So there’s this soccer ball that’s more than a toy. Created in 2008 by four Harvard students (none of whom was an engineer), it captures kinetic energy when kicked and then releases that energy into, say, an LED lightbulb. A child in Africa who had no electricity in his home — just the kind of kid the ball is intended for — called it “magic” when interviewed on CNN. Popular Mechanics called it a breakthrough innovation. Some early investors in the ball’s production called it “a kitschy gadget.” And the company behind the ball, which is run by two women under the age of 25, decided to call it the Soccket.
But for those young women and the investors they are lining up to back their venture into international business and social philanthropy, the question now is can you — or should you — call it profitable? Put another way: Can you do good business and do good at the same time?
That’s what Jessica O. Matthews and Julia Silverman — two of the Harvard students who created the Soccket — are finding out. Moved by an overwhelmingly positive reaction to their creation and by initial grant funding from the likes of the Clinton Global Initiative University, the two decided last year to leave their jobs — their first after college — and make a full-time business out of the invention. Their co-creators, Jessica Lin and Hemali Thakkar, did not make the same decision.
“After we all graduated, it really wasn’t clear what was going to happen with this ball,” says Silverman, 23. “So we all got other jobs. But by January 2011, there was still so much interest that we had a conversation that ended with someone saying, ‘OK, if this is really going to work, someone is going to have to quit and do this full time. Who is stupid enough to do that?’ Jess and I raised our hands.”
They then opened their wallets. Matthews and Silverman poured all of their personal savings into the new venture, which they called Uncharted Play. They also borrowed cash from family members and worked out of donated office space near Freedom Tower in Manhattan. From there, Matthews and Silverman crafted a business plan and have been shopping it to investors. They hope to raise somewhere between $2 million and $4 million. Maybe more.
But those millions aren’t grants or donations; the investors are being promised a return. That might be the last thing you’d expect from an organization whose mission statement is, “To create fun products and services that allow people to rethink the function of play both as a tool to address major issues facing society today and as a way to keep joy at the forefront of our lives.” Forgiving that mouthful of a sentence, that’s still an awfully touchy-feely sentiment for a for-profit company, isn’t it?
Perhaps. But that’s why Uncharted Play applied for registration in New York state as a Benefit Corporation — a new kind of company that allows for-profit organizations to pursue not only money from investors but also social good. “In a benefit corporation,” Silverman says, “officers of the company can make critical business decisions based on their social and environmental impact rather than their impact on the bottom line.” To that end, Silverman granted herself the title of chief social officer at Uncharted Play — making her responsible for the company’s impact on society. Matthews is the CEO.
“I come from more of a social-development side, and Jess comes from more of an economics and business side,” Silverman says. “We are both trying to adapt to the other. We want to have both components in the company. The social-impact aspect is just as important as the business impact.”