5 Lessons from co-founding and co-running a High Growth Non Profit: Science Clubs Colombia
Early in 2015, I had the luck and the privilege to have been invited to co-found and launch the Colombian chapter of Science Clubs, a non-profit that provides access to high quality scientific education and inspires the next generation of STEM professionals, with the goal of triggering a scientific revolution that could socially and economically transform Latin America.
During this amazing year, besides the tremendous impact and satisfaction that working pro bono for this initiative has brought, I have also learned plenty of lessons about management and entrepreneurship. Here are 5 of them:
1. Always Think the Babson Way: Action/Execution trumps everything!
Maier Avendaño, a Colombian researcher at Harvard who went to Mexico to teach a science club in Nano Technology, fell in love with the program and decided to start the Colombian Chapter. After putting together some quick budget calculations and a proposal (in less than a week), he reached out to partners and a month later the resources were available.
Maier then called some friends (me included) and arranged a meeting. While some members where discussing about the objectives, scopes and other blah-blah that went nowhere, I was on a couch with a founder from Mexico buying the domain www.clubesdeciencia.co. A week later we edited the documents and application forms that the founders gave us, and with a very simple WordPress template and using Google docs as a platform, we launched the first call for researchers.
In a matter of weeks we recruited 36 researchers and launched a “pilot” program with 18 science clubs (already 4 times bigger than the original program in Mexico). This year in Colombia, 12 institutions in 6 cities hosted 66 Science Clubs with 132 researchers and more than 1200 kids. ‘
If he had stopped to discuss every single detail thoroughly instead of taking action, we would not have gotten to this point.
2. Establish a team early, “There is no “I” in a Startup”
Inviting a team to bring Science Clubs Colombia to life was a great decision; early on we had a group of 8 people ready to collaborate and as you can imagine, in a program where there are only volunteers, it is natural that not all of the team members can work the same amount of time.
Having more people made it easier to execute the program and allowed us to do much more since we could split our tasks; it also made it easier for us to make better decisions because we had different opinions. Quick note: establish a voting mechanism quickly to avoid discussing forever, remember action trumps everything.
Although this was a non-profit environment where it is easier to find volunteers, I urge all entrepreneurs to assemble a team quickly if they want to grow fast be it through co-founders, interns or employees. You can’t do it all yourself when you are starting a venture, not only because there are many tasks for only one person, but also because others help you see things you don’t see and you can avoid making mistakes, or make decisions faster. It is also helpful to get teammates’ support on those days where things are not going great.
3. Learn to Delegate
With the rapid growth of Science Clubs Colombia the amount of things we needed to do increased dramatically. We had to go and recruit more volunteers and I had to assemble my own team; however, I discovered that delegating is one of the hardest things to learn. Although I did let my team do some work, I still micromanaged a little and I now realize that if I had let go more tasks, I could have achieved even more things.
The secret is to trust that your team members will do a good job and to understand that if there is something wrong, mistakes can always be corrected (Lesson No. 5), As soon as I stopped worrying and started trusting it felt natural to delegate. Also remember to give responsibilities and allow decisions making (empower your team), if they feel micromanaged they are not going to help you as much as you need.
The lesson: when your venture starts to grow, identify the point where you have to make the shift from executing, to delegating. You need to focus on setting the direction and doing things that generate more value (setting objectives, strategic planning, measuring) and let others help you with execution.
4. Don’t Screw up the Culture!
In my years at Babson, this was one of the most recurrent pieces of advice I received from successful entrepreneurs. However, my experience at Science Clubs showed me that it is hard to define culture and even harder to plan it, but it is easy to feel culture when there is a growing team because it suddenly starts to happen when there are interactions amongst people, culture definitely shapes itself.
Ultimately it all comes down to the way we communicate, the way we act and deal with issues, the trust amongst the team and the sense of belonging to the venture, it could easily resemble a marriage but with a team. In this sense, every single action we take builds on the culture since actions dictate how we deal with things in the future.
The goal should be to create an environment where everyone is comfortable and happy to work so things can easily flow; if there are tensions, fights, trust issues nothing flows and it becomes a burden to work for your venture. From the experience at science clubs, the best way to deal with culture is to set norms since the beginning making it clear what its like to work for the venture, in our case we preferred hands on vs. planning a lot and collaborative vs. individualistic. Just pick whatever makes you and your teams feel comfortable and adjust when necessary.
A very important note here, when culture starts to shape, bring to your team like-minded people who agrees with the norms. In our case not all the teammates shared the same way of working and it generated tensions to the point that others wanted to leave. If you see that happening, get rid of those who cant adapt quick, we didn’t and it still generates a lot of conflict and headaches.
5. Nothing will ever be Perfect, just be the best at getting better.
This is the most important lesson, mater this one and it will be easier to start taking action. You really need to accept that nothing is ever going to be perfect, even if you plan, there will always be many things to improve and there will always be problems, but at least if you are making mistakes, you are learning while making things happen.
Again, Action trumps everything, so stop planning and thinking, just get out there and do something, you can always correct on the road, as I heard from Jay Rao (professor at Babson): “Be the Best at getting Better”. This happens to be a principle that high-growth teams have to adopt, but it also should be a mindset that should be engrained in any aspiring entrepreneur.
Bonus: Learn to let go of your baby when it grows up.
There comes a time when your company becomes a grown up child and you have to let go so others can help and contribute to its growth. Identify that point and stop trying to retain control or looking for credits of your creation, if you are growing fast chances are you are impacting more lives and that should be what’s important.
More on Science Clubs
The Science Clubs are free, one week long, STEM + (Entrepreneurship and Innovation) workshops for Latin American Kids, taught by young researchers at the most prestigious universities in the world like Harvard, MIT, Yale, Babson etc.
Through its Summer Venture Program, Babson is helping to shape the consolidation of Science Clubs Latam, an initiative started at Harvard that has had tremendous growth and impact in Latin America and that is already present in Mexico, Bolivia and Colombia.
Related Articles on the Lessons:
• About Culture: https://hbr.org/2011/03/culture-trumps-strategy-every
• Be best at getting better: https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/241024
• The importance of a Team: https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/229995