What I’ve Learned from Helping Nine Entrepreneurs Take Flight

Michelle Cote is Program Director at reSET, the organization leading the charge for Connecticut’s social enterprise movement. She recently helped reSET complete its third Social Enterprise Accelerator program. The article below shares her insights into working with the cohort and what she has gained from the process. 

Prior to joining reSET, Michelle worked for Aid to Artisans, helping entrepreneurs from Peru, Bolivia, and Afghanistan, grow their businesses. From there, she founded and ran The Purpose Project, an effort to connect different generations of social leaders. She remains committed to finding new ways to help people generate purpose and profit at the same time. She holds a Bachelors of Arts in International Environmental Policy and a Masters of Business Administration from the University of Connecticut.

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  • Thomas Edison Quote
“Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.” — Thomas Edison

Recently, we celebrated Flight Night: the completion of reSET’s third Social Enterprise Accelerator and a critical next step in the lives of nine social entrepreneurs. As Program Director at reSET, I have had the privilege of watching each of these entrepreneurs turn their ideas into viable, scalable business models for change.

They have done so by embracing the Lean Startup methodology, which is a little bit different than the traditional business planning process. Instead of trying to create their business strategy and operational plans before going to market, this group has actively engaged with potential customers to test their assumptions about how to solve problems and create value. In some cases, the feedback that they receive about their ideas is encouraging, and their assumptions are confirmed.

However, more often not, what they hear from customers surprises them, and can even challenge some of the foundational elements of the businesses that they had begun to build. When this happens, we ask them to channel their frustration and disappointment into learning. We joke with them, reminding them that failing early and failing often is the quickest path to success. We also acknowledge that mustering the resilience needed to weather this process can be difficult.  Their responses have always been inspiring. In the time that I have known the group that presented Wednesday night, I have watched each one of them battle back over both internal and external obstacles, saw some of their key beliefs challenged, and witnessed them discover incredible new ways to deliver value to their customers and the community at the same time. I find this remarkable. They have embraced the special challenge that confronts social entrepreneurs with grit, determination and heart. A social entrepreneur’s job isn’t just to find a way to make money; a social entrepreneur’s job is to find a way to improve the world around them through business.

Oftentimes that means selling to one customer to serve another, and creating new opportunities where they have never seemed to exist. The path or structure for this type of business isn’t always clear, but each member of the Accelerator found innovative ways of delivering value to their customers and the community at the same time, and I have learned so much from watching them do it.

reSET's third accelerator cohort celebrates with Flight Night.

reSET’s third accelerator cohort celebrates with Flight Night.

I have learned that . . .

Taking big bold steps feels exciting and daunting. Leaving behind the comfort of what you know you can accomplish to pursue something that only exists in your dreams is risky. But when you start to believe that it can happen, others quickly join you.

Just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, you have to be ready to have it all change. Embracing change, and even setbacks, as new opportunities requires both faith and discipline, but in entrepreneurship and in life, the way that you handle the unexpected becomes the true mark of character.

Believing that anything is possible is not naïve. The ability to dream big is an amazing asset to an entrepreneur. That said, no one can do it alone. Using that passion to connect with others who can help bring those dreams to life is the key to making them real.

When you’re trying something new, sometimes the hardest part is helping people imagine that a different way exists. Visionaries have two responsibilities: the first is to form a structure to support the new possibilities that they see around them; the second is to help others see it too. While this can feel lonely and frustrating, the best way to move forward is by asking people to build it with you.

Sometimes, you don’t have to choose, and you shouldn’t. When you’re passionate about a lot of different things, most people will tell you to simplify by choosing between them. While that is the obvious option, with enough creativity it’s possible to create an elegant solution that solves more than one problem.

When the worst happens, it’s important to lean on the things that really matter and put everything else to the side. Loss is painful, but it can be instructive too. The clarity that comes with it can often unlock opportunities that you haven’t been able to see before.

Entrepreneurship is a hustle. It becomes especially when you’re trying to do it on top of a demanding full time job. Accepting and committing to the juggle is the only way to see your dream come true.

Being relentless is the only way to get what you want. There will always be people who tell you that what you want to do isn’t possible, or that it’s impossible for you to do it. But, as long as you’re willing to find another way, and stay open to new options, you still have a place in the game.

Never stop asking for feedback. The day that you do is the day that you start to become disengaged from your customers and irrelevant to their needs.

Sometimes progress and insight doesn’t happen when we want it to. We can always look back and wish we had known something, or anticipated issues sooner. But, we have to be wise enough to trust and accept the timing of the growth opportunities in our lives.  How could we continue to learn from one another if our wisdom came all at the same time? Most important, this group has reinforced my belief that social entrepreneurship requires skills that transcend the world of business. Being a successful social entrepreneur demands humility, compassion, humor and conviction. This group has all of those qualities in spades and I can’t wait to see their businesses take flight. If you have an idea for a business that can change the world, or you’re interested in helping someone who does, please let us know. We’d love to welcome you into our growing community.

This article is reprinted with the permission of Michelle Cote and reSET. You can view the original article, here.

About Michelle Cote

Michelle Cote
Michelle Cote is the Director of Programs for Hartford-based reSET (www. socialenterprisetrust.org). She has been involved in helping to grow the social enterprise movement in Connecticut since joining reSET’s Board of Directors in 2010 and then transitioning to staff in 2012. Prior to joining reSET, Michelle was helping entrepreneurs in Peru, Bolivia, and Afghanistan to grow their businesses through the nonprofit organization Aid to Artisans. From there, she founded and ran The Purpose Project, an effort to connect different generations of social leaders, and remains committed to finding new ways to help people generate purpose and profit at the same time. She holds a Bachelors of Arts in International Environmental Policy and a Masters of Business Administration from the University of Connecticut. Connect with Michelle at mcote[at]socialenterprisetrust[dot]org.