Social entrepreneurs from across the globe have spent a month in London building their ventures as part of a pioneering new residential social impact programme. As the programme ends, Julian Blake talks to Reza Merchant, the ambitious young London property entrepreneur behind the Collective Growth Accelerator.
The experiment, catalysed by a heady mix of property and purpose, has brought together 10 social entrepreneurs from four continents for the world’s first residential accelerator for early-stage tech startups focused on social change.
The Collective Global Accelerator has convened tech founders on a mission from Colombia, South Africa, Ghana, Brazil, Ethiopia, Nigeria, USA and Malaysia. They have been both working and living together at the smart new Collective Old Oak, ‘co-living’ space.
Among the entrepreneurs (quite literally) in residence at Old Oak have been Tizzita Tefera, the co-founder of mTena, an Ethiopian SMS platform offering women maternity information; Daniela Carvajalino, founder of Colombian education and skills platform The Biz Nation; and Jaryd Ridgeway, partner in MUZI, a South African HIV app that uses machine learning and artificial intelligence to speed up diagnosis. (See photo and the full list below.)
The CGA project has come about through a collaboration between two savvy young men, each driven by a desire to change the world through their own distinct lines of work.
Project founder Reza Merchant (below) is a property entrepreneur with a difference, on a mission to rebalance the inequalities in city housing markets through his Collective project. Andre Damian, his CGA ‘co-initiator’, is a social entrepreneur with a career that’s already taken him before the United Nations General Assembly as a youth spokesman.
As with many of the best relationships these days, the two met by connecting online. “We met in February this year, when I sent Reza a connection request on LinkedIn saying I liked the Old Oak building and loved the concept of co-living and The Collective’s vision,” says Damian.
“I asked if I could be of any value. Reza said they’re always looking for talented and ambitious people and it seemed I fit that bracket, so he asked me to come meet him in London. Two weeks later, I flew to London and the concept of the accelerator programme was born in that first meeting.”
“We instantaneously connected,” agrees Merchant. “Literally over the course of a meeting we came up with the concept of the accelerator and decided to roll it out pretty much immediately.”
While Dutch-born Damian’s background – working in voluntary and public forums to promote global impact – makes him a clear candidate to run a programme like the CGA, his business partner’s route to the project has perhaps been less direct. It has come through his work setting up the accelerator’s parent company, The Collective.
Merchant was born and raised in London, which is where in 2007 he enrolled for his degree at the London School of Economics. The LSE proved an education in more ways than one; the challenges of living in one of the world’s costliest cities were hard to avoid.
“In my last year of university I set my business up, and that was in response to being a young person in London and seeing first hand the struggles that young people face in major cities to find good quality affordable housing.” he recalls.
“I was willing to do whatever it took to succeed, so I took out a £6900 overdraft while I was still in my last year at uni, and started the business. It was before the startup explosion, so I had to learn the hard way and make mistakes and figure things out myself.”
Merchant could see the struggles that London students – and graduates – face with their housing costs. “If you earn a middle income, you can no longer afford to rent your own flat,” let alone buy, he says. “So you’re forced to rent a room in a converted flat or house. That happens in major cities across the world. It’s pretty shocking given that housing is the one necessity that every person on this planet needs, second to food.”
The 150% increase in house prices that London has witnessed in the last decade has forced many residents and businesses alike simply to give up and locate elsewhere. The London housing situation was described memorably last year by Trampery founder Charles Armstrong as presenting an “existential threat” to the UK capital’s startup community.
“I can definitely resonate with that,” says Merchant. “We see people not being able to accept jobs because they can’t afford to live in London. So it really is a crisis. We are focused and dedicated to playing our part in providing a solution to the process.”
So how does the Collective model help? “Co-living is a communal way of living which by providing compact, well-designed living spaces and lots of shared space,” explains Merchant. “We’re able to provide housing at an affordable price if you have a salary of £30,000. We are catering to a part of the market that isn’t served at the moment.”
“It is also solving a fundamental problem, which is a human need and that’s feeling connected to others around you and not getting lonely. More than 80% of 18-34 year olds suffer from loneliness in London. Technology unfortunately makes us even more disconnected from each other because it reduces real human connection and interaction. That sense of community is a solution we feel we are providing.”
A room at the Collective starts at £220 a week, including gym membership, cleaning and laundry and all bills. It also gives access to events, yoga and mindfulness. “Really all and everything is taken care of. Even the knives, forks, pots and pans are all provided for you,” says Merchant. “If you strip out all of those services your rent is about £160 to £170 a week, which is really in line with what you would pay for a pretty sub-standard room in a house share.”
The cost is clearly a factor, but the thing that makes the Collective space interesting is that it brings entrepreneurs together under the same roof. “Increasingly people are freelancing and working more flexibly, starting their own businesses,” agrees Merchant. “We provide many different places where residents can work and interact with each other to enable the growth of their business.”
Hearing Merchant’s Collective expansion plans, it’s a model that looks set fair for growth. “We have 3,500 units under development not only in London but also in Germany and in the US,” he says. “Growth has far exceeded our expectations.”
“There is a really interesting movement at the moment, where businesses can still make money but ultimately have a positive impact on society,” says Merchant. “It’s almost redefining capitalism and demonstrating that actually good ethical business can change the world in a positive way.
