Accelerating Creativity in Christian Entrepreneurs
Praxis is bringing entrepreneurial believers together from around the world and encouraging them to use their creative talents to bless their communities.
Dave Blanchard is the co-founder and CEO of Praxis, 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.
How does Praxis help Christian entrepreneurs? Beyond encouraging them with godly principles, how do you help them build their companies?
We build ventures, community, and content. Our work is divided mainly into two areas – the Accelerator programs help us to provide resources for the top organizational mission carriers and their leaders, while the Praxis Academy helps us facilitate redemptive friendships to work together.
We have two Accelerator programs, one for Christian businesses and one for Christian-led nonprofits. These are mostly for organizations that are in their earlier stages. They’re looking to grow their product and their impact.
“The beautiful thing is that we have had some people come to us who have 100 million-dollar businesses, and these people are constantly learning. They realize there’s always more, always ways they can grow and learn.”
We have also added a new initiative called the Scale Fellowship in the last couple of years – this is for companies that are already at a significant size, with more than 10 millions dollars in annual revenue.
How do you convince entrepreneurs at the level of those in the Scale Fellowship, who already have a thriving company, that they can refine the way they’re doing things?
I would say a couple things. One is that there are some people you can’t convince – we don’t want to try to convince them, but really work with those who come to us and desire to join our community.
The beautiful thing is that we have had some people come to us who have 100 million-dollar businesses, and these people are constantly learning. They realize there’s always more, always ways they can grow and learn.
Please tell us more about the Academy. How does this fit into the work of Praxis?
It’s really exciting – a few years ago we had an Accelerator alumni who went through our course and said, “I sure wish I had been thinking about these things in college.” We thought that was just a side comment, but it became something we heard from people over and over. We realize there is a massive opportunity to shape the imagination of the next generation in those college days, and create opportunities for what they can be involved in immediately after.
So we started The Academy for those 25 and under, and it has now been running for five years, and we have had over 1000 students and faculty go through it. The main Academy Week is a five-day event that happens at the end of July every year, and students come from about 75 different schools from around the world. Last year we had 14 different countries represented.
What do you do to keep your sense of community strong after people go through your programs? How do you keep people connected?
Our objective is definitely to keep that community together over time. Our first move to do that is an event-based way, through an annual summit that we run every year that has about 350 folks come.
At last year’s summit, for example, we had about 100 Accelerator alumni who were there, reconnecting with each other, or even meeting for the first time, but knowing that they had this shared experience. And then there was also this broader community of mentors, investors, and philanthropists, who basically formed around our Accelerator programs. They came because they also wanted to take part in this conversation. So the annual summit is the central gathering place for our community.
We’re also in the midst of launching something called Praxis Guilds, which are local groups that are meant to provide continuity of conversation and community. These guilds are focused on developing the craft of redemptive entrepreneurship. We have those launching in four cities this year – Oklahoma City, San Francisco, Orlando and Indianapolis – and we hope to launch in another half dozen cities next year. We hope that over time there will be this global group of people who are able to practice redemptive entrepreneurship in close community with each other.
We also recently launched a talent network, where people can sign up and say, “Hey, I’m somebody who wants to work in a redemptive nature.” So we’re doing as much as we can to get like-minded people together.
With all of the work that Praxis is involved in, you must have seen some notable things taking place. What’s one of your favorite stories to emerge from the work of Praxis?
Let me tell you two – one a business and one a nonprofit that are really interesting to us.
These both have three things in common, that are really key to me.
First, the leader is of high caliber and quality – we trust in what they are doing.
Second, both are large in scale – they’ve achieved a lot as a redemptive enterprise.
And third, Praxis had had major impact on their life adventure. We didn’t just know and celebrate them, but we had actual influence on what they’ve accomplished.
On the for-profit side, I’ll tell you about an organization called CloudFactory. CloudFactory does data processing, machine learning, artificial intelligence services for large contracts from other companies that need to process their information.
This is led by Mark Sears, their technical founder/CEO, who came through our program several years ago. He gave us his presentation at our investor showcase, where he raised a couple million dollars in capital that really helped him get to the next level. He had a really transformational experience in the program, really grabbing onto what it means to be a redemptive entrepreneur across every component of the enterprise, and he has put that into practice.
Mark went on vacation to Nepal with his wife several years ago – in some sense, he never came back. While he was there, he met some technologists and started writing code with them and realized that he could create a bunch of great jobs for that country. And so he started employing people in Nepal, who became a key part of CloudFactory.
So fast forwarding to today, he employs over 5,000 people part-time around the world. These men and women can kind of pick and choose when they want to work. He also employs about 400 people full time—in Nepal, Kenya, Bangladesh, Europe, and the United States. So it’s a global enterprise now.
Mark’s ultimate vision is to employ a million people. It’s pretty crazy. But he’s crazy in a good way.
As you look at the broader cultural narratives of entrepreneurship, you will have heard it said, “Oh, well, if you want to grow quickly, if you want to build a really big company, you kind of have to throw your morals out the window.”
But Mark has just doggedly brought mission along with this whole culture of CloudFactory. One example is, there was a major earthquake in Nepal, just a few years ago, and Mark basically said, “Hey, how can we use our skills in organizing the people on our team, to organize them on behalf of the Nepali people?” And so they deployed their whole team in earthquake relief.
“Instead of just wanting to build a community or two, Brett said, ‘How do we create an organization that can develop best practices that can be used by everyone in the world?'”
It was amazing for the organization really to come together around something that was different for the business. Now Mark comes back to Praxis every year as a mentor. And he’s really shaping the next generation of leaders into that form of thinking. So that’s one example of the business side.
That’s fantastic – so impressive how he was able to mobilize his technology company to help with relief work when the need was there. What about the non-profit side?
We had a man come through our program a couple of years ago, whose name is Brett Hagler. Brett is the founder/CEO of New Story. New Story is a really interesting nonprofit that exists to pioneer solutions for global business.
Instead of just wanting to build a community or two, Brett said, “How do we create an organization that can develop best practices that can be used by everyone in the world?”
When he came to our program, it was a $3 million dollar nonprofit, but just a couple years later, it is now a $14 million dollar a year nonprofit. It’s just grown like crazy. And it’s grown in tandem with Brett saying, “I want to build a redemptive organization, that doesn’t burn our people out but works hard for a big mission.”
The cool part of the Praxis story is that a couple of years ago, when Brett was just about to join our program, two of our people were starting a company called Icon, which was aiming to do 3D printed housing. We were able to connect those three people, to help think about what 3D printed housing could look like for the developing world. And that resulted in their doing a big launch of a 3D printed home in the South by Southwest Conference in Austin, Texas.
This brought them tremendous exposure, and one of their videos had a couple million views online! There was just a huge piece in Inc. Magazine on Icon.
New Story and Icon are currently working on building 3D Printed Houses for needy communities in Central America, and it’s just this kind of breakthrough innovation opportunity – so often, when technology is developed, it is first developed for the kind of elite class who can pay for it, and then there’s this trickle down effect 20 years later. For example, first you have to develop the electric cars that are $100,000 and sell those, so that someday there’ll be a $10,000 electric car that everyone can afford.
But New Story and Icon had this kind of inverted model that was really great. They’re able to take that technology of 3D printed houses to the people who needed it the most. And so again, it’s really exciting to see. And as they’ve taken those risks, the organization has grown. These are a couple of our favorite stories – there are more I could share.
It’s exciting to see people use their God-given creativity and entrepreneurial drive to create things that truly change our world.
Find out more about the vision of Praxis at their website.