Stuart Davidson is an accomplished venture capitalist and impact investor. Currently a Managing Partner of the venture capital fund Labrador Ventures, Stuart has invested in over a hundred early-stage companies and served on numerous boards. He is also co-founder and Chairman of Sonen Capital, an impact investment management firm. In addition to serving as a Trustee of the Woodcock Foundation, Board Chair of IDEO.org, and founding funder and board member of Acumen, Stuart serves as Vice Chair and Treasurer of REDF. He is the founder of REDF’s flagship Farber Internship Program, which provides internships for graduate students who want to explore careers in social enterprise. In recognition of REDF’s and the Farber Program’s 20 year anniversary, we sat down with Stuart to talk about the creation of the program and what it means to him and the social enterprise field.
You are the founder of REDF’s Farber Internship Program which introduces graduate students to the social enterprise field and honors the memory and work of Michael Farber. Can you share what first gave you the idea to start the program and how you went about doing it?
Using the tools of business to provide models for how to pay for (finance) and run (manage) an activity which would have the potential and stamina to transform the lives of those disconnected from work was exciting to me. As someone who had gone through the process of forming a couple of businesses and was now financing new, innovative projects, I felt the skills and muscle memory I’d developed would transfer into this world of using a more business-oriented modus operandi to accomplish a social mission. And to do this I quickly realized one needed hybrid people who knew both the world of business as well as the world of social service. However, these people were in short supply so it seemed natural to embark on a process to increase their number. From this idea, the notion of a leadership selection/training activity that became the Farber Program was born. When it came to naming we wanted to choose something that would serve as an inspiration. Learning through REDF’s ED at the time, Melinda Tuan, of Michael Farber and the work he had done in Richmond with Rubicon Programs, naming it in honor of his memory was a natural choice– certainly better than naming it after myself who had no cred at the time for this work.
Given your background and accomplishments, your credentials were pretty exceptional, but naming the program after Michael Farber was a generous and heartfelt decision that reflects the type of person you are. What do you think is unique about this program?
At the outset we tried a few approaches; providing interns directly to social enterprises, working with community development corporations (CDC’s) in several cities and working with an umbrella organization like REDF. Of the three approaches, working with REDF had the best success rate. What made working with REDF unique was the thoughtfully-curated group of social enterprises they were selecting who were in a position to accept and benefit from Farber engagement. The level of support REDF provides in thinking through and matching the needs of the organization with the capabilities of the particular Farber is critical. This process made all the difference in making the program work rather than a creating a ‘make work’ exercise.
What impresses you most about the students who apply and are accepted into the program?
We always wanted people of the highest caliber to apply to the program and from the onset were able to set the bar high by working with Net Impact, then known as Students for Responsible Business, who had chapters on the campuses of some of the best business schools throughout the country. The thing that continues to impress me about successful program applicants is the combination of analytical smarts with emotional intelligence they possess. This combination of having the relevant skills AND the wherewithal to ‘get’ the context and objectives of the social enterprise is crucial.
Why is it important that we provide these young professionals with the opportunity to contribute their skills/talents to the sector?
First, they have a lot to offer. At a minimum, the Farbers need to add something to the social enterprises with which they are engaged. In addition, the program intentionally works with folks at a time in their lives where they are at a point of significant personal development and attempts to influence that process. With a nod to traditional apprenticeship training, the Farber intern works with people at a journeyman level when they are refining their skills and bringing themselves to point of mastery. We are seeking to select and cultivate the next generation of leaders who can make a career of this work and thrive in a networked community of similarly capable individuals. And, looking back over the years, I think the community has much to be proud of in terms of its reach within world social enterprise.
Like REDF, the Farber Program is also celebrating a 20-year milestone. When you reflect on the number of students who have come through the program, and the fact that so many alumni eventually decide to work in the sector, how does that make you feel?
This is a huge source of validation and pride for me. When I think back to what we were thinking twenty years ago and how we were squinting into the future to imagine a world where this sort of extraordinary human capability was prevalent, it is an amazing experience to see it come to being when I engage with the world of Farber alums and see where they have taken these ideas and run with them in ways that surpass many of our original goals.
How do you think the program has changed over the course of two decades?
In 1997 the ideas of Social Enterprise, Second Bottom Line, Social Return on Investment, Blended Value and Venture Philanthropy were at best nascent. Today these ideas form the foundations of what has been built. There is a wealth of knowledge, as well as the facilities for those interested, to readily learn about social enterprises and its practitioners in ways that didn’t exist when we were getting started. This allows us to raise the bar on what we are doing now, build on that original foundation, and pioneer new areas like impact finance and measurement.
How might the program continue to evolve in the future?
I think the most likely way these ideas scale is through replication rather than through the creation of a single, large monolithic organization. If that‘s true, the DNA for such replication will come from leaders who can adapt the Farber playbook to the diverse needs of differing geographies, client needs, and business models. REDF’s role in facilitating that process will continue to evolve to meet the leaders and enterprises where they can be most generative and effective.
How do you feel about the future of social enterprise?
I think social enterprise is setting the standard for what a purpose-driven, client-centric business can do to transform lives through the dignity of work and positive involvement. Some of this message has caught on and now we are experiencing a broader adoption throughout the business community of ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) and the values it promotes. While I do not believe most businesses are in a position to take on the rigors we think of when we speak of social enterprises, I do believe there now exists more opportunity for partnership and with that the scaling of the ideas, the number of lives transformed and as well as the overall social enterprise market.
We agree with you of course. The potential of the social enterprise movement is yet untapped, but with supporters like you, the potential is being realized. Thank you, Stuart, for a great conversation, and for your wide-ranging and generous contributions to the Farber Program, the social enterprise field, and to REDF.