“We are a generation now where people seek to be part of something that’s bigger than themselves and that has great impact in society,” he says. “Once you have the money to travel and do the things you want to do, after that money doesn’t give you happiness. But actually using money to create positive change and have a positive in society is where you can get fulfilment.”
So an early move by the Collective – and one that has enabled the creation of the accelerator itself – was the establishment of a foundation that would come to sponsor the stays of all participants during the programme.
There are of course plenty of purpose-driven initiatives out there, but the thing that makes CGA quite unique is the fact that it is a residential accelerator. It carries many of the same benefits of the Collective set-up into the programme.
“Because this is over a month and you are living in the same place and you have that time, gives it a much bigger impact,” says Merchant. “We could sense that in the beginning that if we provided people with a place to live, and you have everyone under the same roof for a period of time, inevitably closer connections and more output is going to come to fruition.”
Looking at the nuts and bolts of the accelerator, what does the time look like for the people on the programme? And where is the added residential X-factor? Damian picks up.
“We tried to create a curriculum that is very diverse and touches on points that a lot of entrepreneurs have challenges with,” he says. “The typical week has workshops on how to respond, how to brand yourself better, how to balance your life as an entrepreneur and be mindful of your personal development.”
“Everyone gets together to feel the magical combination of co-living and co-working going through this accelerator programme together,” he adds. “The connections that are being made because of the co-living experience are much deeper and more intense and people have more meaningful interactions with each other. That strengthens the relationship, but also makes them able to leverage their networks with each other more effectively. You are creating an accelerator family.”
The accelerator has support from the likes of CrowdCube, CAST, Impact Hub, Expert Impact and Bridging to the Future, as well as mentors and investors.
The cohort that has come together for the accelerator represents an extraordinary range of organisations from across the world. Given the attraction of a free London residential accelerator, it was understandable that news of the project went viral. Merchant and Damian found themselves with a pile of applications that was 3,500 deep. How did they cope?
“We had a mission for the foundation to create opportunities for people,” says Damian. “We wanted applications to be open to people from different backgrounds and as open as possible, so we got an overwhelming amount of applications.”
“I have been blown away by the quality and how just how talented and capable these entrepreneurs are. They are all doing things that are ultimately having a social impact on society,” he says. “They are obviously exceptional because they have not been in as privileged an environment as many entrepreneurs have in London. That just goes to show how determined and driven they are.”
What are the expectations about what happens to companies once they have come through the programme? What sort of access will businesses have to money?
“Through our network we have lined up a number of social impact investors who are going to be eager to support these businesses,” says Merchant, though he is reluctant to share details at this point. Where would he expect some of the businesses to be at the end of the programme?
“If you are growing a business somewhere you have got to be there,” he says. “This programme is very much about giving them resource, giving them knowledge and giving them a network, so that they can then go back to wherever their business is based and apply their skills there.”
Beyond the accelerator, it’s clear that Merchant is not lacking in ambition for himself or for The Collective business. What does the next year look like?
“We are collecting buildings all over the world,” he says. “Eventually we will have a subscription membership model, where if you are a member of The Collective you can live in New York, London, Paris, Boston and Berlin, all with one subscription. That’s something that I couldn’t have even dreamed about when I started the business. So I’m really overwhelmed and happy with how we how we have grown – and it has only just started.”
“We are looking to build a global brand and a global platform that redefines the way people live – and has a real impact on society.”
Collective Global Accelerator – 2017 cohort
Daniela Carvajalino, The Biz Nation, Colombia
Online platform that provides high-quality, productive skill oriented education to young people in Colombia to increase employability.
Jaryd Ridgeway, MUZI, South Africa
App that aims to increase the amount of HIV testing in South Africa by a factor of 10 with the use of machine learning and artificial intelligence.
Ernest Gavor, Moja, Ghana
App that aims to increase blood donations in Sub-Saharan Africa with 700% with the use of mobile technology and incentivizing citizens.
Italo Alves, TODXS, Brazil
Social enterprise that focuses on increasing LGBT+ inclusion in Brazil, among others through apps that help the LGBT+ community with resources and fight discrimination.
Tizzita Tefera, mTena, Ethiopia
SMS-based platform that provides women in Ethiopia maternal and infant care information.
Elijah Amoo Addo, Food4All Africa, Ghana
Social enterprise that uses advocacy and an app to create sustainable means of nutrition for vulnerable communities through food recovery, redistribution and farming.
Ogbogu Robert, LOCATE, Nigeria
Civic technology crowdsourcing platform that will aid in the reportage, search and finding of missing persons faster in Nigeria, aiming to reduce the time to initiate a search operation from 15 to four hours.
Pieter Doevendans, Ava, USA
Software for deaf and hard-hearing people that translates any conversation into text and will color code the different speakers, so that you can easily distinguish who says what.
Noor Shahiwan Ismail, Suncrox Solar, Malaysia
Social enterprise that provides solar energy solutions by eliminating grid and fuel power dependency for home, aiming to provide solar energy to 10,000 beneficiaries in South-east Asia in five years
Isaac Quainoo, Sikasem, Ghana
Social enterprise that is dedicated to providing demystified financial information to people in urban and rural informal sectors of sub-Saharan Africa, via SMS, voice calls, and outreach programmes.
Reza Merchant – CV
Since February 2017
Founder, Collective Global Accelerator
Chief executive, The Collective
London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).