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3 Questions Early Stage Innovators Should Ask

Startups in The Rockefeller Foundation-Acumen Student Social Innovation Challenge reflect on challenges in the conceptual phase of building a social enterprise.

July 15, 2020

“Be the change you wish to see in the world,” a quote captured on coffee mugs, car bumpers, and classroom posters positioned to inspire young minds across the globe. Its vagueness is almost intentional, lending itself to a multitude of meanings, suggesting that with grit, determination, and a willingness to rewrite your own narrative, you can begin to work toward driving real change. While we can’t compete with the catchiness of a bumper sticker phrase, we can demystify it by sharing the stories of early stage innovators who have lived into this phrase: using practical skills to tackle issues of inequality, often encountering obstacles, but always pushing forward. 

Envisioning the change you wish to see starts by reflecting on your own experiences in the sector you wish to address. For the nine winning startups in The Rockefeller Foundation-Acumen Student Social Innovation Challenge, many looked to the daily frustrations of family, friends, and community members to unlock their initial ideas. From his experience working with young entrepreneurs over the years, Student Social Innovation Challenge Judge, Lawrence Riungu revealed a common hurdle he sees: starting. "The most important thing is to begin the journey and along the way it’s likely that you’ll find the real problem, and best solution for customers.” 

Three enterprises: Tang, drizzle, and Nkwa, share their personal triumphs, troubles, and takeaways for like-minded trailblazers pursuing similar paths.

What is the problem I seek to solve?

Rebecca Kersch, CEO and Founder of Tang, a fintech platform simplifying the way migrant workers send money and phone credit overseas, uncovered her opportunity for innovation by reflecting on her childhood. Raised by a Dutch father and Filipino mother, she traversed both borders as a young girl. In the Netherlands, adulthood was met with newfound opportunities: opening a bank account, applying for a credit card and the freedom to save and spend her earnings as she pleased. But growing up in the Philippines, these novelties were unavailable, and frankly, unheard of. The country operates as a cash-economy, relying on paper money as the sole method of payment. Without access to basic financial services —  institutional bank accounts, mobile payment apps and savings tools — many families she knew struggled to escape a vicious cycle of intergenerational poverty. 

Rebecca was determined to find a way to break this pattern. She left her comfortable career and enrolled in a Masters program at the Harvard Kennedy School where she explored the causes of financial exclusion and how to create more inclusive models in developing communities. It wasn’t until she conducted fieldwork in the Philippines that she identified a group of people no organization was seeing in connection with financial exclusion — Filipino migrant workers. 

Pushing her curiosity further, she found that over 10 million Filipinos live and work abroad to send home higher wages for their families, transfering a total of $32 billion dollars every year. On top of strenuous work and long hours, migrant workers surrender 8-10% of their wages to service companies like Western Union to safely send their earnings back home to their families. The loved ones receiving these wages often live in rural areas with no access to a bank account, further feeding a broken cycle where migrants are limited in their ability to improve their lives and pull their families out of poverty. 

My Auntie has lived and worked abroad for 30 years, most of her adult life. She sends home almost everything she earns. Today, with the salary she’s making, she ends up working an entire month just to send home the money she’s earned in a year. 
- Rebecca Kersch, CEO and Founder, Tang 

While her intention for tackling this problem was personal, Rebecca’s business plan was grounded in creating a product to address multiple market shortfalls. With the help of Kumaresan Rajeswaran, an expert fintech engineer, they launched Tang. Tang is a digital payments platform that allows migrant workers to send money and phone credit from the U.S. to the Philippines in a cheap, fast, simple, and secure way. But Tang doesn't stop here: with 46 million Fillipinos unbanked, Tang bridges this gap, serving as a digital bank account so users can pay bills, track transactions, and exchange money peer-to-peer. 

Out of the 1.7 billion unbanked adults globally, nearly two-thirds own a mobile phone. Technology can help connect customers in underserved communities with opportunities beyond their reach, and Tang is just one of the ways entrepreneurs are shaping solutions to address these inequalities. 

Social change is hard, but think of a problem that you have a good understanding of, one that you see around you and you know you can solve. You don't have to start big, in fact, start small  — maybe you start with helping one person. Take it one step at a time, but start.
- Rebecca Kersch, CEO and Founder, Tang

Where can I add value in my sector? 

