The 2016 Praxis Community Letter

Entrepreneurship and the spirit of the age.

“As servant people we are relaxed. The weight of the world has been lifted from our shoulders; we are not the managers of society — nor would we be if we thought we were. We don’t have to save democracy and the free world; we don’t even have to save ourselves…Should we be ineffective, our cause is not lost; should our efforts bear fruit, this will not be their justification. Our living in the present reality of the kingdom and the triumphant coming of the kingdom are not connected like the links in a causal chain, but like promise and fulfillment, as the artesian well to the distant mountain lake. We serve not in order that the kingdom might come, but because it is coming; the certainty of victory is the beginning not the end of our course.” JHY

Friends,

As you know, at Praxis we aren’t just interested in entrepreneurship as an end in itself. Rather, we deeply care about culture — about how our society functions under the spirit of the age — and we believe that entrepreneurs are among the most influential builders of that culture, for both good and ill.

What is the spirit of our age? To say that 2016 has been a complex year is an understatement. In the US, we’ve experienced the most divisive political climate in decades, seen racial conflict escalated in neighborhoods, and endured violence in our cities from Orlando to New York to Baltimore. Globally, we’ve seen ISIS expand its reach of terror, witnessed a tragic refugee crisis in Syria, and seen Britain vote to leave the European Union. And this is just a short list.

So, in the context of this complicated moment in history, it seems appropriate to revisit the core tenets of the Praxis vision, and ask: Do entrepreneurs really matter in shaping the zeitgeist? Can the Christian church offer anything to “renew the spirit of the age”?

Our answer to both questions is an emphatic yes, and in fact, we’d like to assert why we believe now is the time to double down our efforts in the field of entrepreneurship. At the center of our work is the idea that the future of culture largely depends on the worldview of the next generation of entrepreneurs. This is more than a nice tagline; it is our a core belief about the present direction of society, and it makes several implicit claims about our cultural context.

1) We Inhabit the Culture We Make: Interconnectedness & Responsibility

Our Praxis Spiritual Director Jon Tyson recently challenged us to ask, “What is God trying to teach us through this political moment?” This is a beautiful question. It guides us into humility in our knowledge, putting us in the position of learner and listener rather than authority. It also centers us on the fact that the answer is “quite a lot.”

We believe God is reminding us of the proper role of politics in his ordering of the world. Perhaps you’ve heard it said that politics is downstream from culture. In the words of James Davison Hunter,

Politicization has delimited the imaginative horizon through which the church and Christian believers think about engaging the world and the range of possibilities within which they actually act. Politics is just one way to engage the world…This does not mean that Christians shouldn’t “vote their values” or be active in political affairs. It is essential, however, to demythologize politics, to see politics for what it is and what it can and cannot do and not place on it unrealistic expectations.”

To be sure, politicians play an essential role in the acceleration and deceleration of certain norms through what their laws permit or block. But the upstream “culture” is primarily driven by people with new ideas and access to high-leverage distribution channels for those ideas. Among these culture-makers, perhaps no group is so ascendant among cultural champions as the creative entrepreneurs — nonprofit founders, media entrepreneurs, technologists.

The “downstream” metaphor is not just about sequence; it’s also about interconnection. We inhabit the culture that we make. While we’d like to think we can compartmentalize our society, we cannot. The combative discourse on ESPN shapes the discourse in the Presidential debates — these are not independent of each other. Our corporate production, connected to outsourced (and often oppressive) labor in Asia, has had a radical impact not merely on the jobs in our country, but often how the people who had those jobs internalize globalization and business in general. The way we interact on campus bears the stamp of the way we interact online. The world of Grand Theft Auto is indeed the same world of real-life gun deaths and sexual assault. We are probably more surprised than we should be that these things have collided and intermingled — it was inevitable. They serve as a sobering reminder that we are responsible for all of life, and that compartmentalizing one part of life from another is an act of self-delusion.

What we buy, what we desire, what we create, what we accept as normal, what we tolerate, what we support — these threads in the social fabric influence us, shape our leaders, and subtly shift our expectations for all of life. Attending to these things is the long arc of culture making, which highlights the stakes of what entrepreneurs take on in their work.

If it’s true that we inhabit what we make, and we don’t like what we’ve made, then the job of our entrepreneurs is to make something different for us to inhabit. This is how we at Praxis view our challenge and opportunity.

2) Entrepreneurs are Winsome Witnesses in Our Time

In the midst of often vitriolic conversations in our country around topics such as immigration, women’s rights, climate change, and welfare, we see a thrilling opportunity for entrepreneurs to be winsome witnesses, creatively demonstrating their faith by being part of the solution. This is the body of Christ at its best, loving our neighbors through the works of our hands.

