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MBAs Accelerate Their Social Enterprise Ventures

Clockwise from top left: Rea Savla, Sophy Wang, Benjamin Schedl, Teresa Danso-Danquah

The Social Enterprise Accelerator is offered to students in the summer between their first and second year, supporting student founders in the development of their social impact startup. During the summer of 2023, eleven student founders benefitted from social entrepreneurship workshops, as well as the insights and feedback from their cohort. We talked to a few participants in the Accelerator to hear more about their experience: Teresa Danso-Danquah, Rea Savla, Benjamin Schedl, and Sophy Wang, (all MBA 2024).

Tell us about your ventures

Teresa Danso-Danquah: This summer, I’m building a startup to tackle product accessibility for the disability community. Many products and websites today are inaccessible to people with disabilities despite over 30 years of the Americans Disabilities Act which prohibits disability discrimination. Very few of the accessibility products in the market today are designed by or center people with disabilities. With 1 in 4 Americans living with disabilities, it’s imperative that all companies center product inclusion at the beginning of the product development cycle.

Rea Savla: Solara, my venture, addresses the accessibility and affordability of solar-powered irrigation for Indian farmers. While solar irrigation can reduce agricultural production costs by up to 25% and eliminate 132M tons of CO2 emissions annually, upfront costs remain a barrier. Solara aims to make ownership more affordable by converting solar pumps into revenue-generating investments. Through Solara’s IoT-enabled systems with dynamic pricing, digital payments, and booking features, farmers can operate their own irrigation businesses, serving their non-pump owning neighbors water at rates below current diesel-irrigation prices. Our vision is to uplift farmers from poverty while fostering environmental sustainability through solar irrigation.

Benjamin Schedl: During the summer, I embarked on a journey to establish Europe's inaugural neobank tailored exclusively for migrants. Drawing from my prior involvement in cross-border payments, I identified a glaring paradox – despite cost-effective FinTech alternatives, many European migrant communities continued to rely on expensive money transfer operators for monthly remittances averaging around €200 per migrant. This puzzling trend emerged due to two key factors: (1) migrants felt overwhelmed by the plethora of available options, and (2) they harbored reservations about entrusting an unfamiliar FinTech without an established banking relationship. Consequently, I began to envision a neobank dedicated to migrants, initially offering essential services like bank accounts and affordable cross-border payments, with the long-term goal of expanding to encompass a comprehensive range of financial solutions.

Sophy Wang: MOONWISE is a venture that aims to increase menstrual health literacy in China through digital media and online education. A lack of proper knowledge has caused physical and psychological health distress prevalent among Chinese women.  MOONWISE intends to produce bite-sized courses for teenage girls and provide training for teachers and parents.

What did you learn this summer?

Teresa: I came to HBS wanting to pivot into venture capital and impact investing to ensure that communities like mine – Black, queer, and disabled – have access to capital to build products and services that include us by design. However, starting a company with an idea that I’ve had in mind for many years was not something that I envisioned I would try until much later in my career. Participating in the Summer Fellows program allowed me to bet on myself for the summer and bring my ideas to life. The SEI Accelerator provided me a community of other founders and resources that supported me through the highs and lows and building a startup. Most importantly, I’m ending this summer with the confidence that I can be a founder.

Rea: This summer, our focus was to comprehensively understand India's solar irrigation landscape. We conducted field interviews with over 100 farmers and engaged with key stakeholders – government officials, private companies, NGOs, financiers, and academic institutions. We discovered the complexity of solar irrigation, marked by bureaucratic challenges, limited purchasing power, and geographic variances. Additionally, we learned farmers' broader needs, which helped us build a more holistically impactful product. Personally, I learned the immense emotional resilience that is required to work in this ecosystem – change horizons are long, traditional startup benchmarks for scale must be rethought, and interventions require immense care and intentionality. However, I also developed the most energizing relationships with farmers and changemakers that deepened my commitment to create impact in this space.

Benjamin: Throughout my summer venture, extensive dialogues with NGOs and migrants across Europe confirmed my hypothesis: a pressing demand exists for specialized financial services within migrant communities. Among these, African migrants emerged as the most suitable target audience due to their disproportionate payment fees (exceeding 10% in some cases) and continued reliance on money-transfer operators for remittances. However, I encountered an unexpected obstacle – a formidable competitor had recently launched a product exclusively tailored to this demographic, securing substantial funding and gaining a significant head start. Convinced that this team possessed the right credentials to address the problem, I made the strategic decision to pivot from my initial concept towards the end of the summer.

Sophy: During the summer, I conducted field visits and surveys to understand better the need and gap. I discovered that while parents have higher willingness to pay, it is the opportunity to improve parent-teen relationships provided by the course that is really driving their interest. On the other hand, I have also come to know many more local organizations and individuals, capable in different ways to solve the same problem. This helped me to rethink my approach: instead of parents and home, focus on teachers and girls in school, especially in rural areas; more importantly, this venture is not the only answer and in the interest of solving the problem I should partner. On the personal side, I could not have had a better chance to explore entrepreneurship. I enjoyed every aspect of being a founder: from understanding and sharply conveying the vision, setting up the right expectation and rhythm for execution, discovering and developing talent to their potential, to being responsible for every decision I make.

What's next?

Teresa: In the year ahead, I’m excited to continue customer interviews with product and accessibility teams to further validate and test pain points. Additionally, I’m eager to learn in The Entrepreneurial Manager (TEM) courses I’m taking, such as Startup Operations with Julia Austin and Social Entrepreneurship and Systems Change with Brian Trelstad. I also look forward to learning from my peers in the startup ecosystem on campus, such as through leading African-American Student Union’s (AASU’s) Black New Venture Competition.

Rea: In the near term, Solara is exploring pilot opportunities in three to four localities with key research institutions and private companies in India’s solar irrigation space. Through our pilot, we will develop our product prototype and formally study the financial impact a digitally-enabled solar irrigation business can have on rural entrepreneurs and their communities. Based on the results of the pilot, we will scale our model to additional regions in partnership with NGOs and private companies with strong on-ground networks. In the long run, Solara aims to pioneer a new era in rural entrepreneurship, leveraging community-based service models to affordably introduce life-changing technologies to billions of farmers. 

Benjamin: Given the recent entry of a competitor into the market, I made the strategic choice to pivot my venture in the latter stages of the summer. Engaging in conversations with NGOs and migrants across Europe enriched my understanding of various facets of a migrant's journey and the core challenges they face upon arriving in Europe. Consequently, I am presently exploring diverse avenues to apply this newfound knowledge to a different venture. My participation in the structured Social Enterprise Accelerator has also offered invaluable entrepreneurial experience, helping me clarify my entrepreneurial focus and identify the complementary skill sets I should seek in potential co-founders. This phase has provided critical insights that will inform my next entrepreneurial endeavor.

Sophy: It is also because of this responsibility for my and my team’s time and energy that I decided I will pivot going forward. The risks and uncertainties I have come to understand convinced me to continue part-time first. Over the coming year, I will fund a pilot program with an experienced execution partner. I will wait and see where it goes from there!