Mar 28 2019

A Quest to Build a Lab on Refugees

As you know by now, a major component of what we’re building at Transform are ongoing deep dives into issues which we call labs.

Labs are for self identified groups with a clear goal that have figured something out and are ready to take it to the next level. Like Audrey Seilan and her SDG game on waste and sanitation funding by development agencies or ReGenerate Illinois in its trial with a hospital, a mill and three farmers to talk regenerative, healthy soil agriculture from farm to table to farm to food service.

We’ve got another group focused on refugees that is not quite at the Lab stage. Rather, it’s like a guild on a quest to figure out what can create a system shifting lab. This guild is still in discovery. We’re doing a couple of things: Said Sheikh Abdi is scoping out a trial to see if the 3/1 leverage we created with immigrant savings circles could apply to his work with the 34,000 Somali immigrants in Minneapolis.

We also want to see whether the Sparrow mobile phone, proven with its pre loaded apps to help immigrants settle better (like translation apps, public transit apps, maps, etc) could be attractive to the savings circles networks Jeffrey Ashe is connected to around the country and the world. What we’re working on in the meantime is coordination; formalizing relationships once the value of each player and the value to be created together is clear. That’s down the road, after increased discovery and when some of the initial cooperation shows promise enough to formalize relationships, as I see it. This is not the time to talk about governance; we don’t know the shape of the thing we are finding yet, just some promising hints.

As this Lab begins to gel, we’re firmly committed to the liminal state of discovery, wandering with purpose but no plan or conclusions made before its time. That’s been my method, anyway, and it seems to be working here.
Others committed to this discovery process, besides Jeffrey and Said, within the “guild on a quest” are Kevin Rowell, with his connections to the UN refugee system and his willingness to act as coordinator of the guild, the ad hoc system entrepreneur role, if you will. Others who have said they are in for the quest are Jaya Todai who takes great notes and has started a Kumu network map of the players, and Mark White, CFO of American Refugee Council who knows the current system of working with refugees is broken and wants to build a new one. Also, JP Candiotti, who has a promising Syrian immigrant focused entrepreneurship and life re engagement program in Sweden and wants to try both the savings circle with leverage and the pooled and shared loan loss reserve between accelerators the Neighborhood Economics network has designed. It’s yet another one-off cooperation that’s unproven but all the players see as promising, etc. 
Audrey Seilan has offered an Artha instance to highlight investable immigrant and refugee entrepreneurs. All of them have said they are in for the quest, the discovery process, and each is offering an opening ante, which together could be great.

John Kluge of the Refugee Investor Network thinks an asset map/resource and IP sharing network app that rides on the Sparrow phone has promise, for sharing what’s discovered in our initial one off cooperative trials, and things that we know work, like the fixed earth floors innovation from a Rwandan refugee camp Kevin Rowell knows that reduces respiratory problems for children in camps, etc. Sparrow will be an ideal company to showcase at our Seed conference the two days before Transform, when we gather all the impact investing seed stage funds; they need $500k and that’s the size of those deals or so. 

We as a company have seen enough value in this guild focused on refugees and immigrants to say we want to continue it through 2020; this could be important and relevant across the U.S. and the world, connecting the dots, changing the game, etc. I can tell you that traditional event sponsors don’t get it, but we are working on packaging the whole lab process and think we can create something viable from this, for our part; we only want to be around the convening and the information backbone between the trials, nodes, etc. not to be part of change management, organizational development, etc. 

Trying to move to coordination when you are just in discovery and seeing who is doing what and exploring initial two party cooperative efforts within the guild and the partners the group brings to the table is not advisable. However, our conversations have proven fruitful at a rapid pace and we expect to be able to present a coherent plan for a refugee focused lab by the time Transform rolls around in May.