A Study in Entrepreneurship

Thursday, December 1, 2011 (All day)

I recently sat down with Kimly Hoang, a student at Georgetown University. Kimly was charged with the task of interviewing me to better understand the journey of entrepreneurship. Below, I've included a few highlights of Kimly's resulting article. This article will be of special interest to those attending our holiday party tomorrow night. We will honor three worthy recipients with our annual Albert R. Rodriguez Civic Legacy Award. As you'll see below, Albert R. Rodriguez played a vital role in my journey as an entrepreneur and in helping to form strong roots upon which Community Partners could grow:

Planting the Seeds

Community Partners began 20 years ago. Albert R. Rodriguez, then a partner at the law firm of Latham & Watkins in Los Angeles, discussed with several of his friends the problems of entry and exit that leaders of fledgling organizations face in the nonprofit sector. The discussion resonated with Paul Vandeventer, who had just left the position of Executive Vice President at California Community Foundation, a large regional grantmaking organization. Vandeventer had noticed a gap in services to emerging groups and wondered why there wasn’t more support available for leaders of nonprofit startups. Combining extensive experience in the nonprofit sector with a desire to lead a growing organization in the adventurous area of social entrepreneurship, Paul set out with Rodriguez as founding board chair to develop the framework for Community Partners. Together, they familiarized themselves with existing nonprofits providing incubator services and became experts in early business planning. Rodriguez set the stewardship and governance tone of Community Partners and Vandeventer developed and executed the initial business plan. Rodriguez assembled a small core of talented colleagues as board members to flank Vandeventer in the areas of financial, legal and business operations oversight. Together, Vandeventer, Rodriquez and the founding board provided an environment that controlled the inevitable risks associated with incubating unproven start-up ventures and Community Partners began providing a core of robust services (program development, financial and administrative) and one-on-one counsel to leaders facing the problems that come along with social startup enterprises. 

Challenges Along the Way

On the road to growing Community Partners, Paul and his growing team faced hardships typical to those of entrepreneurs: a constant stream of no’s and an overwhelming sense of the challenge of effectively communicating a compelling vision. When asked if he ever felt like quitting, Paul responded, “In the very beginning, I wanted to quit every day. When we were teeny-tiny and I was virtually alone in the office every day, I continually asked myself, ‘Am I sure I made the right choice?’ And that’s when I had to turn to Al, my family, my wife, and my colleagues – to remind me that I loved and wanted to do this.” Every new project in the door, every time we got a favorable ‘that’s fantastic’ response when we shared with others what we offered, those times gave us new energy and drive.” 

Lessons Learned

Paul’s advice on overcoming the obstacles of being an entrepreneur? “You’ve got to persist and persevere in any new enterprise setting and position yourself to be competitive. You’ve got to know who comes close to doing what you’re doing and prove you can do it better. Invariably, when you’re trying to get contracts you’re going to get a lot of no’s. You have to believe strongly in your idea and the value of your mission if you’re going to convince others to do the same. I learned quickly that people were drawn to success stories, so when I would talk about Community Partners I would not cry poor or beg for support. Rather, I would make a point of speaking to the strengths of our organization and staff, and of the strong need for groups like ours in American civil society. 

“Additionally, the power of getting to ‘yes’ is in surrounding yourself by people who can help you by delivering with excellence. It shouldn’t be something you do alone; you need to create a support circle of people with different talents and skills so that you can fall back on them for new ideas, connections, and approaches.” 

On the Nonprofit Sector

Paul has a distinct perspective on entrepreneurship. He was initially – and still is – attracted to the nonprofit sector because he sees the opportunity to have “a real and positive impact on individual and community life and to lift up the human condition; an opportunity that doesn’t often come with commercial sector work.” Interestingly, he does not describe the sector as a fix-all business solution to the world’s social issues. Instead, he describes it as a “testing ground” for creative and cutting-edge solutions which, if proven successful, will ideally inspire government to adopt and implement the solutions on a widespread scale. Since start-up nonprofits are perpetually tied to private funds, it’s almost impossible to sustain this widespread change on their own. He stresses the need for government to partner with innovative social enterprises to address large societal issues and bring them to scale so they have widespread benefits to people with needs. 

Looking Forward

Paul sees “scale” as the primary weakness and opportunity in the nonprofit sector. He believes the problem lies in diffusion; with so many nonprofits trying out new ideas, there are countless, dispersed entities that have no immediate cause to merge – unlike the commercial sector where mergers and acquisitions are commonplace. One of the key trends in the nonprofit sector is to try to provide a solution to this problem. A relatively new area of work for Community Partners – and one that is rapidly expanding – is one possible solution: working with nonprofits to effectively join together by forming managed multi-organizational networks. Already having reached a national scope, Paul sees this work as an opportunity to continue to develop innovative new enterprises within Community Partners, as well as to push forward the nonprofit field.