Social Impact Powered by Technology

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Starting up in San Quentin and other tech-powered social entrepreneurship, straight from the Women 2.0 Conference stage.  By Jessica Stillman (Editor, Women 2.0)

After finishing her computer science degree, Shikoh Gitau, now the founder of Ummeli, faced a personal crisis where she asked herself: "How do you change people's lives using technology?" It's a question that encapsulates a wide-reaching discussion of social impact powered by technology that just happened on the Women 2.0 stage. Also participating was Beverly Parenti, founder of The Last Mile, which incubates tech startups actually within the walls of San Quentin prison, and VC Jalak Jobanputra. Megan Smith, a VP at Google[x], moderated.

Here are a selection of questions and answers from the session:

Are the lines between for-profit and non-profit blurring? 

Jobanputra, who invests in various emerging markets, spoke of her excitement over the level of connectivity in these markets these days. Bottom up innovation will use this development to change lives for the better, she predicts, which means theses line are increasingly blurring in the entrepreneurial world. But that's happening less so in the VC world, she feels, where it's generally thought that social impact equals lower returns.

Who has provided critical support for you in doing this work? 

Parenti was caught off guard by the massive interest in volunteering for her organization. The project has generated an incredible media response without any outreach at all. Corporations have also funded the program.

Technology is a catalyst, Gitau said. The best way to have impact is to work with people who actually understand the problem. In her case that means working with people who have been working on unemployment for decades. She also discussed the difficulty of finding funding for tech companies in Africa, and the reluctance of investors to fund companies there.

Is there still a need for a separate term 'social enterprise'? 

Jobanputra would like to see a day when all companies care about sustainability and doing what's right, but she still thinks there is a distinct category 'social enterprise.' She is encouraged by how many founders want an investor who is focused on values and impact, however, and feels interest in these things is increasing in recent years.

Are there emerging markets within the U.S. and how can we address these markets?

You can define that demographically or geographically, according to Jobanputra. "I actually see huge opportunities as an investor in these markets because they're often neglected by my fellow investors," she said.

There are advantages to being a diverse team, so you see things that other people don't see, Smith added.

Jessica Stillman (@entrylevelrebel) is an editor at Women 2.0 and a freelance writer with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She writes a daily column for Inc.com, contributes regularly to Forbes and has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM and Brazen Careerist, among others.