What happens when you load up a very big boat with 600 Semester at Sea students, 11 social entrepreneurs looking to solve the world’s biggest problems and 20 awe-inspiring mentors, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu? That’s the question Daniel Epstein, co-founder of The Unreasonable Institute, asked himself less than a year ago. In three months, he’ll find out.
Partnering with Semester at Sea, Stanford University and a handful of corporate sponsors including Nike and XBox, Epstein and this unlikely entourage will set sail on January 7 for a 106-day, 12-country voyage. The goal is to help promising social entrepreneurs scale companies that were started to solve seemingly intractable social and environmental problems, such as cleaning the world’s debris-filled oceans, or providing impoverished women with efficient cook stoves. “I’ve never done something so logistically daunting in such a short period of time,” Epstein says.
Unreasonable at Sea is an outgrowth of The Unreasonable Institute, which Epstein founded in Boulder three years ago with Tyler Hartung and Teju Ravilochan. The Institute incubates and accelerates social entrepreneurs and uses its own crowdfunding platform to choose participants, who spend six weeks being nurtured and mentored in Boulder. The organization’s name comes from the George Bernard Shaw quote, "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."
Earlier this year, Epstein, who participated in the Semester at Sea program in 2007, got a call from the organization. “They said ‘we’ll fly you to any port if you come out and guest lecture,’” Epstein recalls. Instead, he proposed an idea for an ambitious partnership: Semester at Sea would donate 50 cabins on the ship, and The Unreasonable Institute would take its concept to the high seas. Semester at Sea students would have the opportunity to help the participating entrepreneurs scale their operations.
Getting the Right People on the Boat
Epstein and his partners decided to recruit entrepreneurs whose companies were technology-based, because they “wanted to work with ideas that can scale very quickly in the market and are a little less human intensive,” he says. They put out a call for applications and received more than 1,000 from 100 countries. Among the 11 chosen: Aquaphytex, a Spanish company that has developed a plant-based wastewater treatment system; Damascus Fortune, a Mumbai-based company that purifies carbon emissions; and Solar Ear, a Brazilian firm that has developed the world’s first solar-powered hearing aid battery.
Epstein’s first coup was getting George Kembel, co-founder of the d-school, Institute for Design, at Stanford on board. Along with Epstein, he will co-teach a class on design and global entrepreneurship to Semester at Sea students. But his biggest achievement came when Tutu agreed to be an on-board mentor to the 11 companies. “He called me at 4 in the morning and said he wouldn’t miss it for the world,” Epstein recalls. The venerable human rights activist will board the ship when it leaves San Diego on January 7, and remain with the group until they arrive in South Africa at the end of March. Among the 20 other mentors are Matt Mullenweg, the founder of Wordpress, Tom Chi of Google X, Neal Bear, the co-founder of both ER and Law & Order: SVU, Jeff Hoffman, founder of Priceline.
The last part of the equation was bringing large companies on board to serve as “learning partners” that would not only send some of their top engineers on the journey, but also contribute $250,000 toward the cost of the trip. So far, Nike and Xbox have signed on, and Epstein says he has three more commitments in the works. The 11 participating companies won’t pay a thing for the trip, but Unreasonable at Sea will take a small equity stake in each venture.
Ready to Launch
Currently, Epstein and his team are scrambling with final preparations, including plans for events at every port. “The first thing we need to do at every port is to accelerate the velocity of building relationships between the entrepreneurs and the right people,” he says. So in each country (Japan, China, Vietnam, Singapore, Burma, India, Mauritius, South Africa, Ghana, Morocco, and Spain), Unreasonable is partnering with local organizations that will help organize events designed to introduce the entrepreneurs to key players in the design, technology, engineering and investment sectors.
Epstein hopes this “radical experiment” will be successful enough to warrant another similar trip in the autumn of 2014. And how does he define success? It’s a bit amorphous, he concedes. “But,” he says, “when you get this caliber of people together with this strong of an intention and you put them in this environment, it would be kind of hard not to have a mind-blowing experience.”
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Photo courtesy of Unreasonable at Sea