Within five minutes of talking to Kanika Gupta, it’s clear that the twenty something is a serious wunderkind. She first got involved in community activism at 14, and by 20, had founded her own successful nonprofit, Nukoko, which promotes access to education for girls in West Africa. And yet, despite Gupta’s exceptional competence and enthusiasm, where social change-making is concerned, she places a strong premium on embracing imperfection as an inevitability of the journey.
“You’re never going to get it right the first time; change is a process. Often, in starting something, you have more questions than answers, and a lot of fear and uncertainty….[t]he sooner you can calm those fears and get comfortable sharing ideas, the sooner you allow others to grow with you.”
Learning from those who have already experienced the ups and downs of launching a nonprofit or social project is part of what her latest social venture, SoJo, an online platform for sharing information and helping new innovators convert ideas for social good into action, is all about.
After seven months of collecting feedback on their beta (work-in-progress) website, the SoJo team launched their official site at the end of June. According to Gupta, it is “the most comprehensive online resource out there that supports early stage innovators — those who have an idea to create something for social good and are inspired to take the idea into action.”
The inspiration comes from Gupta’s ten years of experience navigating the nonprofit sector, including the frustrations of launching a nonprofit; in starting Nukoko, she felt there were insufficient resources out there to help answer the big questions involved in initiating a social venture.
Further, for her Master’s thesis, Gupta conducted a national study of more than 50 young people who had started social ventures or community projects; the findings demonstrated that many innovators wanted help with the administrative and infrastructure piece of their work, and most expressed wishing they’d had access to a comprehensive resource answering key questions back when they had started out.
“There was this hunger for real, candid advice and feedback passed down from others experience...the desire to read real resources written by people and understand the thick of their journeys,” Gupta explains.
“I thought, I absolutely need to share this information.’”
Completely free (and without advertisements), the SoJo site is run by 10 part-time, unpaid team members, and is funded by a small investment from its founder. Though at this early stage they have yet to generate revenue, SoJo’s official status is a Hybrid Social Venture; they have legally incorporated the for-profit SoJo Ventures Inc. and the nonprofit SoJo Education. The hope is that the former will, through the development of informational resources and e-learning tools for companies, help power the latter, and keep the public site entirely free and accessible.
Although it doesn’t provide original how-to guides, SoJo aggregates and organizes what it sees as the best of the web on the subject of starting a social venture; 95% of their content is repurposed from articles, papers, blog posts or templates written by experts in the field, and classified according to one’s stage of their journey. For instance, the Idea Blueprint section helps an individual better define their idea, and determine if it’s something society actually needs. Idea Execution offers guidance on building a network, communicating one’s message and figuring out certain logistics. The Individual section focuses on supporting the individual behind the idea, including resources on goal-setting, time management and quelling doubts — “stuff to make yourself emotionally and mentally prepared for the journey,” Gupta qualifies.
Having everything located under one roof, so to speak, is, for Gupta, what sets SoJo apart, making it a welcoming and user-friendly source of knowledge.
“What you see [elsewhere] is pockets of resources on hundreds of different websites...information is fragmented and scattered, so it’s hard to find what you’re looking for, and you waste a lot of time trying to find it — a 30-page toolkit might have a lot of value in it, but if I have a specific problem, I don’t know how motivated I’ll be to read a thick document if I can’t relate to most of it.”
Additionally, she says SoJo’s non-linear approach helps make the user’s experience more rounded; regarding any topic on the site, one can read numerous articles with variant perspectives before ascertaining what works best for their endeavor.
A startup within a startup
Another unique element about SoJo is that the core team of ten young people who run it identify themselves as users of the site — they personally test the service and apply it to the construction of SoJo itself.
“We’re a startup trying to help people have a startup,” says Gupta.
“If I’m having trouble getting SoJo itself started, imagine what everyone else [staring up social ventures] is going through. This further validates the need for SoJo...and allows us to be in touch with relevant challenges people are facing as they try to start something up.”
SoJo isn’t exclusively targeted to youth, but because the staff and their networks are younger, users tend to be as well. Still, Gupta stresses that SoJo aims to be accessible to anyone starting out in the social venture or nonprofit sphere.
The platform is intended to be as interactive as possible; users are encouraged to share their ideas through a new feedback widget and social media, and profiles of some of the users are posted on the site itself, so that their particular challenges and journeys can be shared.
Susie Pan is a SoJo user and former intern, as well as a self-proclaimed social entrepreneur. Now 20, at the end of grade 12 she started a nonprofit called Science Expo, which works to empower youth through connections and enrichment opportunities.
Pan visits SoJo almost daily, crediting it for her increased understanding of the field. While she acknowledges that interning at SoJo gave her a leg-up in terms of making connections in the field, Pan says she continues to learn a lot from the site now that she’s no longer working there.
“I didn’t know about the amount of resources that existed on the internet before SoJo — SoJo didn’t exist when I was starting my organization, so a lot of times I’ll read articles and think, I wish I’d read this two years ago, I wish I’d known how to do all this bureaucracy stuff I had to figure out myself, like planning vision, doing market research and value propositions.”
Pan typically uses SoJo to read articles about leadership, teamwork and motivation — skills she says are “a continuous process,” and require constant work. Because Science Expo recently reshaped its vision, she used SoJo’s resources to help redefine its value proposition and motivate her team during a time of transition.
She also follows Gupta’s blog, which documents the latter’s experience running SoJo.
“A lot of it’s about how she does team management and how she celebrates success — I love reading that, and use it as a resource as well...SoJo acts as a great resource pool, but it’s also an example of a social enterprise that I use as a model...having an example to follow has been a great asset for my journey with Science Expo.”
Pan hopes that SoJo will continue to develop its feedback features, and to create more opportunities for social entrepreneurs to meet and network face-to-face.
Changing the landscape
SoJo thinks of itself as a sector leader by striving to break down barriers within it. Gupta says the increasing fragmentation of the field of social change, as well as the changing nature of funding sources, can be added barriers to starting a nonprofit.
“People get so caught up in creating labels and trying to define what is or isn’t a social enterprise or nonprofit — it can become very alienating...and not very welcoming to a whole new generation of people entering the sector. SoJo’s trying to bring it all together through knowledge — we’re not interested in defining a new social enterprise sector; we see this as a tool to transcend sectors and bring people together.”
In this vein, the team steers clear of definitions, conceiving of a social innovator simply as someone with good intentions and a commitment to achieving some form of social impact.
While most of their profiled users are starting more traditional, standalone nonprofits, Gupta says they’d like to start documenting stories of users undertaking more diverse initiatives, such as those using SoJo to incorporate social principles into a for-profit company, or to build out part-time projects. In fact, SoJo is actively working to build a corporate project as a guide for people working in the private sector to bring social mission into their everyday work.
Ultimately, Gupta hopes users will come away feeling that, with the right intensions and commitment, change is both possible and necessary.
“The world needs you and we’re here to support you, even if you don’t have all the answers on day one.”
Jodie Shupac is a Toronto-based freelance writer. She contributes to a range of publications, covering culture, urban issues, health and the environment.
Photos (from top) via SoJo. All photos used with permission.
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