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Exploring Redemptive Entrepreneurship

Dave Blanchard leads an organization that has an audacious vision - changing the world's culture through the love, creativity, and sacrifice of Christian entrepreneurs.

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What would it look like if businesses truly worked for the benefit of the people they served? Dave Blanchard, co-founder and CEO of Praxis, carries such a dream – equipping Christ-following entrepreneurs to have a positive impact on society.  

From what we’ve heard, Praxis really seems to be a unique organization. What gave you the idea to start it? What is the back story?

I grew up as a pastor’s kid, and from about second grade on, I was always entrepreneurial and always starting something. But when I look back on my journey, I didn’t fully connect my faith with my work life, even intellectually, until I was about 27 years old. So until then my pursuits were a self-interested entrepreneurship

But then, as I was maturing and coming back into my faith, I asked the Lord, “What do you want with my entrepreneurial capacities? How can I reorient my life away from a personal, money-driven pursuit of autonomy and independence?” I came to a place where I realized I was really on earth to serve others, and started thinking and praying about how I could do that.

This journey led me to a number of social enterprises, including some of the microfinance ventures that were happening around the world. Ultimately, I ended up working at a leading design firm. While I was there, I was given a project where I got a chance to talk to people who were supporting entrepreneurs around the world. I was exposed to this whole broad ecosystem of entrepreneurial support, across profit and non-profit enterprises.

All of them were doing really excellent work, figuring out how to support entrepreneurs in great ways. But I realized the faith component of it wasn’t really a part of the conversation. A lot of these groups had a chaplain role in their organizations, but it was a bit compartmentalized – something that people could opt into versus being a central part of what they do.

“What is the culture like right now, especially entrepreneurial culture and Christian culture, and how might we change that?”

As I was kind of putting these pieces together, I realized how important it was to have the right people around entrepreneurs. If you can create a community of faith, where the co-founders and board of directors and capital providers are all on the same page, you can impact the culture.

If you could create a community of people that have a set of shared values, we could have open conversations around faith. I thought this would impact the founders of these organizations in a major way, and thus shape the culture in a major way. The healthier the founder is, the more they’re thinking about cultural renewal and how their organization can bless others – this will make the world better.

Dave Blanchard, New York City, USA, 2019

 

A major part of my story also involves my co-founder, Josh Kwan. Josh, who is a believer, was the director of international giving for a foundation that was alleviating poverty internationally, mainly through the giving of secular entrepreneurs. Josh got around to wondering, “Where are the really capable Christian entrepreneurs? And how do we build a pipeline of really great Christian entrepreneurs?” Of course, there were a few of these types of people, but he wanted more. And so Josh came into it from this perspective, and our kind of shared vision and idea for a Christ-centered accelerator formed back in 2011.

That was the birth of Praxis.

Let’s talk about the identity and vision of Praxis. Your website mentions “renewing the spirit of the age.” Speaking practically, what does this actually look like?

The basic idea came to us from studying the Clapham Circle. This group was a set of about a dozen families that were focused on the abolition of the slave trade and the reformation of morals in British culture, around the beginning of the 19th century.  They were also involved in about 65 different initiatives. Their biographer says the ethos of Clapham became the spirit of the age – the things that they really valued began to be valued by the world at large.

It’s an audacious thing to even suggest that you can influence the spirit of the age, especially in a world as complex and globalized as ours. But nevertheless, we felt like that’s something that we should at least shoot for. What is the culture like right now, especially entrepreneurial culture and Christian culture, and how might we change that?

If you are looking at the entrepreneurial culture right now, you would say the spirit of the age is things like unicorns, blitzscaling, and just absolute growth at any cost. And we’re actually starting to see the downsides of some of that.

So how do we renew that? One way is by creating good things for the world. Sadly, it feels like the Church has been politicized, especially in the West. When non-believers think about Christians in the world, they see us through a political lens.

They don’t see the Church as a demonstration of the gospel in this beautiful, redemptive way, where we are deeply compassionate, caring for each other, and sacrificing in service of others. We want to change that.

Sacrifice is a major concept for you in redemptive entrepreneurship.  Why is that?

There’s an interesting conversation happening at the societal level right now, especially inside of both philanthropy and capitalism, that’s asking this question: Is it enough to just be ethical? Or when a system is broken, do you actually need a sacrificial intervention that says, “Hey, we’re not going to take as much as we can here – we’re going to leave something on the table, so that someone else can step up into this opportunity?”

“If the greatest thing to do is lay down your life for your friends, what does that mean for us as entrepreneurs and people who’ve been gifted with that same creative capacity?”

This is a concept that we’ve been really thinking a lot about, for a number of reasons. First, it’s because our role on earth is to imitate Christ. If the greatest thing to do is lay down your life for your friends, what does that mean for us as entrepreneurs and people who’ve been gifted with that same creative capacity?

So, what does ‘sacrifice’ look like in business, knowing our role as imitators of Christ?

I think sacrifice can look like a million different things. It could look like a redirection of your entire vocational life, such as choosing not to go into business for profit – there’s a fundamental economic sacrifice involved in that decision. That’s not to suggest that non-profits are better, but that’s just one possible example.

Dave Blanchard in a panel discussion, Gardiner, New York, USA, 2019

 

It can also be a daily sacrifice – realizing that people are coming to me and asking me for my advice, and deciding to make 10% of my schedule available for them, even if they won’t be of any value to my daily work. In Praxis, we talk about ‘gleaning’ a lot, which is this idea of leaving some margin at the edges for people who don’t have the same opportunities. So instead of stepping into every interview speaking opportunity, I’m going to make sure that in the right times and moments, there are opportunities for others to take those things.

Praxis has a global vision – how do the principles of redemptive entrepreneurship work across cultures?  

We’re learning more and more about this from our entrepreneurs who are doing this work for us in different countries. One obvious example is that in certain cultures, giving bribes is expected as a matter of doing business. So refusing to give or take bribes is a major, significant redemptive act that involves a real sacrifice. You have to accept that things won’t move quickly if you refuse to play into this system. We have a number of ventures in different nations that have just said, “We’re not going to do bribes – we’re going to hold this line even in this cultural climate.”

There are different issues that are most important in particular countries. We have many organizations in Africa, and when you’re in that context you have to put a lot of focus on education, job placement, and things like that. We think about these things in the US as well, but in a different way.

We do hold the same basic idea across all cultures – am I doing my work as an entrepreneur for myself?  Or am I doing it on behalf of the people around me?  This is a common ground that really applies to people everywhere.

Come back next week for part 2 of our interview with Dave, where we go into details on the how Praxis works, and some of the incredible stories that have come through the organization.

Praxis is a creative organization that aims to advance redemptive entrepreneurship through its support for founders, leaders, funders, and innovators, eventually aiming to change the cultural atmosphere.