In reflecting on 2016, I do so with a smile. Though parts of me are exhausted when I think about how much we worked through over the past 12 months, above all else, I’m humbled by how much we’ve accomplished in just a year’s time. Before diving into the past year, though, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on how far we’ve come to get to this moment in time. The traction we’ve been able to make in one year is grounded in several years of experimentation, struggle, and the relentless work ethic of countless team members and friends.
Where We Came From
Personally, I feel like I have been working on Unreasonable ever since we launched an experimental program the summer of my senior year in undergrad (i.e. 2008). That summer, a small but scrappy team brought together 17 entrepreneurs from 14 nationalities to live in Boulder together under the same roof for five weeks. We didn’t know what we were doing, but we had a strong sense of why — a belief that entrepreneurship is the most powerful tool for confronting and solving the world’s grand challenges.
Entrepreneurship is the most powerful tool for confronting and solving the world’s grand challenges. Tweet This Quote
It was out of that experiment that the Unreasonable Institute was born. After running the Institute for the first three years of the organization and after having worked with over 60 entrepreneurs across 40 countries, I felt there were more ways we could add value to entrepreneurs beyond our model at the time. Listening to this gut instinct, even though the move would put me into debt that I am still paying off, in 2012 I took myself out of an operational role at the Institute to launch Unreasonable Group. In the first three years of the company, our small team at Unreasonable Group launched multiple companies and experiments ([email protected], Unreasonable.is, Unreasonable Media, and Girl Effect Accelerator to name a few) all geared towards the same vision of removing obstacles for entrepreneurs positioned to solve BFPs (i.e. what we like to refer to as “Big F***ing Problems
My guess is that externally, at the start of 2016, the world probably thought Unreasonable Group was a well-established company with funds in the bank and a large global team. And this, I find, is the all-too-common story when we look at entrepreneurial companies from the outside. We can never fully understand just how much of a struggle it really is.
The Reality of Our Not-So-Distant Past
To be fully transparent, when we started this year at Unreasonable Group, I personally had six maxed out credit cards, a few hundred thousand dollars in debt, no way to make payroll by the end of the first quarter, and a team of just four full-time employees (including myself, who wasn’t actively taking a salary).
The journey of entrepreneurship is harder, longer, and far more volatile than most of us could ever imagine. Tweet This Quote
Nearly a decade into this Unreasonable journey, and I was still running at 9,000 RPMs trying to make ends meet. Eighteen-hour work sessions that ran until 4 a.m. were not just a monthly occurrence, but rather closer to a daily reality. I mention this not because I am proud of any of these statistics, but rather because it speaks to the fragility of the organization at the time. It felt like our small team was chasing a dream that we could easily visualize but had yet to realize.
I have found that the journey of entrepreneurship is harder, longer, and far more volatile than most of us could ever imagine. I was once told that entrepreneurship is a bit like a duck floating on water. On the surface, the duck looks beautiful, calm, poised, and relaxed. But under the water, its feet are pedaling frantically. For the past 10 years, I have really related to that duck – and I often still do – which brings me to 2016, a year when the frantic pedaling feels to be finally giving us some momentum.
The Recent Milestones
Though we started this year in a very tenuous position, in the months that unfolded our reality began to catch up to our vision. In this reflection post, I wanted to pause and take the time to review not just how we started the year, but what we achieved as a small but mighty team over the past 12 months.
1. We launched two new global partnerships – and announced a new one coming up in 2017.
In July, we launched a new global partnership with Pearson centered around scaling up growth-stage entrepreneurs to ensure universal literacy by 2030 — Project Literacy Lab. In September, we kickstarted the most significant partnership established at Unreasonable to date — Unreasonable Impact — created with Barclays, with the aim of scaling up the fastest-growing sustainable entrepreneurs worldwide as job creators. Most recently, we secured and announced a new global initiative with the U.S. Department of State dedicated to scaling high-growth entrepreneurs worldwide who are best-positioned to address the 17 Sustainable Development Goals — Unreasonable Goals.
The 37 entrepreneurs we worked with in 2016 have raised over a billion in financing and are impacting over 100 million lives globally. Tweet This Quote
Across these initiatives we have worked with some of the most impressive, humbling, and truly ingenious entrepreneurs. I say that without hesitation. The 37 entrepreneurs we worked with in 2016 have collectively raised well over a billion dollars in financing and are impacting over 100 million lives globally. If we can play a small role in helping them scale their solutions faster, we will be one step closer to our vision of helping to bend history in the right direction.
