher and interfaith leader. She is the host of the religion & culture podcast In Times Like These and author of Interfaith Grit: How Uncertainty Will Save Us. Varnon-Hughes was a co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Journal of Inter-Religious Studies, a peer reviewed journal, and its sister publication, State of Formation, an online forum for emerging religious and ethical leaders. She holds a Ph.D. from Claremont Lincoln University, an M.A. and S.T.M. from Union Theological Seminary and her undergraduate degrees are in English and Education, from Webster University.

Claremont Core

Claremont Lincoln University

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Stephanie Varnon-Hughes

Stephanie Varnon-Hughes

Stephanie Varnon-Hughes, Ph.D., is the Director of the Claremont Core at Claremont Lincoln University, and an award winning teacher and interfaith leader. She is the host of the religion & culture podcast In Times Like These and author of Interfaith Grit: How Uncertainty Will Save Us. Varnon-Hughes was a co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Journal of Inter-Religious Studies, a peer reviewed journal, and its sister publication, State of Formation, an online forum for emerging religious and ethical leaders. She holds a Ph.D. from Claremont Lincoln University, an M.A. and S.T.M. from Union Theological Seminary and her undergraduate degrees are in English and Education, from Webster University.

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