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AmeriCorps: A Surprising Incubator for Innovation

March 15, 2016

anna lenhart headshotToday’s guest blog is written by AmeriCorps alumna Anna Lenhart (full bio below).

I started mentoring college students in 2012 and discovered a surprising number aspired to be social entrepreneurs. More surprising though was that an alarming number had no real idea for an enterprise or expertise in the issues they sought to address.

When I suggested they do a year of service, they would look at me as if that was a waste of time.

I can see where they are coming from, especially if they’ve never met an AmeriCorps alum. Nonprofits can look pretty plain compared to the sexy world of startups at first glance. Looking closer, nonprofits look a little cooler. They provide a fast pace, tight budget and mission-oriented atmosphere that can be a perfect place to explore and test a social venture.

Still have doubts about the innovation possible when there’s no profit margin driving the entrepreneurs? Let me introduce you to 18 national service alumni who are running companies in industries ranging from organic food to tourism to edtech and more.

journey to socent

With a fellow AmeriCorps alum, Alexandra Black-Paulick, I recently hosted a virtual summit—“Journey to Social Entrepreneurship, How to Leverage a Service Year to Become an Impactful Changemaker.” During the summit, we featured alumni of AmeriCorps, Peace Corps, and other civilian service programs. While few of our speakers set out to be “social entrepreneurs” (and a few even cringe at the title), they’re driving some of the most innovative solutions to social challenges. Most of them started driving toward those solutions while still serving.

After finishing their term, these national service graduates couldn’t leave their projects unfinished and those projects seeded the organizations they founded. Each founder’s service year provided an opportunity to test the concept of their organization and leverage the resources and network provided by their national service placement to help it grow.

In their own words, here’s what a few of these social innovators shared about their journey from service to entrepreneurship.

Shane Gring
Founder of BOULD, AmeriCorps VISTA member in 2009

shane gringServing with Habitat for Humanity in Boulder Colorado, Shane Gring started a workforce-training program centered on green building practices. The project soon became a separate organization called BOULD.  When we asked Shane how his AmeriCorps experience prepared him for BOULD, he responded, “becoming empathetic for the group you are serving…I carry this in my entrepreneurship journey, building with and not for…really understanding the users.” Since founding BOULD, Shane has moved the initiative into a role at the US Green Building Council and is expanding around the globe. Listen to Shane’s podcast,or watch the video below.

Breyn Hibbs
Founder of Sol Alchemy, AmeriCorps VISTA member in 2011

breynBreyn Hibbs started integrating leadership development with yoga as an AmeriCorps VISTA at Shakti Rising in San Diego, California. After her service she opened Sol Alchemy, a yoga and transformation center in Bend, OR.  When asked how her service prepared her to be a business owner she says she founded Sol Alchemy “under all of the values and principles that Shakti Rising stewards in the world” and that living on a stipend helped her “heal that never-having-enough mentality” that is critical in starting a small business. Sol Alchemy has continued to grow and is now a spiritual community center at the headquarters for Shakti Rising, Oregon. Listen to Breyn’s podcast here,or watch the video below.

Porsche Holland
Founder of Porsche M. Holland Consulting, AmeriCorps VISTA member in 2012 & 2013

porsche hollandPorsche Holland served as a VISTA at Bridge Builders Alabama and later as a VISTA leader. Her expertise in nonprofit capacity building and mentoring led to contracting opportunities at an organization in Philly. This experience laid the foundation for her sole proprietorship coaching practice for future social change leaders and growing nonprofits. When asked how she had the expertise to be hired as a consultant, she said she was at a “small organization, [she] did everything from marketing, recruiting, mentoring, managing volunteers, building programs, building out events and helping the executive director on grants…I have a broad understanding on how nonprofits work.” Porsche Holland Consulting is growing and she is working on finding her niche. Listen to Porsche’s podcast here,or watch the video below.

While the insights and industries varied with each social entrepreneur, they all leveraged their term of service to gain valuable experience and deepen their understanding of the issues they wanted to address. If you feel destined to become a social entrepreneur, put down the textbook for a time and dive into the work that is already being done in your community. When you focus on service, your entrepreneurial mind will design a solution that you could never have conceived behind a desk.

I’m so firmly convinced of the correlation between service and entrepreneurship that I’ve dedicated my career to exploring that connection. Shortly after AmeriCorps, I founded the Next Generation of Service, a nonprofit where college students who want to make a difference are mentored, inspired, and motivated to serve.

And that first choice to serve is often where the real magic of social enterprise comes to life.

Author Bio: Anna Lenhart became passionate about young people and the role service can play in their lives after completing a term as an AmeriCorps VISTA at Shakti Rising, a social change organization.  She is a certified “Dharma” Coach – trained to help others in self-discovery – and has studied empowerment techniques for over five years. Anna is the founder of the Next Generation of Service (a nonprofit) and Anani Cloud Solutions (a small consulting firm). She works in the San Diego community as a Salesforce and technology consultant, primarily with nonprofits and start-up companies and as an ambassador for the Franklin Project. Anna graduated from Carnegie Mellon University with a B.A. in Civil Engineering and Engineering Public Policy. She also earned a Fulbright Grant that she used to study sustainable waste management practices in Namibian townships. Anna loves surfing, rock climbing, and camping, and has visited 23/53 of the United States National Parks.

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