I initially met Christian a while ago at the Sparks@LSE 10 and was later invited to the sandbox dinner in Oxford which proved to be a great experience. It gave me an opportunity to speak with Christian about the fantastic work Sandbox were currently doing and also network with fellow sandboxer. All in all, it was a trip worth taking.
I’ve since waited for the perfect time to do an interview with him which I can tell you never came, especially when you’re running an organisation like Sandbox and studying for your PHD.
I finally got the chance to do the interview; this is what we talked about.
Christian Busch is the co-founder of Sandbox, the foremost global community of exceptional young innovators below 30.
Can you give us some background information about yourself?
I’m passionate about bringing together inspiring people & making cool ideas happen; I love facilitating serendipity and large-scale impact. In order to be able to do this, I co-founded Sandbox, and am researching/teaching (impact) entrepreneurship at the London School of Economics (LSE).
Tell us about a bit about Sandbox and how did the idea came about?
When we started 3 years ago, we had the feeling that there was no real meeting place for inspiring and passionate young people who are pushing the boundaries in different fields. We thought how cool would it be to create a trusted meeting space where the most amazing people from different areas could meet up and move beyond their own networks/fields, and connect with those like-minded do-ers who have similar ambitions.
In that spirit, we have created a framework for identifying and uniting such “WOW-people” all over the world, creating a trusted environment for these movers and shakers to build meaningful relationships and get access to the resources they need to make their ideas happen. It’s all about building a “family of extraordinary friends”, who then incubate each other in an environment that allows them to grow and “graduate as role models” with 30.
We have hubs and representatives in 22 cities around the globe, 600 hand-selected members from Nairobi to Beijing, where we organize local events (everything from “Demo-nights” to senior dinners and paintballing), and connect these local communities/members via our closed online platforms.
What were you doing before you startedSandbox?
I’ve always been intrigued by spanning boundaries, especially between cultures and between business/entrepreneurship and politics. I had the pleasure to work and study in countries such as Russia and Mexico, working in politics and business. I’ve been quite impact-driven, and via organizations such as the Royal Society of Arts or the Adenauer Foundation have tried to take an active role in policy-development.
How does Sandbox help people, and what does it do differently than other similar platform or those that came before it?
Sandbox is all about a family of extraordinary friends; we’re not a network, we’re a community of the most exciting young people that build meaningful relationships with each other. While others focus on individual connections between individuals, we have 12 people working full-time (and 50 ambassadors part-time) on seeing how our members fit to each other, how we can help them to grow, both professionally and personally.
We believe that all those people individually are amazing movers, but if they worked together, they could achieve even more. Individuals, in fact, join with the idea that they will be part of a community where people help each other, which means much more than mere socializing. In the very active local communities, our ambassadors organize high-value events and formats; via our online-platforms, our members get access to opportunities and resources, from interacting with senior leaders, to getting access to conferences, coworking, couchsurfing, media channels, funding, and much more. It’s an ecosystem to let amazing young people grow and make their big ideas happen on the global stage.
What is the process in selecting candidates into the sandbox network?
Our process is all about two things: understanding what makes a person really WOW, and making sure that the person fits what we informally call “non-asshole policy”. Therefore, the first step is to be referred by an existing member of Sandbox who has been selected as a trustworthy “referrer”.
In order to be formally referred, the candidate must be under 30, a changemaker in a given field (judged by their peers), and located in an existing hub, showing the “Sandbox spirit”. The candidate then fills in the formal application form, including a unique “WOW” contribution, which is something in the format of their choice in which they tell their story, providing insight into their talent, creativity, and genuine desire to be a part of the Sandbox community.
What intrigues you so much about higher education, especially now that you 're studying for your PHD?
My PhD is on how impact entrepreneurs leverage networks to scale; the main reason I went on to do this was that I felt the need to “make sense out of things”, and to understand better what we were actually doing at Sandbox. Academia/a PhD, if designed the right way, gives you a great “opportunity platform” to explore projects, and to reflect on key issues and dilemmas. When you’re an entrepreneur, you’re usually very much in your “operational necessities”; you rarely take the time to reflect on (contextual) best practices and how to improve yourself and your organization from a “bird perspective”.
I also believe that academia/higher education is not only about researching/teaching (as it unfortunately is often (mis-)understood), but more importantly, about inspiration. I believe that universities are unique places where in a safe environment you can explore (risky) projects, as the opportunity costs are still low. The MSc-courses I am involved in at the LSE/its innovation lab (www.ICCLab.com), we try to design in a way that our students not only learn about theory and read case studies, but that they prepare their own business plans, and more importantly, get inspired by people their age who did great things, who come in as speakers and mentors. In the end, it’s about bringing together key learning from both academia and successful incubators.
How have you been able to balance your time between running a business, studying for a PHD and teaching classes?
I have been very lucky in that the theoretical aspect of my PhD on impact entrepreneurship and the practical aspect of running a business are very complementary and cross-beneficial on both fronts. During the week, I often work on Sandbox (alongside our lovely community managers Allison Kramer and Naza Metghalchi) and on teaching, and in the evenings and over the weekend, I spend time “reflecting” about this and working on my thesis. In so far as the teaching is concerned, it’s a great way to share my passion and my students give me lots of energy to keep me going. Fortunately enough, many of the Sandboxers are close friends of mine, so that work and play become one.
I believe it is all about how you structure your PhD: if you understand it as different projects (papers) within a frame, you try to synergize with the other projects you’re involved in. I found for example that writing an (academic) case study about a Sandboxer can be used in academia, but this can be “digested” into different other channels to provide exposure for the respective person. Ideally, all things I’m doing on the academic side benefit the practical side, and vice versa. It was a long/stony way to get there (and sometime it’s still challenging to balance the quite different stakeholder expectations in these different “ institutional logics” ), but I feel quite happy about the constellation now, as I believe there is great value to be created at the boundary between academia and practice.
