Three Business Startup Tips from a Social Entrepreneur

A college student with her dog nearby works on her tablet.

Social entrepreneur David Helene, founder of Edquity, an emergency finance assistance program for college students, shares his startup lessons.

Over the past year, David Helene has seen his company grow substantially. Edquity is an emergency financial assistance program for students that’s currently available at 13 colleges and universities across the U.S. Edquity has as many as 100 potential partners in its pipeline. Staff size has doubled. And interest in what Helene is doing continues to grow; he was even named one of Forbes’ “30 Under 30” social entrepreneurs for 2020.

But as with many startups, this success didn’t happen overnight. “People may look at Edquity now and say, ‘Oh, wow. That thing came out of nowhere,’” says Helene. “But I’ve been on my entrepreneurial journey since 2014.”

Helene’s previous experience in financial services and nonprofits, as well as his participation in the Wells Fargo Startup Accelerator program, have helped feed Edquity’s success.

Below, Helene shares three important points for those thinking of launching—or investing in—a social impact company.

1. Look for partners with complementary talents

Creating a startup is fraught with challenges, and doing it on your own can make it even more difficult, Helene says. Add the complexity of social impact and a team effort becomes even more critical. “You need someone who can take some of the load off,” he says.

This often means seeking out someone with skills that only partially overlap your own, so that the partner can help the company grow, too. “This is really helpful, especially when you’re doing social impact work related to technology platforms,” Helene says. “I was lucky that I met someone at the start of the program who I trusted and who was phenomenally talented.”

2. Learn by listening and doing your homework

Helene stresses that the success of an impact startup depends heavily on researching the social cause you want to impact, and the strongest research could involve going outside your normal circles—out of college alumni communities and into the actual communities you intend to serve.

“If you’re someone like me, you’re not a low-income, first-generation college student.  You’re not a student parent. But to do this work in a genuine way, you need to show up, listen, and bring these individuals into your design and development process,” he says. “Only after you’ve done that can you lend credibility to work you’re doing. You need to build with, not at. You need to be ruthlessly focused on the individual you’re trying to help.”

For investors, supporting a social impact startup means doing a bit of homework, as well. Which social impact businesses are addressing the concerns you want to invest in? How are they doing it? What hurdles or advantages are they working with as they seek to grow?

Across your broader portfolio, keep in mind that social impact entrepreneurship is one facet of a larger movement toward balanced business priorities. More companies are reporting on their environmental, social, and governance practices. Large institutional investors and a growing number of investment managers are asking for this information. That can be a good way to evaluate how any company is performing with causes you care about, like ecological sustainability or working conditions in developed countries.

3. Check your ego at the door

In a social impact business, Helene believes the work should always be the hero—not the business owner. “A common framework is that of the white knight where you sort of ride in and you save the day,” Helene says. He says he fundamentally rejected that framework for Edquity. Instead, Helene focuses on how Edquity can benefit students who are disproportionately in need of emergency financial aid. “The work is not about me,” he says. “It shouldn’t be about your ego. It should be about the students and the outcomes you’re trying to produce.”

For investors, checking your ego at the door means scrutinizing that CEO and her executive team from all angles. Do others agree the leaders are sincerely trying to make a difference for a social concern or are they only superficially committed to social impact and more committed to financial gain?

Whether it’s launching a social impact company or investing in one, the benefits can be potentially rewarding. If you’re looking to become a social entrepreneur, patience is key. “Most of the journey is failure, so you have to be very resilient and understand that success does not happen overnight,” Helene says.