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Dreams, Grit, and Trust: Foundations of a Civic Startup Accelerator

We succeeded because we trusted and relied on each other’s strengths. We succeeded through the grit and power of people.

Whenever I’m looking for inspiration or a reminder of the impact a few committed people can make, I go back to the time I spent in India after college. I was part of a small group made up of women from the villages of Dayalpur (outside New Delhi), health professionals from the United Kingdom, village elders, an innovative nonprofit and Mother Teresa’s order of nuns. Together, we worked to improve access to education and build a health center.

It was grueling work. And we challenged a lot of traditional thinking. We acted on the belief that all children deserve access to education, including disabled kids; that everyone should pay and contribute to something no matter how impoverished; that a group of women could not only build a health center, but also a new institution.

Our nonprofit partner understood local politics and was able to secure seed money. The health professionals from the UK had proven methodologies for designing and delivering services. The women from the village were creative and resourceful, enticing businesses to provide cheap, quality materials and bringing their children to be tested and enrolled. The nuns, tough and hardworking, slept at the construction site when we couldn’t afford security and walked miles to secure customers and partners.

We succeeded because we trusted and relied on each other’s strengths. We succeeded through the grit and power of people.

A lot has changed in the past 20 years, but it’s still true that social entrepreneurs often work in isolation without the networks and feedback they need or the tools and access to capital that would best help them.

I wondered if we at Points of Light could change that.

Could we bring entrepreneurs together to share what they know and tap into a broader network of resources and inspiration, building trust and connectivity?

We started with a focus on the dreamers and doers and a quest to find amazing people and built a support system that helps them access investments and resources to grow. Because our challenges know no boundaries, we decided our solutions shouldn’t either. We're determined to support both for-profit and nonprofit enterprises.

We found a true partner to launch this joint venture in Village Capital, a global social enterprise accelerator that takes its name from village financing, where individuals pool their resources and decide themselves who is most deserving of the money. Not as a gift, but as an investment that will be paid back over and over. Surely, we thought, new, emerging civic ventures in the U.S. need similar kinds of pooled resources.

Accelerators have successfully launched for-profit technology and mobile companies for over a decade. We chose to use that model and had the chance to experience it first hand as participants in the Flashpoint accelerator at Georgia Tech. We also found critical supporters with innovation in their DNA in the PwC Charitable Foundation, Inc. and Starbucks Foundation.

The Civic Accelerator we will launch in a few weeks brings me back full circle to India. I am once again working with modest means, against big odds, but with smart, hard-working people who want to change our part of the world. What a gift to be able to help social entrepreneurs launch their dreams to do good—and what fun to build a larger ecosystem to help make it so.

Stay tuned for more information on the 10 ventures we’ll be supporting. And if you’re a dreamer and a doer, apply for a slot in our next program. Find more information online or email us at

Ayesha Khanna is president of the Civic Incubator at Points of Light, the world’s largest organization dedicated to volunteer service. She and her colleagues are about to launch the nation’s first accelerator to invest solely in civic ventures that inspire, equip, or mobilize people to create positive change.

Photo via Flickr (cc) user stuartpilbrow

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