When Dave Blanchard worked as a principal designer at IDEO, an innovation consulting firm that specializes in “human-centered” design, he saw how innovation models were being applied in Silicon Valley. There, mentorships, peer communities and access to capital sources emboldened young organizations to move quickly into becoming sustainable.

BlanchardBlanchard thought, “What would it look like to adapt that model toward social entrepreneurship?”

He called Josh Kwan, the director of international giving at the David Weekley Family Foundation, whom he had met at a Q conference. He asked Kwan if he thought it was a good idea to adapt the Silicon Valley model.

Kwan said he had been thinking about the same thing for more than a year. They brainstormed together; and this past spring, in collaboration with Q, they launched Praxis, a nonprofit created to support social entrepreneurs who are compelled by their faith. Praxis provides young organizations access to capital sources, a network of experts, mentorship opportunities, and a confidential setting to meet with peers and discuss organizational challenges.

“Any entrepreneur creates a lot of value by bringing new resources together, and I think when that value is applied to people in need, we have a great opportunity as Christians to reflect on what Christ wanted us to do on this earth,” said Blanchard, who left IDEO this past spring to serve as president of Praxis. “That’s the real underpinning for the reason I pursued Praxis.”

Before joining IDEO, Blanchard co-founded and sold two startups in the music industry. He has also served on Opportunity International’s board of governors and One Acre Fund’s governing and fundraising board. He earned his undergraduate degree in entrepreneurship from Babson College and master’s degrees in business administration and engineering management from Northwestern University.

Blanchard spoke with Faith & Leadership about Praxis, mentorship and human-centered design. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: Why the name Praxis?

The primary definition of praxis is translating an idea into action. We thought that fit on a number of levels -- one being that all entrepreneurs have an idea and a vision, and we want them to make it reality.

From a faith perspective, we should all be translating our beliefs into action. We want to support social entrepreneurs who are doing that.

Q: Explain human-centered design and how you are applying it at Praxis.

Human-centered design is the idea that you start with people -- that you really understand the people that you’re designing for before you design something, whether that’s a system or a product or a service.

We’re applying this in two ways at Praxis.

First, we applied it in designing the program. We talked to about 150 people who were either social entrepreneurs, donors or social investors to understand what they would really need and what would be the most beneficial program.

As an example, we started a Praxis program as an eight-week program in which people would come in. But we realized that for the demographic we were trying to serve, that was not feasible, given family and that sort of thing. So we went through a number of different iterations and changes as we got to where we are today, which includes three main events over a yearlong period.

The second way human-centered design is being applied is through how we get organizations to think about it. One of our points of emphasis is that social entrepreneurs are connected to the recipients of their service to make sure they’re not just designing a solution for a need or an issue that they think there is, but they’re actually designing a solution for the people who know what the need is and who are experiencing it.

Knowing that need comes down to listening. One of the best ways to do that is to go into the context of where the people are that you’re trying to help -- meeting with them where they are, getting a sense for their world and trying to develop empathy for their situation.

Q: What did you learn from the 150 interviews you conducted?

One thing that surprised me was that people felt like they were in a silo. It was probably a little exacerbated because of the faith situation. I think people are uncertain about when and where they can talk about it, and they don’t necessarily feel like there is a peer community around them who are coming from that faith perspective and who have an understanding of the emerging field of social entrepreneurship.

So despite the church body that might be around them or their friends who are at the same life stage or in the same industries, a lot of people responded by saying, “I can’t wait to get the mentorship, but I’m almost more excited for the peer community.”

Q: How does the emphasis on social entrepreneurs compelled by their faith impact the way Praxis operates?

One of the things that we strongly believe at Praxis is that as Christians we should focus on being impact-oriented. It’s not about feeling good about the work that we do and thinking that it’s having an impact; it’s about analyzing our own work to make sure that we’re not the primary beneficiaries of the doing good, but that the people who we’re actually caring for are.

Q: How do you measure impact?

[Experts say] you get the outcomes that you measure for, so you have to be sure that whatever you set up to measure are the right things.

I do think for every organization that is saying, “OK, here are the five things that we really need to keep an eye on to make sure that we’re having the impact that we need to,” there are opportunities, especially as organizations get started, to say, “We want to measure something, and it may take us 10 years to know, but if we don’t start measuring it today, then we won’t know 10 years from now whether our work had any impact, because we won’t know where the people we helped are or what their lives turned out to be like.”

