As one person in the room put it on Friday, Pier LaFarge ’10 is the “king of social entrepreneurship” — and they weren’t far from the truth. During his time at Middlebury and in the short time since he graduated, LaFarge has taken on the role of social entrepreneur in several endeavors. While at Middlebury, he co-founded the Race to Replace campaign, a grassroots movement that sought to raise awareness about Vermont’s clean energy future during the election season, bringing the issue to the forefront of the political debate and agenda.
“It all started with a bicycle,” LaFarge said of his career in social entrepreneurship. “The Race to Replace campaign, something I got started with through Sunday Night Group with Ben Wessel. Even in a state in liberal as progressive as Vermont, there is change to be made.”
After graduation, LaFarge went on to work for ICF International, a consulting firm that specializes in technology solutions in energy and the environment. While at ICF, LaFarge implemented social finance consulting as a new service offering at the firm and co-created ICF’s Green Revolving Loan Fund, showcasing his social intrapreneurship skills. “The great thing about being an intrapreneur, as a opposed to an entrepreneur, is that you have this unique chance to innovate, but its from within, so you get all these resources behind you to do incredible things, ”said LaFarge.
His work at ICF led him to realize that there was a lack of energy efficiency financing for smaller-scale projects in the market. “I could see that energy efficiency financing had this split structure with big projects on one side that were being really well served by energy finance companies, banks, etc. — but small projects with same risk structure and same returns, no one would finance. The biggest reason wasn’t a lack of awareness or demand, it was just a structural misfit.”
This realization led LaFarge to leave his job at ICF to found Spark, an online crowd investment platform that connects individual investors to high-quality projects in energy efficiency, giving small organizations the capital they need to improve their energy efficiency.
In reflecting on his new venture, LaFarge gave credit to his Middlebury education. “Never underestimate the power of an education that thinks about systems, about how forces act in those systems, and that brings together these discipline,” LaFarge told the students in the room. “Social Entrepreneurship is nothing — in fact, business is nothing —if not about communication, about storytelling, design, critical thinking. It’s every discipline all at once. There is nothing more liberal arts-y than social entrepreneurship.”
Pier shared his words of wisdom for the students and aspiring social entrepreneurs in the room:
Social entrepreneurship is a spectrum: “Social entrepreneurship can be activism, or it can be a for-profit enterprise. Finding innovative solutions to social problems is the common thread. Social entrepreneurship is identifying negative externalities and building structures to fix them and make them better.”
Profit is not a dirty word. “Profit and private sector are not dirty words. They aren’t the “other” — they are not other things that those other people do. We are change makers. We want to make change. Profit is one of our most powerful tools to do it.”
Find things people hate and build things that solve them. “If you can do this, than you get this cycle of revenue that people give you to solve the problem, and then change being made increases visibility for your business. Profit reinforces change, and change reinforces profit.”
Social Entrepreneurship is the new economy: “The old economy was focused on improving society, marketing something as better than what you had. Social entrepreneurship solves a problem no one has tried to solve before, or that unlocks an opportunity that the market has overlooked or failed to solve.”
“Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you. Put your ideas through the wringer, and expose it to people with more experience than you. Never stop connecting. Give back, and give back often: give back money, give back time, give back passion. “