By Tracey Welson-Rossman
To quote well-known comic book canon: “with great power comes great responsibility.” And there is perhaps no greater power in modern day society than the technology industry. It is changing nearly every aspect of our lives, and now – thanks to people like Shannon Farley – it is embracing its responsibility by disrupting the way we help others.
Farley is the co-founder of Fast Forward, an accelerator providing investment, space, and guidance to help scale early-stage tech nonprofits. Tech nonprofit entrepreneurs live at the intersection of the startup and social good sectors, structuring their organizations as 501c3 nonprofits to focus 100% on impact rather than creating a return for investors.
Far from George Carlin’s famous oxymoron examples like jumbo shrimp and military intelligence, social entrepreneurship perfectly describes this red-hot sector. The segment has grown 33% since 2016 and seems to only be accelerating. As the founder of a tech-oriented nonprofit myself, I was eager to hear Farley’s thoughts on how she came to her current role and how she sees other women engaging in the space.
In part, technology nonprofits are proliferating because the cost of launching a business has diminished. The use of cloud-based platforms and outsourced business solutions have made it easier and more affordable than ever for entrepreneurs to launch a business. Farley observed that while a startup in the ‘90s may have needed to raise $5M for an effective launch, it can be done for a fraction of that today – sometimes for less than $5,000.
These lowered thresholds have been a boon for social minded entrepreneurs giving them easy and affordable access to incredibly powerful tools. But for those organizations that find a foothold, the next challenge is to scale, and that requires the expertise, support and funding of organizations like Fast Forward.
Initially conceived as an experiment by Farley and her co-founder in 2014, Fast Forward has gone on to raise millions in funding from leading brands like Google.org, BlackRock, Omidyar Network, GM, ATT, Okta, and many others. Those companies’ employees also mentor Fast Forward program participants, support them financially, and even join their boards. This type of support has helped propel Fast Forward companies on to great success: Farley proudly says their 31 alumni have raised $56 million in follow-on philanthropic funding and impacted over 35 million lives.
At Spark, a group committed to supplying grants for global women’s organizations, Farley had her ah-ha moment with tech. One of Spark’s grantees was a women’s group in Tanzania that aggregated money into a lockbox and passed it from home to home every night. Farley noticed the women used their mobile phones to trade and barter with one another using this lockbox system as an analogue version of mobile banking. She intuitively understood the use of the phones for commerce was the true innovation and should have been the point of emphasis for the grant.
That experience helped Farley understand that while traditional nonprofits are important because of their mission orientation, their impact is often limited by factors like resources and geographic reach. Technology is the tool that allows for more impact and the ability to scale. She points to the example of nonprofits that deliver meals to the hungry or tutor underserved children. These are important parts of the nonprofit world, but technology tools like apps that help people locate the nearest soup kitchen or platforms that enable any high schooler to connect to free tutoring can help spread that impact even further.
With technology now a cornerstone tool of her trade, Farley is excited about new bleeding edge technologies. She predicts that within the next decade artificial intelligence will help solve a number of social problems at scale. From simple chatbot confirming that an application for food stamps was approved to machine learning algorithms identifying predatory housing developers, she says early applications of AI are already revolutionizing the social sector in good and exciting ways.
Farley is also enthusiastic about the role women and minorities have to play in the world of tech nonprofits. Nonprofit tech entrepreneurs are trying to solve for problems they have experienced firsthand or within their communities. As a result, there is often a greater degree of diversity amongst tech nonprofit founders versus traditional tech startups. Coupled with the constantly lowering bar for launching these endeavors, Farley is optimistic about the role that motivated entrepreneurs can play in changing the world around them.
For women in particular, she also sees tech nonprofits as a path to personal fulfillment. In her words, there is an undeniable glass ceiling in corporate America so why settle for incremental change when you can build an entirely new building of your own design.