Lessons From the Sandbox

By Jakob Wildman-Sisk, Social Lab Manager, UNB’s Pond-Deshpande Centre and Chad Lubelsky, The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation. This blog was originally published on the Re-Code website. It was republished here with the author’s permission. 

Building an entrepreneurship ecosystem is a tall order. Yet in nine years, the community of Hubballi, India has been transformed through exciting investments in education, innovation, and collaboration. What can we learn from them?

The Deshpande Foundation creates entrepreneurship ecosystems by supporting and harnessing the power of financial capital and educational opportunities. In doing so, they hope to lay the groundwork for more robust and sustainable communities.
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Deshpande calls this support work building “sandboxes.” These sandboxes have expanded to New Brunswick and Massachusetts, however, they found their start, and their inspiration, in Hubballi, India. Recognizing that building ecosystems is difficult work, and in the spirit of continual learning and improvement, Deshpande hosts an annual Development Dialogue at its Hubballi sandbox.
The Dialogue is an international social entrepreneurship conference that brings together more than 600 community-minded entrepreneurs, civil servants, academics, and students to engage in a two-day dialogue about building ecosystems that support and sustain entrepreneurial activity.
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The Pond-Deshpande Centre in New Brunswick sends a delegation every year. This year, the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation joined as part of our efforts to better understand how to support scaling social innovation and addressing complex social challenges.
It was an inspiring and inspired trip. After sharing our lessons learned with each other, we decided to create our own mini-collaborative and write the following blog post. As a funder and a practitioner, we both play different roles in the ecosystem; nevertheless, we both came home equally emboldened to be ever-more ambitious in our goals and forward-looking in our practices and our collaborations. This is our first small-step in that direction.

Promise 1: We will fall in love with the problem that’s about to happen.

“Fall in love with the problem, not the solution” has become something of an axiom in the social enterprise world. Devising solutions to social challenges requires not just grit and perseverance, but also a guiding star. But stars are dynamic, and depending on your perspective, they often look different. As such, we particularly liked one speaker’s advice, Anousheh Ansari, to fall in love with the problem that’s about to happen. Understanding that our most pressing social challenges are dynamic leaves us better positioned to address them – regardless from where we sit in the ecosystem.



Promise 2: We will care more about creating social change than taking credit for social change.

We both came home asking what we were prepared to let go of. This doesn’t mean relinquishing ownership of our promising work to others, but rather, expanding ownership to those who care and are invested in championing change with us. As we champion change collaboratively, the nature of the challenges we’re tackling changes. In addressing dynamic social challenges, success without letting go of “our change” is impossible.
Ultimately, we want to catalyze deep change, not own it.

Promise 3: We will do our part to amplify and deepen breakthroughs.

Zubin Sharma (see his Tedx video here), spoke about investing in ecosystems with a mindful eye on context. A program that works in Montreal might not work in New Brunswick, and a business that found success in 2001 might not be as relevant today. Ecosystems develop in myriad ways, so it’s important to understand what’s already working, or what’s not, and build from there. Investing in people is always a sound bet.

Promise 4: We will take an ecosystem approach.

Deshpande’s sandboxes build strength, capacity AND distribution channels for social entrepreneurship. Each piece is essential. Without the full spectrum of the sandbox, one of their students might have a phenomenal new social innovation, but, if there is nobody who is ready or able to use it, or even to find out about it, then it will be for nought.
From capacity building to financial investment, the Deshpande Foundation intervenes throughout the pipeline of creating and supporting social entrepreneurs. Since neither of our organizations can meet every demand of the pipeline, we need to better identify how to align our efforts. For Pond-Deshpande, this might mean deepening our work so we are better able to amplify breakthroughs, while for Re-Code it could mean support for capacity building so that breakthroughs can scale.
We know that impact at a systems level takes time, resources, and intention. But it also takes experimentation and trust. So our last promise is to experiment and trust more. We hope you’ll join us.