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5 Questions for…Cheryl Dorsey, President, Echoing Green

February 27, 2013

Social innovation and entrepreneurship are two of the most powerful tools available to those committed to black male achievement. So argued Cheryl Dorsey, president of Echoing Green, a global social venture fund based in New York City, at the Innovation and Impact Forum hosted by the Open Society Foundations' Campaign for Black Male Achievement last October. In part, added Dorsey, that's because they have captured the attention of, and increasingly are being driven by, a millennial generation interested in a networked, technology-enabled model of social change.

In 2012, Echoing Green partnered with OSF to launch the Black Male Achievement Fellowships and announced the first cohort of BMA fellows in June. Earlier this month, the organization announced the 2013 semi-finalists for both the Echoing Green and Black Male Achievement Fellowships.

Recently, PND spoke with Dorsey about the BMA fellowship program, her own experience as a social entrepreneur, and the role of public policy in the field of black male achievement.

Headshot_cheryl_dorsey_echoingPhilanthropy News Digest: What did you think of President Obama's State of the Union Address?

Cheryl Dorsey: I think the president's address presented a call for effective collaboration to solve crucial problems in our country. Many people make it their life's work to try to solve tough problems, from engineers working to create microchips that are smaller but carry more information to community bankers seeking to provide greater access to capital and teachers seeking to help more children in the classroom move ahead. President Obama's State of the Union address was a call for those who are on this path of enterprise, service, and innovation to work together.

These are the principles at the heart of the work of our fellows, who strive every day to solve some of the challenges and problems the president laid out in his speech. When the president talks about reducing the cost of solar energy, I think about 2012 Black Male Achievement Fellow Donnel Baird, who is doing important work to make clean energy accessible to all communities, especially low-income communities. When the president talks about expanding service opportunities for young people, I think about Echoing Green alums like Wendy Kopp, Alan Khazei, and Michael Brown, visionary leaders of the national service movement. The State of the Union address made me think about how Echoing Green can continue to support our fellows who are out there on the front lines in communities across the country and around the world.

PND: Last June, you announced the first cohort of Black Male Achievement Fellows. What were your hopes for the initiative? And have you been pleased with the response?

CD: Echoing Green was incredibly honored when we were approached by Shawn Dove and Rashid Shabazz, who head up the Open Society Foundations' Campaign for Black Male Achievement. After many in-depth conversations, it became increasingly clear that our twenty-five-year record of accomplishment in terms of identifying and supporting top early-stage, next-generation social innovators was a terrific complement to the campaign's comprehensive approach to the issue.

While you might say the campaign tapped Echoing Green because of our "process expertise" in social innovation and social angel investing, we were also very much aligned intellectually and emotionally with the goals of the campaign. Quite a few of our global network of five-hundred-plus social entrepreneurs over the years had worked on issues related to black male achievement, so the opportunity to bring into the social innovation pipeline a new generation of talent committed to these issues was appealing.

Needless to say, we are simply thrilled with the early response to the program. In the first two fellowship application cycles alone, we received nine hundred and fifty applications on average from across the country. For a newly minted fellowship program without any accumulated brand equity, that's quite something. And we think the response underscores the important and useful synergy between two social movements -- the deep intensity and focus of those working in the area of black male achievement married with the growing interest in and energy of the global youth social entrepreneurship movement.

PND: Did your own experience as a recipient of an Echoing Green Fellowship shape your vision for the BMA Fellowship initiative?

CD: Very much so! Receiving an Echoing Green Fellowship in 1992 to help start the Family Van, a community-based mobile health unit focused on the issue of black infant mortality in inner-city Boston, quite simply changed my life. The investment by Echoing Green in the Campaign for Black Male Achievement is not simply about funding; it's much more about opening up fledging social entrepreneurs to a network of peers, experienced mentors, and advisors who are deeply committed to the professional and personal growth of social change agents. Echoing Green recognized that we could bring our highly engaged network to bear on the Black Male Achievement Fellowship and leverage all the forms of capital -- social, financial, et cetera -- residing in the network for those committed to issues of black male achievement.

My colleague Decker Ngongang, who runs the Black Male Achievement Fellowship program for Echoing Green, recently wrote a blog post highlighting a few of our BMA Fellows. I think the post does a nice job of illustrating the kind of knowledge and wisdom -- past and present -- that lives within our network and social innovation ecosystem.

PND: While the Echoing Green Fellowships support social entrepreneurs from around the world, the BMA Fellowships are specifically focused on the male African-American population in the U.S. Is this a strategic shift for Echoing Green?

CD: For us, the Black Male Achievement Fellowship is not so much a strategic shift but rather a unique opportunity to focus our strategy where we see an opportunity to have increased impact. One of Echoing Green's mantras has always been that you must strive to scale your impact rather than your growth. We saw in the partnership with Open Society Foundations an opportunity to leverage the resources, brand, and breadth of that institution to smartly scale our own impact.

PND: In addition to being a social entrepreneur, you served as a White House Fellow and in the Labor Department during Bill Clinton's second term and on the transition team for the Innovation and Civil Society subgroup of the Technology, Innovation, and Government Reform Policy Working Group in the first Obama administration. You also continue to serve as vice chair for the President's Commission on White House Fellowships. What do you think the role of public policy should be in the field of black male achievement?

CD: Good public policy can set the stage for new programs that otherwise might not be incubated. Structural barriers to black male achievement in America are not new, but we have struggled to catalyze innovative solutions that could be game changers for black men and youth. A policy environment that brings attention to and keeps the focus on black male achievement, incentivizes the deployment of financial resources and top talent around the issue, and privileges collaboration and the replication of proven concepts is key to moving the needle. I'm excited, for example, about the work that New York City, which recently launched the Young Men's Initiative, is doing to model this kind of public policy behavior. For those who don't know, the city plans to invest more than $43 million a year over the next three years in both public and private funds to find new ways to connect with, and help, marginalized black and Latino young men. And it plans to do it through a comprehensive approach that involves education, health, employment training, and justice systems. If successful and widely replicated, it's a public-private model that has the potential to effect positive change in the lives of men and boys of color all across the country.

-- Kyoko Uchida

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