Blog Archives

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.

Advertisements

The 4th Group

This blog post is based on a speech I gave at Cave Springs ToastMasters Club in St. Charles, Missouri in November of 2013.

When I went to high school in Texas as an exchange student there was a sign in my English class that read: there are 3 kinds of people. The first group of people talk about other people. The 2nd group talks about events. And the 3rd group talks about ideas. This sign stuck with me. Every time I felt like I was gossiping or spending too much time talking about trivial things, I reminded myself to be more of a member of the third group. I wanted to surround myself with people who were eager to talk about ideas, I wanted to be somebody who talks about things that have an impact, about things that are meaningful. Sometimes I accomplished it, many times I didn’t.

3 kinds of people

I grew up in a city of about 50,000 people in Northern Germany between Denmark and Hamburg. I was the oldest child – and the youngest as well. Some people call it the only child. I wasn’t completely alone, however, as I regularly visited my three younger cousins in Bavaria in Southern Germany.

Then came the experience that changed everything, at least in hindsight. I stayed with a host family and visited a high school in Texas for ten months in 2003/2004. Soren Kierkegaard, a Danish philosopher, said: “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forward.” Ten years later I am able to connect the dots and it seems pretty clear that without me leaving my comfort zone as a 16-year old teenager I probably wouldn’t be living in a different country and doing all the things I enjoy doing.

After I graduated from high school, I spent a year helping elderly people. In 2007, at the age of 20, I moved out and lived in Hamburg, Germany’s second largest city, for a year. It was during that time that my parents got divorced. In hindsight I am pretty sure that the distance helped me get through this hard time almost unscathed. The small city of Gießen was my next pit stop. I spent three years of my life there studying History and Journalism, lived in a dueling fraternity, studied abroad in the UK for half a year, completed three internships, played American football with a passion, and learned from and endured 2 long-distance relationships, one of them ‘measuring’ 9,000 miles. I am proud of my Bachelor’s thesis, a 110-page treatise about Robert Moses and the history of New York from the 1920s to the 1960s.

But back to my story. I knew I wanted to study abroad again and also play NCAA football after I got my college degree, and the States were an easy pick. I worked tirelessly. I went on the website of 700 college and universities, narrowed it down to 70, applied to 7, got accepted by all of them, and picked Lindenwood University. It felt like a dream come true. Once at Lindenwood I had my work cut out for. Being an athlete student – I think this way around the term is more accurate – and being a graduate assistant and taking classes soon took its toll. I had everything I wanted but sometimes I caught myself wondering: What if my dream was too big for me? Fortunately, I persevered, and from there on things were getting better and better. Among other things, I became friends with Jonas Kehrbaum who told me about Semester at Sea, which was a perspective-altering experience that has already changed the trajectory of my life and will continue to do that in the future in ways I can’t even begin to imagine.

So here I am, ten years after I saw that fateful sign in Texas saying that there are three kinds of people. Those who talk about other people, those who talk about events, and those who talk about ideas. While my time at Lindenwood reinforced my conviction that I want to be somebody of the 3rd group, the people who talk about ideas, circumnavigating the globe made me realize that having an idea alone isn’t enough. There’s something else, something that’s way more important. After seeing 13 different countries, having so many diverse experiences, seeing people struggling to provide for their families, spending a lot of time with creative misfits, divergent thinkers and impatient entrepreneurs, I realized that it is possible for everyone of us to impact and empower people in a positive way – and to make the world a better place.

Everybody has ideas. But that’s not the point. An idea is worthless unless you implement it. Therefore, all these experiences taught me that there is a 4th group. Members of this 4th group don’t just talk about ideas, they put them into practice. They take action. At the end of the day, the difference is really not that big, but the step from just thinking about something to actually doing it is quite dramatic. Have you ever had an idea of which you thought: this really has potential – but you didn’t pursue it?!

Benjamin Franklin once said: “There are three sorts of people in the world. Those who are immovable, those who are movable, and those who move.”

I strive to be one of those who move, I strive to be a member of the 4th group. I hope you feel the same way.

The Serendipity of Traveling

The Russian market in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh is a maze-like bazaar with hundreds of small and almost identical shops that offer everything under the sun. After 25 minutes of walking through the small aisles, I was utterly lost, so I went to one of the exits to figure out where I was at. Looking at the street to ask for directions, someone suddenly tapped me on my back saying “Benni, is it you?”

I turned around and could not believe who was standing in front of me: an old friend from Germany who I had not seen in at least three years! It felt like waking up at home in Germany, realizing that my Semester at Sea voyage had just been one long (and irresistible) dream. Running into somebody on the other side of the world felt surreal, and neither of us could believe that this was actually happening, especially given that she didn’t know about my journey and vice versa. It was simply astonishing that we had not seen each other in Germany where we grew up together for three full years but now ran into each other in Cambodia.

P1050334

Semester at Sea is a study abroad program that allows students to circumnavigate the world and take classes on a ship. During my 109-day spring voyage, I got to see 13 countries and 31 cities on four continents. When our floating campus had arrived in Ho Chi Minh City just one day earlier, I embarked on a four night trip to Cambodia.

I definitely believe that bumping into people we know when traveling will occur more often in the future as we are becoming more of an interdependent global society. Many young people in my generation are avid globetrotters that take full advantage of the possibility to explore the world. The fact that another student on the trip ran into a friend from back home later that day also made me think that people with a similar social and cultural background probably have similar interests and, therefore, tend to run into each other at “similar” places. Traveling is truly the homeland of chance.

Looking back on my serendipitous encounter, it’s nonetheless hard to wrap my head around how unlikely it was to meet my friend at the market in Cambodia. I thought about how easily we could have missed each other – we would have probably never found out that we both had been at this place at the same time. If it was a mere coincidence though, wouldn’t we all often narrowly miss people at places we go to, even at home? Perhaps these perplexing opportunities exist anywhere and at any time – and we simply don’t look, especially when we are in our familiar environment. Is it possible that we are swimming in an ocean of lucky coincidences but are blind to them most of the time?

Naturally, one needs to open his eyes wide, and that’s exactly what traveling does – it sharpens your mind and makes you absorb your surroundings in a more acute way.

Traveling favors chance, for when one is on the road, he tends to take more risks, is more vulnerable, leaves one’s comfort zone more often, and is more willing to let himself get carried away and be amazed.

Although my friend and I had to say good-bye after 10 minutes, we both cherished our short and sweet encounter. It was an empowering and elevating experience. It’s OK if we don’t see each other in Germany as long as we keep running into each other in other countries – maybe on my next Semester at Sea journey in three years. Keep your eyes open out there – you never know whose path you will cross!