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The Unreasonable Institute

A fast-track program aims to give altruistic entrepreneurs skills and funding to effect large-scale change.

The funding system for a social entrepreneur typically relies more on donations than money from angel investors, venture capitalists or even family and friends.

Unreasonable Institute in Boulder, Colo., however, plans to rewire the way social entrepreneurs bring their ideas to market. The institute's intense 10-week program provides 25 budding, big-hearted twentysomethings drawn from six continents the equivalent of an accelerated MBA--along with a high-powered social network and possibly some startup dollars.

'We were all trying to create some large-scale change in the world," says Tyler Hartung, who along with fellow University of Colorado at Boulder grads Daniel Epstein, Teju Ravilochan, Vladimir Dubovskiy and Nikhil Dandavati founded the institute last year. 'But we realized we lacked the skill, the knowledge, the networks--all the tangible things needed to create that impact. We want to give those tools to other young entrepreneurs."

Expectations for the 25 fellows, selected from 285 applications and 34 finalists, are high. The institute, funded by $6,500 tuition fees raised by each fellow, hopes to give the entrepreneurs the skills to make their ideas sustainable, scalable and transferable to other countries. The goal for each endeavor is to eventually affect 1 million people.

The fellows participate in workshops on business plans, branding and the basics of financial and legal issues. A steady stream of 50 mentors--ranging from Coca-Cola execs to angel investors to authors and artists--provide guidance.

"It can be isolating to be a social entrepreneur," says New York-based fellow Emily Kerr, whose Liga Masiva helps farmers in the Dominican Republic sell their sustainable coffee directly to cafes and the public. 'The business world is not set up for us."

The institute experience helped fellow Matthew Kochman--whose M.E.S.S. Express (the acronym is for 'Moving Every Student Safely") sells cards for prepaid cab rides to help Cornell University partygoers get home safely--develop a broader view about safe transportation. "Now we're going to use part of our proceeds to support transportation in India," Kochman says.

At the end of the program in early August, the fellows will vote on how to divvy up a $150,000 'Village Fund" among the group's for-profit entrepreneurs. Hartung and his colleagues are planning a second U.S. institute, and an international version.

"Just putting this together, we're having so much fun," Hartung says. 'We're already billing this as the best 10 weeks of our lives."

Jason Daley lives and writes in Madison, Wisconsin. His work regularly appears in Popular Science, Outside and other magazines.

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This article was originally published in the July 2010 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: The Unreasonable Institute.

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