For example, who can take issue with our friends Jim & Melinda Hollandsworth, whose venture The Path Project is helping Latino children in mobile home communities reach college for the first time? Who can dismiss the work of Joe Baker’s Save the Storks, which allows women with unplanned pregnancies to opt into an ultrasound before making a birth decision? Who can argue with Jason Ballard’s TreeHouse, which creates access to sustainable home improvement supplies for environmentally conscious homeowners? Or Brit Gilmore’s work with The Giving Keys, inspiring hope and encouragement through their product while helping their team members transition out of homelessness into full-time jobs? And can’t anyone bask in the work of Paige Chenault’s The Birthday Party Project, which celebrates the joy of life itself?

There is something gracious and welcoming about the creative “idea entrepreneur” who cares about something deeply, sets up shop, and works to draw you into their vision, their cause. What’s most compelling is not their words but the ingenious new ventures they have brought to life. It’s always been our faith in action, our orthopraxis, that matters most. In the words of Praxis Scholar and author Andy Crouch, “It is not enough to condemn culture. Nor is it sufficient merely to critique culture or to copy culture. Most of the time, we just consume culture. But the only way to change culture is to create culture.” With that mandate, let’s dive into how the entrepreneurs we work with are doing.

2016 Program & Impact Review

Organizationally, 2016 has been a full and thrilling year for us at Praxis. We’ve continued to see hard work, prayer, and the generosity of our community reveal God’s favor and create considerable momentum in the right direction.

This year we welcomed another 24 ventures into our Accelerators. This wonderful set of ventures includes entrepreneurs with stellar backgrounds: the former Director of IJM India, alumni from both Y Combinator and TechStars, the winner of Google’s $500,000 impact challenge, National Christian Foundation’s former SVP of Expansion, a media entrepreneur whose work has collected more than a billion views on YouTube, a Haitian woman named to Forbes’ 30 under 30 social entrepreneurs list, and even a former stylist who worked with Beyonce & Justin Timberlake! Oh, and two Nonprofit alumni of Praxis have come back to us with new Business ventures. These are only the paper accomplishments of a few of them — yet who they are as people, and what they are committed to now, is even more impressive and encouraging.

They are now part of a group of over 130 entrepreneurs and 95 ventures we’ve worked alongside in our first five years. These leaders challenge us to be at our best, and increasingly they mentor and support each other. We’ve been thrilled to see their growth as a portfolio and community, tracked by Praxis co-founder Josh Kwan in our second annual impact survey. With over 95% of our Fellows reporting, our ventures have created 2,500 jobs. Alumni totaled $114m in revenue in 2015, up from $74m in 2014. That’s part of 26% year over year growth from our Nonprofits, and a 111% rate for our Businesses. While these growth rates are sure to slow as ventures mature, we’re encouraged to see that our program’s approach — which emphasizes personal sustainability and a healthy relationship to the venture as a path to growth, instead of an obstacle to it — isn’t based on an idealistic or simplistic worldview.

At the conclusion of our two Accelerator programs in 2016, we hosted our largest Finales ever, collectively welcoming over 250 investors and philanthropists and nearly 40 alumni to see our new Fellows share their work. Our Business Finale was held at the Rosewood Hotel on Sand Hill Road on Silicon Valley, where we added to the pitches an Investor Day that features conversations on everything from a “Theology of Capital” to “Investing as Discipleship.” Under the leadership of our Nonprofit Program Lead, Jena Lee Nardella, we continue to work alongside Fred Smith and The Gathering, as our Nonprofit Finale was held in Naples, FL, adjacent to their conference on faith & philanthropy. We’re increasingly encouraged at the humble and open posture of those providing financial resources to our Fellows. Last year we reported $9,500,000 of early-stage capital placed through introductions made in our first 4 years of work. Just one year later, that number has surpassed $23,000,000.

Further, we were fortunate to see our Praxis Academy summer program grow by 50% to 150 students under Jon Hart’s leadership. Hosted for the first time at Biola University in Los Angeles, students from over 60 schools descended on the campus for a week to hear from our team, top mentors, and over a dozen Accelerator alumni. In parallel, we completed our second Future Founders program, which placed 12 students from schools such as Columbia, Harvard, University of Chicago, University of Cape Town, Messiah, Westmont, and Princeton, in access-to-the-CEO summer apprenticeships with our Accelerator alumni. For the first time, we also supported two college students working on their own ventures full time, and we plan to do this more actively in 2017 as we rebrand into the “Emerging Founders” name. We even hosted one Future Founder ourselves, Dylan Thomas, and recently hired him full-time to join us in building Praxis Academy.