For example, if you’re working in the domestic education space, it makes sense to say, “If we’re going to help out elementary school students, we want to track where they’re going to go to college,” but that’s going to take you a number of years -- over a decade -- to find out what happened, to see any long-term impact.

Those are things every organization has to grapple with, but there’s a great opportunity there.  The organizations that do that well will ultimately have plans for long-term sustainability. They’ll have donors or social investors or whomever they want pouring money into them, because others can see the difference they’ve made.

Q: What must those plans for long-term sustainability include?

There’s got to be a strategy that does not rely on donor funding. There’s got to be some form of maintenance program if you’re talking about products, whether that’s drilling a well and making sure that when it breaks there’s some ecosystem in place to make sure that it can be repaired.

And I think you go back to the capacity building. Ask, “Are we actually helping people find a way out of their situation, or are we just kind of improving what is and then moving on?”

Q: How does mentorship fit into long-term sustainability?

There’s no better way to learn about what works and what doesn’t than from experienced mentors.

I also think that some of the best guidance can come from people who are right in the middle of experiencing the questions that you are likely to face in the next year or two if you’re starting an organization. Those folks are the busiest people, but they also have a deep empathy for what you’re going through, because they know what it’s like.

Young organizations can’t afford to build out a team of 20 people and have all that expertise in-house. They need access to people who’ve been pre-vetted, and they need somebody they can call who can help them understand more about how to develop a brand or to sit down with for guidance.

Young entrepreneurs are spending inordinate amounts of time trying to locate good mentorship, and that’s why we built that so heavily into Praxis.

Q: How is Praxis matching up mentors and mentees? Is it based on common areas of interests, or is it a matter of who clicks?

It’s more of the latter, with people organically matching up. In our research, we discovered that forced mentorship is less effective, because of personality type and that sort of thing. So even if it’s topical, it doesn’t always work.

We want to create a setting where we’ve built a lot of informal time and time for one-on-ones into our three primary events in order to create the right setting for people to get to know each other and to figure out who might be a long-term mentor.

Q: Describe how you are creating the right setting for the mentorships to develop.

The overall view of the program is we’ve got three key events: one in New York, one in Los Angeles and one around the Q Gathering, which will be in Washington, D.C., in 2012. Every fellow will go to all three events, which will be held at private settings.

In New York, for example, we’re taking over a lodge that’s two hours north of Manhattan. It’s out in the middle of nowhere, and all the mentors and fellows are going to come in there and spend time together.

We’re going to have intimate round-table settings, where our mentors talk to three or four or five organizations at a time. There will also be time for one-on-ones.

We’ll spend some informal time together, too. The group will go on a hike one afternoon, and every night we’re going to have Startup Stories, where mentors will share their off-the-record stories of the ups and downs of their organizations and how everything came together for them.

Q: You’ve previously said Praxis is looking for young social entrepreneurs who display teachable and humble leadership. How do you know that somebody embodies that quality?

You can get a sense for their thoughtfulness by looking at how they’ve received mentorship in the past. One of the traits that you can see is if they’ve surrounded themselves with people who are smarter than they are. In a sense, that gives you a perspective on their willingness to be taught by the people around them.

I also think that we see people who may have strong opinions as leaders but who hold those opinions loosely and are willing to be shaped by the thoughts of others. They’re not just blazing a trail forward. They’re recognizing, even if they’re innovative entrepreneurs, that people have done similar things before. Every new idea is a derivative of an older idea. Having a willingness to seek out those models or mentors and to give them credit for what they’ve developed is a good indicator of humble and teachable leadership.

Q: You’re 31 and already a serial entrepreneur. What has contributed to your success?

I would start by saying that I think having a family and a supportive climate at home provides the ability to take risks and to be able to go through the different stages of life when there is sometimes more work and sometimes less.

And obviously, I think faith is an important thing. As you see God working in your life, that’s another enabler to help you envision things that you know you can’t accomplish on your own.

Mentorship is also critical. It’s a hard thing to find -- at least, that’s been my experience. But when you find it, it’s so valuable, because that’s a resource that you can lean on. It doesn’t have to be people who have gone through the same experience as you. It can be life mentors who are there to help you think about your own self and your personal calling and your vision for how God wants to use you.