Bonolo Mathekga and Digvijay Singh, co-founders of health start-up drizzle, first saw the effects of tuberculosis on low-income communities during a university trip to Brazil. The purpose of the trip was to identify opportunities for innovation in the field of infectious disease. Despite heavy investment from international organizations and widespread availability of TB testing, both students questioned why people were becoming newly infected with TB in alarming numbers each year. 

There was a big contrast between how TB was being handled in the U.S. and in the Americas versus Africa and India. It wasn’t like they didn’t solve the problem of TB diagnosis,the problem is that it was not solved for people who actually needed it at a certain price point or accessibility.
- Digvijay Singh, Co-Founder, drizzle 

In the field of global health, The Rockefeller Foundation has identified two areas where social entrepreneurs hold potential to drive impact — new technologies and delivery models — which can improve the access, affordability, and overall quality of health services. Digvijay shared his partner’s desire to deliver quality testing to “point of care”— screening tools that can be used in a patient’s home or a rural clinic, rather than a laboratory setting.

Reviewing current tests on the market, they discovered that high performance testing came at a steep price and were located far from rural areas, rendering these methods inaccessible to the poor. Bonolo and Digvijay saw an opportunity to add value in a fiercely competitive market. 

They created drizzle to improve upon an existing testing method: the Sputum Smear Microscopy (SSM). Although SSM is cheap and widely accessible, performance is abysmal; only accurate about 50% of the time.

We came up with a polymer system - if you can just imagine a powerful magnet that is able to concentrate and isolate all the TB causing bacteria to one spot on the slide.
- Bonolo Mathekga, Co-Founder, drizzle 

Using this system, technicians are able to identify TB bacteria with greater accuracy, leading to improved diagnostic rates, thus reducing the spread of the disease. Although their system was proven in the lab, taking drizzle to the street was a different story. After introducing the concept to potential partners, these two entrepreneurs learned a valuable lesson: performance isn’t everything. 

It’s also about how the product affects other stakeholders along the value chain. It could be something as simple as the operator who has to use the product if he needs a lot of training to use the product, that's a disincentive for him to actually use it.
- Digvijay Singh, Co-Founder, drizzle 

With the help of the Student Social Enterprise Accelerator, which combines custom curriculum from Acumen and The Rockefeller Foundation advisors, they drafted a sustainable plan for their product, while staying true to the values of their vision: providing quality healthcare at low-cost, to those who need it most. 

How do I place myself in the customer’s shoes? 

Back in his hometown in Cameroon, Akwo Ashangndowah heard a commotion calling him to the front of his house. He watched in amusement as his young cousin repeatedly threw a wooden box against the ground. The box was compact, with a hole cut down the middle,  just wide enough to pass coins through — similar to a piggy bank. As his cousin struggled to free the contents of the box, Akwo was infatuated by the fact that members of his community still considered this a safe way to secure their earnings.  “I had the idea, why not digitalize the savings box and put it out there for people to use? I'm a young person, who faces the problem of not knowing how to save my money, but back when I was a kid, I used to use the wooden box to save for national holidays — I had so much fun on those days because I had amassed money to spend."

In a country where 65% of the population is under the age of 25, financial insecurity is common in Cameroon. Without basic financial tools, millennials are vulnerable to falling below the poverty line. Before engineering an initial product to test with customers, Akwo asked himself how his product would rival existing savings platforms. He began to research competitors, which included microfinance institutions, credit associations, and other e-payment platforms. But offline, Akwo found the value in customer conversation, uncovering something startling: the trust between communities and financial service providers was broken. Despite what these services marketed, they weren’t as customer-centric as they claimed. These businesses focused on acquisition of new customers over customer retention, satisfaction, and financial health. 

Even speaking with non-account holders yielded intriguing insights. Millennials felt as if institutions focused only on creating products for companies, the affluent or elderly. With his business partner Reginald Seleu, Akwo realized that the success of his service would amount to its ability to help customers generate a deeper understanding of personal finance. 

In our communities, people like to follow what they see. If they see somebody doing something, they think ‘if he does it then it must be good so we're going to try to understand what he's all about.’ The first step for us is building trust and a community of believers.
- Reginald Seleu, Co-Founder, Nkwa

Shortly after, Akwo and Reginald launched Nkwa: a savings platform that serves as a digital bank for millenials and young adults. Nkwa asks users to commit to a target savings goal, allowing them to gradually unlock their potential for financial independence. Through marketing and social media techniques, Nkwa will educate customers on the importance of saving and budgeting. From a wooden box sprung a revolutionary idea for social change, and one Akwo hopes will uplift an entire population of young Cameroonians.

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