We are deeply encouraged in all of this, and so thankful to you for helping it to happen! Of course, the further we go in this mission, the more opportunities we see to contribute to the broader movement of faith-motivated entrepreneurship. And if you read the 2015 Praxis Letter, you recall that we have some big expansion plans for the future. To that end, we’d like to update you on the significant moves we’ve made in that direction.

If you asked me the most significant thing that happened this year, I would unequivocally talk about the amazing people who have joined our team. In our book From Concept to Scale, we talk about the mutual reinforcement between two elements of the enterprise: Path (strategy) and People (team). As vision and results attract the right people, the right people make new things possible, which then allow you to keep expanding the vision. I’d love to introduce these new colleagues in the context of the new initiatives we’re about to undertake (and please excuse me if I brag on them a bit…it’s hard to restrain our excitement or overstate how blessed we feel to have them).

First, I want to point out something that can often be overlooked amidst the glamour of new programs. No organization can move through a growth stage without an operator extraordinaire. Behind the scenes of any well-run organization you will inevitably find a master of systems and coordination, turning the well-meaning chaos of a startup into the well-oiled machine of an enterprise. Meet Lucy Gundersen — a world-class version of what I just described. A Partner who joined us in March to lead Operations, she’s transformed us already, creating an ethos of effectiveness and efficiency throughout our work, giving us the confidence to pursue more without compromising the quality and excellence we value so much. She comes to us from McKinsey, where she was a Social Sector Fellow, and from Hope for New York. She graduated as a Morehead Scholar at University of North Carolina, and holds an MBA from Harvard Business School. She works as a peer to our program leads in the Accelerators, strategically organizes and deploys our community, and manages our back office team and partners as we build out Praxis. We are deeply grateful for her providential presence on our team.

Our Creative Response: Building the Community & Vision

As you heard from us last year, we see ourselves as operating in three ways: as a community, a venture group, and a new kind of university. These elements overlap in many ways and cut across our programs. For example, our Accelerators are a distinctly community-forming executive education-style program for founders; yet we also see them as part of a venture portfolio toward which we direct resources. With this in mind, here are updates in these three dimensions of our work. In many ways, these new initiatives are so large in scope that they represent the second phase of our Praxis vision.

Community
Announcing The Praxis Alternative Imagination Summit: 
An Annual Destination for Our Community

From the founding of Praxis, we’ve held that our most essential work is building relationships — nurturing a community that works together for the betterment of our society. Since we launched our first program five years ago, we’ve longed for the opportunity to bring our entire community together for a unified event — where we can think, debate, discover, learn, and cross-pollinate.

We thought briefly about putting on a great conference, so we could bring in some experts and learn together. But that felt too one-way; one of the treasures of the Praxis community is the wisdom inside of it.

So instead, we’ve created the Praxis Alternative Imagination Summit, a new gathering for a new season of Praxis, on May 3–5, 2017 just outside of New York City. Adjacent to our 2017 Business Finale (hosted on the evening of May 3), we’re inviting our entire community — alumni, mentors, philanthropists, and investors — together in an effort to spark relationship and action. Though the event is invitation-only, we’ll have a opportunity for a handful of new guests each year through application and referrals. We’re not just trying to be exclusive for our own sake — rather, we’re just very careful over the years to curate a community with diverse experiences but a shared heart.

At the Summit, our goal will be to have informative conversations that are broad in scope yet focused on action learning. Among many things, we’ll debate the role of entrepreneurs, capital providers, thinkers and creatives in new movements in the renewal of capitalism, the collision of technology & philanthropy, character and grit in society, and impending technological shifts. Most important, we’ll provide a variety of creative opportunities to reconnect with old friends and build energizing new relationships.

Venture Group
Launching the Venture Lab: 
A Creative Engine for Ventures that Matter for Society

In last year’s letter, we introduced you to the Praxis Venture Lab idea. Because this is such a large-scale initiative, I want to quote at length (edited for new developments) from that letter as a reminder of the work, before sharing the progress:

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To move the field and impact forward, we believe that we must not only accelerate ventures already in motion, but also take part in creating new ventures critical to our world’s ability to experience and understand what the Gospel means to every industry. Given this, we’re setting out to create the Praxis Venture Lab, which works with would-be founders to launch new businesses and nonprofits. Fundamentally, the Venture Lab is focused on cultural intent: every venture we work to launch will attempt to have a specific and strategic impact in the world. It is in this intent that there are many frontiers yet to explore, and opportunities to disrupt negative cultural trends and encourage positive emerging trends with innovative gospel-minded ventures.

