Placing people at the heart of our work

January 1, 2018 | Aaron Tam

When I first joined Bridges for Enterprise (BfE), I had never considered the possibility that such a student-run incubator could resonate with so many people from vastly different backgrounds, occupations and cultures. There is something special about BfE that brings students and professionals together, inspiring them to give their best for social entrepreneurs who are based thousands of miles away.

It is not an easy job. Students have all sorts of commitments on top of their academic work. Professionals never really have the time, and even if they had the time they could have taken a well-deserved break. Social entrepreneurs are almost completely occupied by the day-to-day operations of their businesses. Bringing all these people into an active community seemed to be an impossible task.

Admittedly, we did not have much expertise or an established network to start with. Early on, it was extremely difficult convincing entrepreneurs that it was worth trusting their business strategies to us. Nonetheless, we fought against the odds. Ever since taking in the first batch of social enterprise startups in early 2016, we just kept striving forward. Deliberate efforts were put into accumulating internal knowledge as well as growing our network. Thanks to a growing team of dedicated students and professionals, we developed an incubation programme that is winning the praises of many of our startup alumni, empowering them to do well and to do good at the same time. Over the past month alone, we received 69 applications from startups across the developing world, which is nearly 10 times the number we accepted into our incubation programme during the previous startup recruitment season. After nearly two years of continuous iteration, BfE has slowly turned its idea into a unique and viable model.

From humble beginnings, BfE became a dynamic, growth-driven organisation. Two goals were clear to us at this stage: (1) we wanted to support our startups as effectively as possible; and (2) we wanted to replicate our model globally in a sustainable manner. Achieving these two goals would require major changes to the way we worked: adjusting the frameworks of our incubation programme as well as developing major additions to our operations outside of Cambridge (with BfE Chapters in New York, Singapore and Sydney). Although it was rather challenging to scale up at a time when we were still in the process of shaping our existing model, the momentum was there and so we decided to take the risk.

However, there are some legitimate concerns as BfE continues to expand. The increasing volume of startups in our pipeline might lead us into considering them as something on our to-do list rather than promising business ventures that could potentially change thousands of lives. Missing this point could prevent us from striving for higher quality in our engagements that are crucial in empowering startups to succeed. Furthermore, the growing complexity of BfE could create a sense of hierarchy which might weaken our teams. This would in turn prevent us from engaging students and professionals in our community. In one way or another, all these concerns stem from the risk of misaligned priorities.

At such a critical stage of our growth, I took some time to reflect on the priorities of BfE. I wanted to be sure that we are making decisions that steer us into the right direction.

The concept of human-centered design has had a huge impact on the way I see the priorities of BfE. Human-centered design is a creative approach to problem-solving that focuses on the people. To directly cite, where this concept originated from, human-centered design “is all about building a deep empathy with the people you’re designing for”. Done properly, the solution coming out from the design process will be a success because you have kept the very people you are looking to serve at the heart of the process.

Who are the people that BfE is seeking to serve? Social entrepreneurs, obviously. Though at the same time, we are also bridging that gap with students and professionals – we hope to provide experiences that are rewarding and empowering to everyone who is engaging with us.

This is again a challenging task. Fortunately, the wonderful thing about being a community-driven initiative is that value creation comes naturally from people once they are brought together under the right conditions. This is very simple at BfE: entrepreneurs, students and professionals join hands on projects that are meaningful to them all.

The priority of BfE is therefore to create the right conditions for this community to thrive: training, resources, networks, mentorship, communications, etc. For this to be successful, we cannot afford to lose focus of the needs of our people. This is even more important as we continue to scale BfE at a global level. Otherwise, our efforts will become fruitless and our mission statement will ring hollow.

The best experiences all start with focusing on the people that we interact with. At BfE, I am incredibly fortunate to have come across entrepreneurs who infect me with their passion, mentors who guide me, and friends who keep me moving forward. These people bring me an immense sense of honour to be part of BfE, and I am very glad to have supported this thriving community.

Placing people at the heart of our work is the precise reason why BfE has been able to come so far, and will keep on enabling us to grow further.