Do you think the internet has the ability to affect higher education?
Yes, I am convinced not only that technology has the ability to affect higher education, but also that it has done so a great deal already. The use of technology in universities is a valuable way of increasing communication between professors and students, and more importantly, between students. And especially regarding the developing world, online academies such as Khan Academy are having the potential to give access to education to millions of people who would usually not be as privileged.
One issue social entrepreneurs face is finance, how much do you think this has had on the amount of entrepreneurs creating social enterprises?
In my opinion, the view that social enterprises are necessarily based on models incompatible with generating revenue (and therefore less “investable”) is out-dated. Instead, I believe that the way forward for social enterprises is to place the creation of social impact on the same strategic level as financial impact, resulting in a new hybrid, which we coined the “impact organization”; we recently gave a TEDx-talk on it, and are currently building the ecosystem around it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pTAvp5KX-mw&feature=player_embedded.
By making social enterprises “investable” and “understood” by more “mainstream investors”, we do not have to create new “social stock exchanges”, but should rather try to re-frame and leverage existing markets. Funny enough, I had a major discussion with a senior wealth management executive the other day, who mentioned that they need to find better vehicles for their investments, as their clients (often high-net-worth-individuals) want their investments to also make a real impact. I believe “scale-triggering”/professionally managed crowd-funds will be the way forward, for example www.sharedimpact.org.
How do you make money from sandbox?
There are several streams of income that make Sandbox a sustainable impact enterprise. The main source of revenue generation within Sandbox comes from the think tank/consulting branch of Sandbox, where we work with large organizations and governments on their biggest challenges. There are several other (future) streams, from matchmaking to building a fund; in order to protect the founders’ vision and values, we are re-investing all profits into the community.
How do you think issues such as finance can be tackled especially with investors shying from such ventures?
As mentioned above, I think it’s about improving our understanding of “impact”/its measurement, and holding social enterprises accountable for both financial and social outputs. That would make them investable, as I believe that there is no lack of money, only a lack of money-opportunity-fit.
You guys have recently launched in Africa, why did you decide to go to Africa?
I personally believe that Africa (esp. Kenya) is one of the most exciting contexts in this world; the amount of (radical) innovation is mind-blowing; look e.g. at mobile banking (MPesa) or crisis-tracking (Ushahidi). Especially Nairobi, where we launched, is an exceptional hub of innovation and entrepreneurship – physical coworking spaces such as the iHub, and new accelerators are creating the right environment to balance what NGOs have messed up over the last 50 years.
From an organizational perspective, there is fantastic young talent in some African countries (esp. in Kenya), which we believe should be exposed globally. By integrating these talents into a global peer-community and giving them global exposure, we feel we can make a huge difference in this context. We are also very lucky to have fabulous ambassadors there, Sandboxer Sebastian Lindstrom and Mark Kaigwa are doing a great job in building the Sandbox ecosystem in Kenya, and preparing the entry to other African countries.
What future developments can we be expecting from Sandbox?
We are very much focused on expanding into innovation clusters where we are not yet present, while increasing the incubation-potential in the existing hubs. As discussed above, we are very excited to explore the entrepreneurship scene in Nairobi and Africa as a whole. Also, we have just launched our first Latin American hub in Mexico and are currently toying with the possibility of expanding in India beyond our existing Bangalore hub, as well as strengthening our American and European presences. Most excitingly though, our Global Summit 2012 will take place in Lisbon in January.
What has been the single biggest business challenge you’ve had to face especially as a social entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
When we started Sandbox, it was recession. People told us there was no way to set up an organization then, at least not when trying to get income via sponsorships or clients. We anyways wanted to try, and indeed failed to secure sponsors or clients; that forced us to write a proper business plan, and to think about sustainable revenue streams that could make Sandbox financially sustainable and not dependent on single donors/the business environment. At hindsight, our that was the best thing that could have happened, as today we have a sustainable impact enterprise (financed via think tank work, event formats, matchmaking, and hopefully soon a fund) that has scaled.
Do you have any favourite business related, webmaster or personal development related books that you can recommend to other entrepreneurs?
- The Little Prince- on the importance of keeping your child inside, and the focus on the things and people that are really important
- Elkington & Hartigan’s “Power of Unreasonable People” – on the importance of the attitude of “nothing is impossible”
Is there anyone that you look up to and model yourself on?
There isn’t one specific individual I look up to in particular; for me that depends very much on my respective stage in my life. I have different people I look up to, and from whom I try to learn specific traits/characteristics: from my cofounder Fabian for example how to maintain a large amount of relationships on a deep level without going crazy, from my dad how to design a “portfolio career”, from Bill Clinton or Nelson Mandela how to lead and inspire “larger organizations”. In the end, it’s a “pick and chose” approach I guess.
What three pieces of advice do you have for young entrepreneurs interested in starting their first business especially social entrepreneurs?
1. Try to understand your real passion, and what could make you strong enough to persevere years and years working on an idea; then go with it.
2. The team is everything: be very picky how you chose your cofounders, in the end you will spend more time with them than with your boyfriend/girlfriend, and they will be the ones picking you up when you lose motivation at times.
3. Never lose the big picture; with all operational needs/opportunities it’s sometimes tough to stay focused, but always keep in mind why you actually started sth.,and where you would like to see it in the future.
4. And of course, Mark Twain: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
How do you define success within your company?
Besides some hard facts (growth, number of members/hubs, etc.), our key success driver is the amount and quality of meaningful relationships / projects that we could initiate and foster in our community. On an internal level, I am quite proud that the initial founding team even after 3 years is still together, and that we’ve managed to still let the best argument win, rather than politics or ego.