The Venture Lab will be focused on two elements: a think tank — the imagination side of the house working on opportunity identification & cultural thesis development & a new Venture Lab Fellowship program (VLF) — which helps would-be founders with shared hearts develop their vision for their next venture, surrounding them with the same resources and ecosystem that fuel our Accelerators, just at the much earlier ‘imaginative stage’. Fundamentally, we believe that ideas matter. While the think tank identifies opportunities through theological and cultural analysis, the VLF is structured to help direct and guide concept development, market research, and initial brand vision and pitch development. A smaller program initially, we’ll work with just a handful of prospective founders focused on the most important ideas and opportunities, from scalable businesses to innovative nonprofits.

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We’ll be undertaking our first projects in late 2017, and will unveil all the details around application process to share how entrepreneurs can join us in an adjacent letter to this one. One thing is clear: we’ll be looking for highly motivated, mission-driven entrepreneurs to work with, and often individuals on their second or third venture, as we’ll be investing a considerable amount of time in a small number of endeavors each year.

University
Leveraging Content to Expand Our Impact

Nearly everything we’ve done at Praxis so far has been in a relatively small footprint for small rooms. That’s given us the gift of time to refine our thinking and develop a wonderfully personal, high-touch community. Yet, we acknowledge that it’s kept us from shaping a broader audience of entrepreneurs of all types with the best wisdom in our community — from thinkers like Andy Crouch or Jon Tyson or founders like Jena Lee Nardella or Will Haughey. Given this, we’ve made a move to share our work more broadly through a few discrete content offerings.

Our content strategy is made possible through the considerable talent of new Praxis Partner Scott Kauffmann, who joined us in August. A serial Praxis mentor and a coup of a hire, he comes to us from eight years at Redeemer City to City, where he was the right hand to Timothy Keller, helping devise and create a canon of content for church-planting entrepreneurs around the world. Beyond this work, Scott was on the board of Q Ideas for 10 years and most recently worked as the interim President of learning management software startup Understory. In short, Scott has the rare experience of working to define an essential field’s way of thinking and doing, and we’re beside ourselves to have him work with us at Praxis to do that again at the center of theology, culture, and entrepreneurship.

The Praxis Course

Last year, we told you “we anticipate building out an 10-week course for entrepreneurs exploring what the Christian faith means for their startups and lives. Leaning on the body of content from our events over the last few years, this journey into theology would borrow from the model of Alpha Course: locally-hosted video talks over dinner, as well as a weekend away to process the bigger questions and build community.” We’ve built it: it’s called the Praxis Course, and it’s currently being piloted in four locations. In 2017, we’ll have a full-production launch, and would love to have you host the program in your city, church, university, or simply among your entrepreneurial friends. We’ve intentionally designed it to be engaging and flexible: whether you’re a would-be entrepreneur or leading a venture at scale, the Praxis Course distills the most important learning from our community about how to build anew in the world. We’re confident it will spark deep conversation no matter what your group’s stage of venture or stage of life, as we’ve already seen it work: the videos are the “best-of” talks from our Accelerators and Praxis Academy with a facilitator’s guide that reference the key questions we often find ourselves debating in person at these events.

Digital Journal & Podcast

We’re also excited to announce the launch of The Praxis Intersection, a monthly digital journal focused on unique insights at the center of theology, culture, and entrepreneurship. In parallel, we’re beginning the Praxis Podcast, which will feature dynamic conversations between Praxis Partners and a broad swath of compelling individuals. In the journal and podcast, we’ll hear startup stories, examine cultural trends, profile Praxis Fellows, and discuss entrepreneurial issues through the lens of the gospel. Through these new digital offerings, we hope to provide a central resource for the thoughtful Christian entrepreneur as well as resources that can be shared with faith-friendly listeners.

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With all of this underway, we’ll need you all the more going forward. From your presence at our events, to your help pulling others into our community, to advocating and supporting our Fellows, to simple things like sharing our content, we hope you’ll find Praxis more and more a part of your life in 2017 and beyond. That would be a blessing to us and we hope to you as well!

Thanks for taking the time to read this year’s letter, and for all you’ve done with us so far. Wherever this note finds you, may 2017 be one of encouragement and joy.

Dave Blanchard
December 2016