Building bridges

Alexandre Mars, founder and CEO of the Epic Foundation, on his transition from serial entrepreneur to strategic philanthropist, and why empowering the next generation is the key to sustainable change.

Looking back, the only constant in my career as an entrepreneur has been evolution. Entrepreneurship demands perpetual personal and professional evolution; we are forced into a state of constant adaptation and improvisation in order to survive. This evolution demands of us the humility to pivot, the ability to lead a team in the face of uncertainty, and the foolish curiosity to wander out into a storm when no one else will.

I started my first venture when I was 17, running concerts in Paris. With the funds from the concerts I started buying computers and launched A2X, a web agency. It was the beginning of the internet and we were the crazy people trying to convince everyone that they needed to build a website.

Aged 20, with a ponytail and a beard, I was absolutely convinced we would be successful – but then, no one called.

Vince Lombardi, the legendary American football coach, is noted for saying to his team “if you really want to win a game, you need to be on the field”. What I realised with A2X was that being an entrepreneur was about being on the field. No one was going to call me to build a website they didn’t know they needed, and we weren’t going to keep the lights on without any clients.

So, I got on the field. One phone call at a time we started the hard way, building the company into a success and eventually selling it to another agency. Since then I have always stayed on the field; as an entrepreneur, it is my home.

"What I heard from donors and social leaders across the world was how difficult they found it to connect with each other."

When I sold our companies, my wife Flo and I decided to pull our three kids from their day school for a semester, so we could travel the world together as a family. The trip across 15 countries distilled for me how important it was to support the next generation. Travelling with my own children, we met and lived with families around the world.

What was clear to me was that the challenges we as parents were all so worried about would be faced and fought in full by our children. To solve these big global challenges we had to invest in the next generation of global leadership: our children and youth around the world.

As we travelled I also continued my personal research on philanthropy and social impact. Everywhere we went I would speak both with philanthropists looking to make an impact, and teams working each day to make a difference on the ground. As the trip drew to a close it had become increasingly clear just how disconnected these two groups had become.

Paradoxically, in the interconnected Facebook-era world of immediate and constant engagement, what I heard from donors and social leaders across the world was how difficult they found it to connect with each other.

On the one hand, we had these incredible organisations and social entrepreneurs spending their days working to solve our most pressing social challenges, but struggling to access the funding, expertise, and networks they needed.

Take for example, the CEO of an African agricultural NGO who was spending 90 per cent of his time traveling between New York and San Francisco to find donors when his entire operations were on another continent.

On the other hand, you had philanthropists and corporations with lots of financial resources and big powerful networks that wanted to do more but struggled to know who to trust, how to track their giving, and to become engaged with the organisations they supported.

This type of market failure was exactly what I had been searching for as an entrepreneur, a clear gap presenting the need for a new organisation to fix it.

The good news was it was clear that we had a lot of inspiring people that were truly committed to making a difference; now all we had to do was connect them.

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To solve global challenges, we need to invest in our youth, writes Mars.

In those early days, “It’s complicated” would have been the best Facebook status to describe my own relationship with trying to make a difference in the world. Throughout grade school and then university, I had always felt torn between what I perceived as two separate spheres. I was becoming ever more involved in giving back to the community while at the same time I was discovering I had a true skill in business.

I had contemplated whether the right path was to go immediately to work in politics or a nonprofit, or instead to test my emerging passion and aptitude for business.

In the end, I choose the second path, thinking I would spend five years as entrepreneur to make money and meet the people I needed to amplify whatever difference I could make.

In reality, though, it didn’t take five years but 20. Fast forward two decades and I was a proud husband and father to three beautiful children. Now in the process of selling my fourth and fifth startups, I began to think of what would come next.

It became clear that now not only as an entrepreneur, but also as a father and a global citizen, I had to evolve again. Having spent the last 20 years in technology I decided for the first time to venture into a new field, moving from Silicon Valley to the world of social impact.

My sixth startup would be a nonprofit. The challenge was how to set off into a new field at the age of 35. What difference could I really make?

Back then I knew almost nothing about philanthropy, nonprofits, social enterprises, monitoring or any of the other wonderful things I would learn about the social sector in the years to come.

Yet, as an entrepreneur, I knew intuitively that the first step was just to get on the field. So I started knocking on doors and doing market research. One after the next I went to foundations and nonprofits saying: “Hi, I want to do some good but I need to understand what it will be”.

Not every meeting was a success, but I found amazing people who took me under their wings and, in turn, introduced me to more and more people.

This journey of discussions and research took place over a three-year period during which I was also exiting my two start-ups. As the closing of the sales edged closer, the pressure was building quickly to find a way to transition from life as a technology entrepreneur, to life as a social entrepreneur. The result was the Epic Foundation. 

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Epic Foundation seeks out impactful NGOs and social enterprises working on the frontline of poverty reduction.

At Epic Foundation, our mission is to bridge the gap between those looking to give more, and high-impact NGOs and social enterprises working to empower children and youth globally. We look to create opportunities for everyone to give and do more in support of the next generation, helping our children and youth to be ready to change our world for the better.

Our team achieves this by developing services, methodologies and technology applications that enable those looking to give more to feel confident that they can select trustworthy organisations to support – and to ensure they can truly monitor and experience the results the organisations they support are achieving.

I cover the entire operating cost of Epic Foundation, enabling 100 per cent of donations from other people and companies to go directly to organisations selected to join our portfolio.

Each year we go out looking for the world’s best organisations working to empower children and youth, and connect them to our global network of philanthropists and corporations looking to give in a more strategic and engaged way.

To identify the most impactful organisations, our team has built a new network across the world, of leading foundations, funders, and think-tanks. This enabled us to identify and receive applications from more than a thousand organisations across 85 countries in 2015.

From the favelas of Brazil, to the banlieues of Paris, to the bustle of New York and San Francisco, the slums of Mumbai, and the outskirts of Laos, we have searched to find the 20 most trustworthy, innovative, and impactful nonprofits and social enterprises.

"It is never too early or too late to find the unique opportunity you have to help change the world."

At the same time, through merging my passion for entrepreneurship and technology with the best minds in the social sector, we are pushing the envelope in terms of how donors monitor and experience the impact of the organisations they support.

We have assembled an amazing team from Manhattan to London to Bangkok that works hand-in-hand with organisations to ensure progress towards agreed social objectives, while providing our donors with more real-time insights on the organisations they support.

This new approach is helping unlock critically needed resources, and building a new generation of smarter, more engaged philanthropists.

Over the course of this journey I have learned that we all have different amounts of the same three things to give: we have our skills, we have our resources, and we have our own networks.

The key to identifying the impact you can make on the world is to figure out how you can leverage your existing skills, network and resources to make a difference. It is never too early or too late to find unique the opportunity you have to help change the world. - PA