Interview with Jen van der Meer, Venture Lab Faculty Member

Adam Chagani, Student Program Manager of the Impact Entrepreneurship Initiative (IEI), sat down to interview Jen van der Meer, Assistant Professor in the Strategic Design and Management Program at Parsons. Jen will be teaching the inaugural Venture Lab course in Spring 2018 for teams that are accepted through a competitive application process.

Adam: How did you get involved supporting early-stage impact entrepreneurs, and why do you feel this is important?

Jen: I got involved in early-stage ventures as an entrepreneur myself and then started teaching Lean Launchpad at NYU’s ITP program and SVA’s Products of Design Master’s program prior to joining Parson’s School of Design Strategies.


I’m of the mind that all companies are impact companies in the long run. It’s the short-term decisions that are the most difficult when you make critical choices that can have an impact on the business model, and other meaningful impact measures. I’ve always believed that entrepreneurship is the most dynamic lever to catalyze social, cultural, and technological change.  We’re seeing such rapid growth from the startup community, but not always wise action nor thoughtful decisions.

When I went to Stanford to be trained in the Lean Launchpad curriculum, I noticed that other instructors were struggling to adopt the method to social impact ventures. For the pilot Venture Lab course at The New School, I’ll be exploring how we adapt startup methods to set up future companies for long-term longevity and contribution. We’ll focus on delivering not just economic and technical revolution, but also mapping our eventual outcomes and impact for key social and environmental challenges.

Adam: What most excites you about teaching the inaugural Venture Lab course to student teams at The New School?

Jen: I’m excited that we are calling upon student teams that are seriously considering launching an impact venture while they are still in school. We’ve taught various forms of entrepreneurship at The New School, but it’s different when student teams have real skin in the game. I also love that we get to run real experiments to validate core business hypotheses and have resources to support student ventures through the Impact Entrepreneurship Initiative (IEI), which is generously supported by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation’s Inclusion Challenge.

Adam: How would you suggest aspiring impact entrepreneurs approach the task of building a team in the early stages of venture development?

Jen: I would encourage students to find people that share their values and long-term vision, but have diverse perspectives and complementary skills. The first thing to do is assess whether you and your team can execute the business at a minimal level, also known as the minimum viable prototype, or MVP. Do you have the business, customer, creative, and technology skills to build the first prototype? If not, make sure you attract these core skills early on, or you’ll have a hard time gaining enough momentum.

I worked with one former MBA student who struggled to find team members to execute his idea. We met to discuss the power dynamics involved in his quest, and he did an about-face. After analyzing why it had been hard for him to attract developers, he instead looked for a group of talented developers and offered his MBA skills to support their vision. In a radically short time, he helped the tech team structure the company for growth and favorable acquisition, with good results for all.

Adam: What exciting trends are you noticing in the social impact space?

Jen: I’m noticing a huge shake-up in the sector – it’s no longer just happening in a corner or in a side conference. It’s the main show.

One trend is the size of the second largest generation in the U.S. The grandchildren of baby boomers expect brands and companies to offer transparent, efficient, and meaningful ways to interact. This generation has buying power that drives rapid-scale growth for alternative solutions, from Warby Parker eyeglasses to Sweetgreen salads.

On the other hand – we’re more aware of the social and environmental issues that continue to plague our society as a whole. We are starting to see inequitable systems, whereas before we may have ignored the needs of so many. Leading investors in venture capital and public markets are starting to turn the tide as well – helping to legitimize alternative structures like Benefit Corps (B-Corps) and lobbying energy companies to develop sustainability strategies. It’s not everywhere yet, but is a rising tide coming from customers, shareholders, and communities.

Adam: Is there a particular social impact venture that you find particularly intriguing? If so, what about this venture do you find most compelling?

Jen: I work frequently in the healthcare industry and am amazed at the extraordinary innovation happening in healthcare business models. There are startups like Omada and Livongo that are moving beyond the fee-for-service model and get paid based on the health of the populations they serve. I’m also impressed by nonprofit organizations that are increasing the quality of patient experience while radically reducing operation costs. Sala Uno in Mexico City and the Arvind Eye Clinic chain in India come to mind.  

Adam: What book are you currently reading or would you recommend that aspiring impact entrepreneurs read?

Jen: I just finished reading Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo with my daughter. Flora, a natural born cynic, adopts a poetry-typing squirrel after a mishap with a neighbor and a vacuum cleaner. She has a mantra that I love – it’s great for over-optimistic startup founders in the social impact space or young cynics who get easily overwhelmed.

“Do not hope, observe,” Flora says to herself throughout the book. It’s a great mindset to fight over-optimism and over-pessimism, and assess what is genuinely possible. Through neutral observing, Flora finds the hope and connection she seeks.


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