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Faculty Q+A: Putting technology to work for the greater good

Julianne Zimmerman, professor of Innovative Social Enterprises

Julianne Zimmerman, professor of Innovative Social Enterprises, aims to bring innovative and practical solutions to social problems. In her current role as Managing Director with Reinventure Capital, she is in the process of raising a fund to invest in chronically overlooked pools of entrepreneurs: people of color and women. Additionally, Julianne was the recipient of the Senior Survey 2018 Significant Impact and Best Course Nominations at Tufts.

The Tufts Entrepreneurship Center recently spoke with Zimmerman about her career and advice for future entrepreneurs.

Q: You’ve played a role in a variety of industries, ranging from an investor in clean energy startups to a finalist in the NASA astronaut selection process. Through all of that, what has been the biggest bump in the road, and how did you overcome it?

A: My dad is fond of saying, “nothing is ever easy.”  I don’t really see a biggest bump in my rearview mirror because there has never been a long, direct, smooth road — and I don’t expect one. Extending the road metaphor, life is full of surprises, rough weather, road closures, high speed HOV lanes, dirt roads, climbs and descents, switchbacks, detours, potholes, traffic, construction, all of it. Being okay with that keeps you open to all sorts of possibilities that expecting a smooth ride would cause you to miss.

In my own experience, I’ve encountered many of these unanticipated conditions. Perhaps the most obvious was near the apex of my first career, working in the manned spaceflight sector. I had enjoyed 14 years of challenging, exciting, gratifying adventure — never exactly straightforward, but hugely satisfying — and had accrued several prestigious honors and achievements that meant a lot to me. I had aspired to be an astronaut since I was a child, and I was a finalist twice in the NASA astronaut selection process, but ultimately not selected. That was simultaneously a signal honor and a huge validation, and also obviously a pretty hard heartbreak.  That wonderful/painful experience gave me the latitude to seriously explore what other professional endeavors I might pursue that would be as inspiring and rewarding as serving the global science community had been. Asking that question led me to co-found a clean energy company before the cleantech era, and set me off on a completely new set of adventures that years later eventually led me to teach at Tufts!

Q: On the flip side, what project or achievement are you most proud to be a part of? 

A: I am really proud of my longstanding commitment to cultivating the innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem. I’ve done that in a variety of ways: mentoring, judging, speaking, teaching, serving on boards, connecting people, acting as a confidential sounding board, and more. Currently in my work with Reinventure Capital I do a fair bit of speaking and writing for and about the emerging social impact investing community, in which I highlight both the economic and moral imperative presented by race and gender inequities in access to opportunity and capital as well as the tremendous opportunity for impact investors to both effect meaningful system change and also create significant wealth. In those talks and essays I get to draw people’s attention to changemakers who are already busy creating a more equitable, more vibrant ecosystem. It gives me tremendous satisfaction to be able to connect people together for good, and to cheer them on in their endeavors.

Q: As Managing Director at Reinventure Capital, you are investing in entrepreneurial teams largely led by women and people of color. What inspired you to take action in this way? Is there a misconception about this pool of entrepreneurs that you are defeating?

A: I encounter lots of misconceptions on a routine basis, and our target founders encounter them every day. For example, there is a common misconception that women and people of color don’t found “investable” companies. The data say otherwise. There is a widespread misconception that there is a shortage of qualified “diverse” talent.  Again, the data say otherwise. There are many other misconceptions, many of which masquerade as conventional wisdom, which are demonstrably false. I think the biggest misconception is that we live in a meritocracy in which opportunity is evenly and fairly distributed, and where capital efficiently flows to those who have the best ideas and the best execution. By contrast I have often seen talented, accomplished entrepreneurs simply dismissed because they don’t fit the stereotype in someone’s mind.

It’s important to note that overt, intentional prejudice is real and dangerous. But the bigger problem is that we all carry unexamined unconscious bias.  None of us are exempt. Because bias limits our ability to see talent and opportunity, we all do better when we recognize and shed the unfounded limitations we place on ourselves and others.

Q: What are the major trends and opportunities in the social entrepreneurship space that you are most excited about?

A: McKinsey and others have found that over the past 20 years or so, most or all of wealth creation and most or all of job creation here in the US are attributable to young growing companies. During that same time period, the overwhelming majority of venture capital has flowed to companies led by straight white US-born men from about a dozen universities, and operating their businesses in four cities. Moreover, during that same time period the prevailing venture practice has focused on achieving a small humber of extremely lucrative exits that end up concentrating returns to a relatively small number of investors.  So the extreme financial inequity that threatens our economic stability is not a given;  it’s the result of an established set of practices. Moreover, the pollution, climate, water, food, soil, and other environmental challenges we face are also largely our own creation.

So I’m most excited about the emerging ecosystem of founders, investors, incubators & accelerators, peer groups, and others who are working to create more beneficial business models and networks. Individually, each one is working to effect their own theory of change; as they band together to collaborate and amplify one another’s efforts, they have the potential to reshape not only our economy but life on earth for the better.

Q: What would you say is the biggest takeaway for students who take your Innovative Social Enterprises class?

A: It is a really hard class, by design. It requires students to ask lots of questions of themselves, each other, and the people they hope to engage as social entrepreneurs.  I think the two biggest takeaways are newfound confidence in valuing asking better questions over accepting pat answers, and a deeper awareness of themselves as changemakers and their ability to form highly effective collaborations with their team members and stakeholders.

Q: What is one piece of advice you have for Tufts students who are interested in or are starting their venture now? 

A: Start by getting really clear on what your objective and motivations are; be as clear as you can about your strengths and your weaknesses.  Then find teammates who are aligned with your purpose and who complement — not mirror — you.  Develop a discipline of asking your stakeholders — customers, users, partners, allies, employees — open-ended questions, and when you hear something that goes against your expectations, don’t reject it! Instead, dig in to find out where your assumptions may need to change. Those uncomfortable discoveries can lead to major breakthroughs.

Seek out your peers. Talk to founders who are six months to a few years ahead of you in your sector.  Ask them open-ended questions about their experience securing customers, team members, vendors & suppliers, board members & advisors, investors, etc.

When you have done all the preparatory work you can, and you have a super-clear understanding of your customers and your other stakeholders, launch with a minimum viable product or service that is just big enough to test whether you have the right value proposition. Know the norms for your sector: some sectors require huge amounts of capital and you will spend the next several years securing grants, investments, and/or loans. If that is the case for your business, find advisors and team members who can help you succeed in that marathon. If you have the option in your sector to go straight to market, again find advisors and team members who can help you prioritize generating revenues over raising outside capital. If you have a viable business, you will have a much easier time finding the capital to grow it (and may not even need outside capital).

And of course, whatever your aspirations, be sure to take advantage of all the great entrepreneurship resources at Tufts!