Social entrepreneur Saul Garlick shares insights at Sol Price Center for Social Innovation speaker series

January 29, 2019

By Matthew Kredell

The USC Price Center for Social Innovation kicked off the semester’s Social Innovation Speaker Series on January 17, with a discussion by social entrepreneur Saul Garlick, CEO of Unleesh. Garlick discussed his journey as a social entrepreneur, making the transition from nonprofits to for-profits, and the difficult balance between impact and profit.

Gary Painter, Director, USC Sol Price Center for Social Innovation, with Saul Garlick. (Photo by Shane Lee)

“Many of our students might be interested in becoming social entrepreneurs, and we wanted them to hear Saul’s journey and understand the decisions and tradeoffs he’s made along the way,” said Prof. Gary Painter, director of the Sol Price Center for Social Innovation. “He challenged the notion of the double bottom line. Is that the holy grail? Dealing with those kinds of issues is important for the field as it goes forward.”

As a college and graduate student at Johns Hopkins University, Garlick was passionate about helping people. He started a nonprofit called ThinkImpact that went through many iterations. It began as sending college and graduate students to live and work in rural villages in South Africa, where they would live with the community and support social impact activities, such as run day camps or build a library.

Wanting to make a bigger impact, he eventually developed a program for students to help local communities use the skills and resources they have to develop micro-enterprises.

By the end of 2010, ThinkImpact was about half donor funded and half earned income. Wanting to scale, he made the unconventional choice to buy out his own nonprofit.

“I was really into what would make the greatest impact for the greatest number,” Garlick said. “How do we change the world, right? Social enterprise gives a platform for people to get excited and motivated to make that kind of difference.”

The move gained Garlick national attention and started a debate around the social enterprise space. The New York Times ran a three-part case study on “The Social Entrepreneur’s Quandary” discussing his decision to transition his nonprofit organization to a for-profit social enterprise.

Over the next four years, ThinkImpact expanded to help start about 200 micro-enterprises in South Africa, Kenya, Ghana, Rwanda and Panama.

Over the past decade, Garlick has seen social enterprise gain mainstream attention and popularity.

Saul Garlick, social entrepreneur, CEO of Unleesh. (Photo by Shane Lee)

“People are looking for this holy grail of really everything,” Garlick said. “They want to make money, they want to make an impact, and they want to do it for everyone.”

He discovered the difficulty in having it all when he tried to use technology to scale ThinkImpact by creating a mobile app called Unleesh for experiential skill-building, which he then spun off into its own company.

“I learned that a good idea for the world does not necessarily have a market,” Garlick said. “It’s well and good to have these big grand ideas, but the reason most entrepreneurs fail is because they can’t figure out how to market their product to a willing buyer. Before long, I realized my investors and cash needs were pulling me into the lowest-hanging fruit – what could I do to make the tech company successful?”

Garlick ended up finding a way to make an impact with the platform, although it wasn’t the one he expected. He turned Unleesh into a mobile training platform for U.S. workers in low-skill, low-wage jobs, seeking to bridge those workers to the future economy.

“I do believe the idea of a double bottom line – that you can have impact and profit at the same time at the same level – is false,” Garlick said. “People get up every day, go to work and make choices. When you make choices, you’re always going to see tradeoffs.”

Garlick contended that social enterprise can’t continue without attention being paid to the government institutions that are failing society.

“Social enterprise and public policy should talk all the time,” Garlick said. “They should be hanging out every day at lunch together, but they really aren’t.”

Students participating in the lunchtime seminar (Photo by Shane Lee) See more photos on Flickr here

Students in graduate classes taught by Painter and Assistant Prof. Nicolas Duquette attended the event. Anders Engnell, a second-year Master of Planning student, noted that he appreciated hearing how Garlick’s perspective has changed since his time as a graduate student.

“He was able to talk about how his approach to life and business changed over the years, from an idealist wanting to change the world, to a social entrepreneur wanting to make an impact and a profit, to trying to create a product that fit a market to make a profit,” Engnell said. “What I got most from it was that you’re always going to be learning new things, always retrofitting your ideas, and it’s about the impact you’re making along the way.”

Related faculty

  • Gary Dean Painter

    Gary Dean Painter

    Director, USC Sol Price Center for Social Innovation
    Director, Homelessness Policy Research Institute