2. We launched Unreasonable Capital.
One thing we have heard time and time again from our entrepreneurs is that financing is often their greatest barrier to scale. So, after a few years of strategizing and fundraising, my co-founder, Ashok Reddy, and I launched Unreasonable’s first global investment fund – Unreasonable Capital. Since then, we have been able to actively finance brilliant, hellbent, and kind-hearted entrepreneurs across several emerging markets. You can see our current portfolio here.
3. We simplified.
Like many entrepreneurs, over time I’ve learned the value and importance of focus. This year, we have re-evaluated and adapted the structural model of Unreasonable Group around the belief that if we focus in on what we can be best in the world at, we will end up driving more value into the entrepreneurs we serve.
This certainly hasn’t been easy. Although I had been working on Unreasonable Adventures for over a decade (and despite the fact that one of my co-founders in the endeavor, Will Butler, and I are still convinced of its potential for impact), we closed the company this year. Furthermore, we merged Unreasonable Media into Unreasonable Group with the belief that together we are stronger, and together we will drive more value to the entrepreneurs we serve and the causes we care most about.
4. We grew our team size from 4 to 24.
Above all else, the biggest accomplishment of the year is our team. To me, what is most impressive isn’t that we increased our team size by 5x, but rather, it’s the quality of the individuals that make it up. Though we have room for improvement (and we always will), I’m in awe of the caliber and performance of the team.
Knowing the new team was brought together in July of this year and knowing the high-stakes and fast-paced environment we have all been working in since they came on board, the cohesion and performance is mind-blowing. In fact, in follow-up meetings with our partners at Barclays and Pearson and in the feedback from all the entrepreneurs we worked with in 2016, we are told repeatedly that the Unreasonable team is our “unfair advantage.” Our team is what allows us to run such world class operations — that much I am certain of.
The Unreasonable team is our ‘unfair advantage’ – our team is what allows us to run such world class operations. Tweet This Quote
Of course, as is the case with the duck on the water, the growth we have seen over the past year has not been easy nor has it come without its fair share of seemingly insurmountable challenges. Many of the adaptations and strategic redirections that we made this year have been difficult, expensive, and personally taxing. I’ve learned so much this past year as an entrepreneur, a boyfriend (yep, I’m in love), and a leader. I made more mistakes than I can count. Though we have many wins to celebrate, we have just as many battle wounds. It has been a struggle, but a beautiful one nonetheless.
What I seek refuge in is the quality of our team, the culture we are creating, the relationships I hold dear outside of work, the hope I get from working alongside history-defining entrepreneurs, the realization that hidden within every mistake is an invaluable lesson, and the conviction that what we are doing – no matter how difficult – will move mountains. I’ve never had so much confidence and belief in our mission as an organization and our ability to deliver upon it.
But rather than write a novel of a reflection post (which this has already become), I thought it would be best to let the stories tell themselves. Below I’ve included videos and links to a few of the projects we launched in 2016. All the videos below were made under the leadership and creative genius of Mark Crawford, Larissa Rhodes, and Scott McElroy.
Project Literacy Lab
A Glimpse into the Future
And what of 2017? 2017 is the year that we redesign our organization around not just running world-class programs for entrepreneurs, but also around building the systems, capacity, and network that will ensure we are able to drive value into Unreasonable entrepreneurs in the months, years, and decades to come. We have fallen guilty to not adding measurable, ongoing value to our entrepreneurs beyond our programs. In 2017, this will change. In the weeks to come, I’ll write another post sketching out our goals, ambitions, strategies, and a few ways that you can get involved in the new year.
Entrepreneurs are the true heroes – the ones future generations will remember as having changed things. Tweet This Quote
But for now, I’d like to close out 2016 with gratitude. I’m grateful to our team that has worked tirelessly towards realizing our potential. I’m grateful for my friends and family who have always encouraged me and all of us at Unreasonable to keep pushing. I’m grateful for the truly world-class partners we have and their team members who we get to work with day in and day out.
But above all, I’m grateful for the entrepreneurs we serve. The “strong sense of why” that gave me the foolhardy aspiration of launching an experimental program in the summer of 2008 is still the same “why” that guides all of us at Unreasonable today. We exist to serve entrepreneurs who have their backs against the wall trying to solve the seemingly intractable challenges of our time. In my mind, they are the true heroes — the ones future generations will remember as having changed things. I’m forever grateful for them, their work, and their creative courage.
With a great deal of gratitude,