Monthly Archives: February 2014

Unreasonable At Sea: A Radical Experiment In Entrepreneurship (Part 1)

This article was first published on February 11th, 2014 on Techli.com and can be found here.

Explorer in Vancouver

One of the most valuable assets of a business accelerator is something called the island effect. Essentially, it involves spending time in close quarters with other ventures and mentors for a prolonged time, which dramatically increases the potential for beneficial encounters, innovation, and new ideas for your startup. But as most islands are pretty stationary by nature, staying on an island is not the most effective go-to-market strategy. I am saying most islands, because there is one accelerator program that is combining the best of both worlds.  It’s all the benefits of the island effect plus international exposure, an asset most accelerator programs are sorely lacking.

Of course, it’s not actually an island, but a ship. That might sound a little unreasonable to you, which is exactly why it’s called Unreasonable At Sea.  I was a student on the Semester At Sea 2013 spring voyage and an active participant in the program.  I’ll be sharing more on my experience in later articles, but first, let’s explore how this program began and its goals for the future, which is quite extraordinary.

It’s a self-proclaimed “radical experiment in entrepreneurship to combat the greatest challenges of our time.” Its success formula: 20 mentors + 13 countries + 9 social entrepreneurs + 1 ship and “one unifying belief: that entrepreneurship will change the world.”  Take a look.

The moving island, the MV Explorer, is normally home to 600 college students, who travel to about a dozen countries in one semester with the Semester At Sea program. How did this atypical cooperation come about? And who is responsible for this accelerator that is so radically different?

At the helm was Daniel Epstein, founder of the Unreasonable Institute in Boulder and Semester At Sea alum. He believes that entrepreneurship is the answer to all BFPs, the Big F—–g Problems of our time, such as poverty, famines and lack of education.

True to its motto (“giving high-impact entrepreneurs wings”), the Boulder-based institute selects approximately two dozen promising tech and social entrepreneurs to live in a house for five weeks in the summer and provide them with mentorship, access to seed capital, skill training, and a network of support.

Unreasonable At Sea was conceived because today’s massive social, environmental and political challenges are not confined to one country. They are of global nature. Since impact is their most cherished value, Epstein and company wanted to give tech entrepreneurs a chance to go to the countries to tackle these challenges at scale. In order for that to happen, they knew that a landlocked accelerator simply wouldn’t cut it. In the fall of 2011, Epstein met with Luke Jones, Chief of Staff of Semester At Sea, to discuss his ideas. Together with George Kembel, founder of Stanford’s d.school, they launched Unreasonable At Sea in January of 2012.

The companies included ventures like Agua, which provides clean drinking water to 300,000 people worldwide, and Protei, which builds open source sailing drones.

SAS-UAS-Website-Banners

For 106 days from January to April 2013, the teams of entrepreneurs sailed 25,000 nautical miles and stopped in 13 different cities. In every country, the startups had a chance to gain empathy and explore local economies. On top of that, pitching events allowed the ventures to present their products to government officials, investors and other entrepreneurs. In Singapore, for instance, the unreasonable event took place at the INSEAD business school. A jury, consisting of unreasonable mentors including Tom Chi of Google X and Ken Banks (founder of Frontline SMS) judged the pitches. The winner was awarded a private dinner with Prince Fahad Al Saud, another unreasonable mentor, aboard the floating think tank.

With access to incredible mentors abroad, the institute availed itself of the same success principle that had worked for them in the previous four years in Boulder. The unreasonable mentors came to the ship at different parts of the voyage and stayed from one to eight weeks to guide and support the ventures.

Along with the mentors, this unique environment featured sponsors including SAP and Microsoft, as well as 600 college students from 150 academic institutions and over 50 countries.

Next week I’ll share more about the companies and how their products help millions of people around the world. See you then.

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The UN, Journalism and YOU

UNDP LogoIn 2000, the United Nations established the Millenium Development Goals to address some of the most pressing challenges the world was facing at the beginning of the 21st century. The eight ambitious goals the UN proclaimed included eradication of extreme poverty and hunger, universal primary education, reducing child mortality and combat preventable diseases like HIV/AIDS and Malaria.

According to the 2013 Millenium Development Goals Report, poverty rates have been halfed. Yet, one in six – about 1.2 billion people – still live in extreme poverty. We still have a long way to go to reach all the goals set more than a decade ago.

Yesterday,  almost 200 civil society groups from six continents urged the UN to include government accountability and independent media in their plans. In the statement, the organizations argue that access to information and independent media is essential to development. The United Nations is currently devising a new global post-2015 development agenda that is to replace the Millenium Goals.

Specifically, the coalition recommended the United Nations to

  • “establish a specific goal to “ensure good governance and effective institutions” and
  • “include as components of this goal a clause to “ensure people enjoy freedom of speech, association, peaceful protest and access to independent media and information” and to “guarantee the public’s right to information and access to government data”.”

This appeal accomodates the importance of a free press for a free society. In the statement, the group says that “systems that allow people to hold governments accountable are fundamental to achieving economic growth, social equality, and environmental sustainability.”

In this day and age, we possess all the tools and technology to eradicate poverty and achieve the seemingly lofty goals the UN devised 13 years ago. However, if the new UN goals are to be (even) more successful than the Millenium goals, then journalism needs to be part of the equation.

All people, everywhere, deserve and need a free press. Without it, free and open debate and discourse, the foundation of a democracy, is impossible. Frequently, journalists are muzzled because they uncover corruption and inconvenient truths. In my home country Germany, prosecuting reporters and forcing the press into line prevented millions of people from learning and potentially opposing an unparalleled atrocity. Dealing with fascist Germany and the Holocaust taught me that a democracy is not history in its final state but merely a temporarily secured form of existence. Journalism must be practiced without restrictions, for when a country’s journalists are silenced, its people are silenced.

Journalism is surpressed in many countries around the world. In Turkey, the parliament is about to vote on a law that would “allow the government to block individual URLs without prior judicial review”, according to an article pubslished by the Committee to Protect Journalists. The “radical censorship measure” would also force internet data retention of up to two years and consolidate Interned Service Providers (ISPs) into a single association. Turkey holds the sad record for most journalists in jail of any country in the world.

A free press is the bedrock of a democracy and the prerequisite of many other civil liberties. Journalism plays a vital role in the balance of power between a government and its people. Organizations like the Committee to Protect Journalists are helping countries and journalists report without reprisal so that they can help establish stable, sustainable societies. Only if journalists can inform people accurately and freely are citizens able to make their voices heard, participate in the political process and instigate change.

So what does this have to do with you?

Well, all too often, the news media’s lopsided reporting neglects topics that seemingly have nothing to do with us. There are many incidents and topics auch as press freedom violations or Freedom of Information issues that ought to be brought to people’s attention but don’t get airtime because they allgedly are not newsworthy. So why not use your passion for media to contribute to making this world safer, more equitable and more sustainable? Are you passionate about media and international human rights? Do you want to further the common good? Then I have good news for you: there are plenty of organizations out there that allow you to pursue a career in journalism AND do something that makes a difference in people’s lives.

Here are a few groups, on top of the organizations who signed the statement that allow you to do work that truly matters: