Skysthelimit.org co-founder Bo Ghirardelli recalls an experience that led him to want to improve economic opportunities for all. During his time as a middle school English and History teacher for Teach for America in the South Central LA neighborhood of Watts, he saw some things that have stuck with him ever since.
“Some of my 11-year old students had teeth that were rotting and falling out of their mouths in class, living in abject poverty in housing projects,” said Mr. Ghirardelli, his voice shaking. “Students who had never seen the ocean yet lived eight miles away. Students who suffered from chronic malnutrition and violent gang initiations in the sixth grade, and, clearly, didn’t have the same opportunities that I had growing up.”
He adds: “And this is in the middle of Los Angeles, which is one of the richest areas in the country.”
The plight of his students, he noticed, was often tied to a lack of economic opportunity for their families.
“[A lack of economic opportunity for adults] creates problems in society,” said Mr. Ghirardelli. “The environment, health, and education – all these things are ultimately linked to economic opportunity. Without income, you can’t cover your rent, you can’t pay for good groceries.”
His experience in Watts opened his eyes and, in part, led him to start Skysthelimit.org. He wanted to create economic opportunity for adults that would enrich their children. Most of Skysthelimit.org’s entrepreneurs come from a disadvantaged background, and 70% are women, including many young adult single mothers.
Along with co-founder Nic Cary, one of the founders of Blockchain.com, Mr. Ghirardelli notes that Skysthelimit.org’s entrepreneurs disproportionately come from the Deep South, the Appalachian Region, and the Rust Belt.
“Three regions of the country that are, historically, economically depressed,” he says. “It’s where a lot of entrepreneurs – urban and rural young adults – don’t have great opportunities. An important part of being a digital nonprofit is so we can serve rural entrepreneurs at a fraction of the cost of setting up a brick-and-mortar office in every community.”
Mr. Ghirardelli suggests the disproportionate amount of interest in these regions is a consequence of urbanization and a lack of investment in rural areas.
“Entrepreneurship is still the heart of the American Dream,” he says. “And there are fewer and fewer good opportunities for young adults in the US to earn a living wage.”
After his experience with Teach for America, Mr. Ghirardelli lived in Morocco for two years during the Arab Spring. While there, he helped build a business accelerator, called Greenside Development Foundation-Morocco, that still helps unemployed young adults start businesses through entrepreneurship training and business mentoring.
He also helped build a microloan fund to raise capital for young entrepreneurs in Morocco, who were starting everything from agricultural businesses to clothing resellers. The nonprofit worked. His Moroccan co-founder, who runs it now, received a State Department Innovation Award and scaled across Morocco.
After that, Mr. Ghirardelli moved back home to Oakland. Some of his philanthropic seed funders asked why he wasn’t doing similar work at home in the United States.
“I thought for sure someone would be doing this at home, since we have such a robust nonprofit sector here in the US,” he said.
He began researching and noticed entrepreneurship programs for kids from Kindergarten to 12th grade, general adult entrepreneurship programs for entrepreneurs in their 40s and 50s, and the tech accelerators, such as YCombinator, TechStars, etc.
“But, none of these services really address the unique strengths and needs of underrepresented young adult entrepreneurs at scale,” said Mr. Ghirardelli. “And so we set out to build a solution.” In 2015, Skysthelimit.org, which was then called Youth Business USA, received more than 5,000 applications from around the country.
“Back then, we had no way of serving them,” he laments. Applications were coming from rural Georgia, Detroit, New York, and elsewhere.
So, along with Mr. Cary, he took the evidence of demand and started pitching it to philanthropic investors. They received a multi-year, multi-million dollar grant from Accenture, a Fortune 500 consulting company with a social responsibility program that has a particular focus on equipping young adults with the skills they need to succeed. Their mandate was to build a platform to digitally match volunteer business mentors with entrepreneurs. Skysthelimit.org now has 15,000 entrepreneurs. And, Mr. Ghirardelli says they are adding roughly 1,000 per month.
“A lot of accelerator models are set up as for-profit programs that accelerate individuals with computer science degrees for success out of university programs,” said co-founder Nic Cary. “[The accelerators] give them an injection of capital and mentoring and try to rocket them off.” It’s a tried and true model, but it doesn’t serve the vast majority of first-time entrepreneurs. Mr. Cary believes there are better opportunities.
“The bigger need is in helping young adult entrepreneurs build their first businesses,” Mr. Cary said. “We wanted to create a digital home where entrepreneurs could get matched up with a mentor and advisor using technology with which they are familiar.”
Mr. Ghirardelli sees two main themes behind his work at Skysthelimit.org. The first is his value set.
“I believe it is more valuable to work on large social problems than focus on personally accumulating wealth for myself,” said Mr. Ghirardelli. “Part of that set of values is shaped by personally benefiting from mentorship and the care of more experienced individuals who helped shape and drive me as an individual to where I am now. I never could have done it without those people, without those relationships and the invaluable lessons I have learned from them.”
The second theme is his love of entrepreneurship. “Everyone in my family is an entrepreneur,” said Mr. Ghirardelli. “My dad started a construction company, my mom started a Montessori preschool, my brother started a real estate brokerage and development company, and my grandpa started an advertising agency,. All these people throughout my life had their own businesses. Everyone around me who I looked up to was an entrepreneur.”
He adds: “My dad is a builder. He builds home, he builds buildings. My mom builds and shapes children and teaches them at a critical age. And my passion is building and supporting young entrepreneurs. There is nothing I’d rather be doing. It’s a real joy.”
“My dad was a teacher who worked in South America,” Mr. Cary says. “My mom was a civilian and worked as an interpreter for local government. We were relatively middle class. I was fortunate enough to have been born in the US, and to have received a western education.” His parents made sure he learned a few different languages, including French and Spanish.
With an international background, Mr. Cary is thankful for what he calls a “lucky and privileged” life. “I got a lot of opportunities to travel as a young adult. Because I hit the genetic lottery, I was in a position to be successful. There are enormous amounts of talent distributed relatively evenly throughout the world, but the opportunities are not.”
Mr. Cary and Mr. Ghirardelli each believe they have a moral imperative to use their resources to help a neighbor out. “If a neighbor’s house is on fire, you bring a hose, not gasoline,” says Mr. Cary. Both Mr. Ghirardelli and Mr. Cary derive a great deal of satisfaction helping entrepreneurs build their businesses.
“We need to give back more,” says Mr. Cary. “I don’t think Silicon Valley is doing its fair share.”
He laments the lack of transparency and efficacy in philanthropy today.
“When they run random control trials over decades, sometimes they find atrocious results,” said Mr. Cary. “Microfinance work from the 1980s to 1990s that led to everything from enormous capital investment and Nobel Prizes, it turns out, was somewhat ineffective. This wasn’t discovered for a long time, because they didn’t have good methods for collecting, assessing and analyzing data.”
Mr. Cary sees economic stratification increasing, shrinking the number of new small businesses being started.
“We have developed an economic order that severely disadvantages people, and that is creating a wider gap,” says Mr. Cary. This manifests itself in a lot of economic data, he says.
“There are half as many new businesses being created as a generation ago,” Mr. Cary says, summarizing a report by The Kauffman Foundation. “This is really concerning. Its new businesses that create jobs, while big companies and corporations are optimizing to trim margins across workforces. And, with the upcoming move to automation or broader AI or machine learning, low-income jobs are being targeted first. There is a huge need to help young adults to get practice developing self-sufficiency by having an inventive and product market fit approach to solving business needs.”
Cary and Ghirardelli believe the tech used by for-profit initiatives, like optimizing advertising or engagements on a platform, can be used to look at social issues and help optimize interactions between communities that feel alienated from one another.
“That includes underserved entrepreneurs,” says Mr. Cary. “10 million Americans looking for skills-based volunteers don’t know where to turn. There are well over 11 million young adults looking to start businesses and they don’t know where to start. And this is a much bigger phenomena globally.”
He adds: “There are professionals all over the world with time, talent and experience. If we can unlock that social capital in a supportive, convenient way, there are bridges we can build that haven’t existed before to support aspiring entrepreneurs. That’s what we’re very excited about. Ultimately, the goal is to create connections and build businesses that create jobs “
Skysthelimit.org matches entrepreneurs with volunteer business mentors and subject matter experts. The app takes data gleaned from the entrepreneur and volunteer users, like skills or needs, location, and stage of business – to predict and recommend high-quality matches.
The tech nonprofit accepts financial contributions in the form of cash, bitcoin, and credit cards. When you contribute, you are then issued voting rights. Donors hold these tokens in their wallets and vote monthly on eligible entrepreneurs. The voting system helps the nonprofit evaluate and assess which entrepreneurs should receive $2,500 grants on the platform using social signaling.
“Basically, we run a Dragon’s Den style contest each month that our donor community participates in,” said Mr. Cary. “All of those transactions are recorded on a public ledger which allows us to prove our social impact. And each new month, entrepreneurs that didn’t win can resubmit.”
The nonprofit is currently serving the US, and is currently pursuing international expansion with pilot programs in South Africa, Nigeria, UK, and the Carribean.
The app monitors those matches and allows Skysthelimit.org to recruit, screen, train, match, monitor and support young entrepreneurs and volunteers at scale. A feedback mechanism helps the app improve matches over time.
“After entrepreneurs meet with their mentors, they rate each other,” said Mr. Ghirardelli. After that, the entrepreneurs can be eligible for small grants from the nonprofit’s friends and family fund.
Skysthelimit.org entrepreneurs oftentimes didn’t graduate from High School or college.
“We work with people that are hungry and ambitious,” said Mr. Cary, who pledges a portion of his earnings from Blockchain.com to the Founders Pledge.
Skysthelimit.org uses the same software development practices pioneered by Facebook, WhatsApp, Snapchat and others.
“We can use those tools to create better, more authentic interactions between individuals,” Mr. Cary said. “It’s a totally digital platform, supporting young adult entrepreneurs with money tied to a blockchain funding system.”
If you talk to entrepreneurs you’ll hear the same themes, said Mr. Cary. “It’s exhausting, exacerbating, lonely, and challenging,” he said. “But, when you can put mentors and coaches and advisors to help you along that journey it makes all the difference. In the end, putting a smile on someone’s face, making someone feel they helped someone else. These things deeply touch the human soul. That’s why it’s so much fun.”
He evokes a quote by Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” He keeps it in mind.
“I frequently ask myself and the people around me, when was the last time they gave to a charitable cause,’’ he said. “No one ever says they haven’t, but, for many, it has been awhile. If we look in the mirror, we need to make it easier to do more, and that’s one of the things we are doing by building better software.”