Profile: Karina LeBlanc’s Social Mission
Having graduated a successful first cohort of social entrepreneurs from the B4 Change accelerator, the Pond-Deshpande Centre’s executive director Karina LeBlanc is redesigning the program to better assist entrepreneurs in this emerging sector.
A social entrepreneur is someone who founds a for-profit or non-profit venture with the aim of addressing a social or environmental issue. The sector is increasingly relevant as charities experience lower donations and consumers pressure businesses to demonstrate a social conscience.
The B4 Change accelerator is held at the Pond-Deshpande Centre at the University of New Brunswick and has been designed to help social entrepreneurs deal with the unique challenges they face.
“Social entrepreneurship has elements of charitable non-profits but it’s about creating new models that create shared value and wealth,” explained LeBlanc. “It can be hard to make this kind of venture financially viable,” she added.
“We try to create focus, to give entrepreneurs a robust infrastructure to test their ideas from the perspective of financial viability. We aim to make that as important as the social mission.”
Seven ventures graduated from the first cohort, two non-profits and five for-profits, and they covered a range of sectors and were at different stages of growth, which did cause some problems.
As a result, the accelerator will now run from September through May, instead of for just six months, and include as many as 18 to 25 social ventures. The many seminars and workshops will be offered more than once and ranked at different levels so entrepreneurs can attend at the time that’s right for them. Some previously external programming will also be included.
“It will be a more open model. We want the programming to offer the right tools at the right time,” said LeBlanc.
The Pond-Deshpande Centre is funded by serial tech entrepreneurs and UNB alumni Gerry Pond of New Brunswick and Gururaj Desh Deshpande, originally from Hubli, India, and now resident in Boston.
The centre, which opened in 2012, advances innovation and entrepreneurship for all entrepreneurs, not just social entrepreneurs, by facilitating collaboration among emerging and aspiring companies, students, faculty and alumni.
The centre is fortunate to be able to work with the other Desphande Centres, two in the Boston area, including one linked with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the other in Deshpande’s hometown of Hubli, said LeBlanc.
“Desh Deshpande’s vision is to combine the executional excellence of the private sector with the compassion of the non-profit sector,” she said.
“The international network is a great strength, allowing the sharing of experience and best practices,” she added.
“In India, the Deshpande Centre helps rural communities, which are often the poorest, to innovate. They create relationships with the Western World so that technology from MIT is used to solve local problems by Indian entrepreneurs.”
LeBlanc said her own involvement “feels like a gift.” Her role allows her to combine her two decades of management experience in the private sector, including 10 years at Proctor & Gamble in Toronto, with her experience of working for non-profits.
Originally from Montreal, LeBlanc moved to Fredericton to join the startup community. Prior to joining UNB, and for six years, she was the vice-president of operations at Autism Pro, a virtual autism clinic.
She was also a president of the board of directors of the YMCA Fredericton and was the campaign co-chair of the Your New Y fundraising initiative.
She said that when it comes to social entrepreneurship, the U.K. and the U.S. are setting the pace.
“In the U.K., especially, governments are engaged. They facilitate social impact bonds that finance social entrepreneurs. They have broad curriculums in post-secondary institutions, and support for social innovators. … The U.S. followed the U.K. and has come out blazing with support from the federal government.
“It’s not a fad. Social entrepreneurship will last, but if it’s a 100-metre race, we’re only just out of the starting gates.”