Motivated by a healthy disregard for overcoming the seemingly impossible, Daniel Epstein, founder and CEO of The Unreasonable Group, believes that many of today’s most pressing societal and environmental challenges can be solved by entrepreneurs, who in the process of creating companies that resolve issues, will become the beacons of future industries.
“I believe it will become the norm that entrepreneurs are the ones that take the lead in overcoming many of societal and environmental challenges with market place solutions,” says Epstein who calls the notion “absurd” that solving the world’s foremost societal and environmental issues should be considered by some to be the domain of government agencies, NGOs and charitable organisations.
Part business accelerator, part impact investment firm and part global network facilitator, the Unreasonable Group operates across a wide range of industries and geographies, where it searches for entrepreneurs who have established companies offering effective solutions to tackle societal and environmental problems. “Basically, we work with entrepreneurs to help them to succeed faster and at the grandest of scales to solve the world’s problems as fast as possible,” says Epstein. Currently, the Unreasonable Group supports over 200 entrepreneurs who have raised more than US$3.7 billion in financing, generated over US$2.9 billion in revenue, and are impacting the lives of more than 400 million individuals across more than 180 countries.
When it comes to selecting entrepreneurs to work with, Epstein says in addition to the problem-solving capabilities and the potential to scale up the business model, decisions are based on values rather than short-term gains. “The definition of billionaires we work with are those positively impacting the lives of billions of people, although in the process there is the possibility that they might become financial billionaires,” says Epstein who believes it is perfectly reasonable to operate a successful and profitable company and at the same time do “the right thing” in the context of solving societal and environmental problems.
In addition to being recognised by Forbes magazine as one of the “top 30 most impactful entrepreneurs”, in 2013, along with serial entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson and the President of Liberia, Epstein also received the prestigious “Entrepreneur of the World” award at the Global Entrepreneurship Forum. Alongside the likes of Bill Gates and Tim Cook, Epstein also featured on Fortune magazine “the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders” list. Epstein’s route to becoming an entrepreneur was profoundly influenced by a high-profile member of his US Boulder, Colorado finance community, who advised him to “follow a path that makes a difference” in the world. By the time he received his undergraduate degree in philosophy at the University of Colorado, Boulder — after deciding not to study finance — Epstein had already started three companies. With two fellow graduates from the University of Colorado, in 2010, Epstein also founded the Unreasonable Institute — the forerunner of the present-day Unreasonable Group — with the aim of helping businesses working on social and environmental solutions to scale-up and have a bigger impact. The Unreasonable Group is named after a passage written by 19th century playwright George Bernard Shaw: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
A regular visitor to Hong Kong where he is an advisor to MakerBay — Hong Kong’s first full-scale MakerSpace, which brings artists, designers, engineers and scientists together to projects with social and environmental impact — Epstein was recently a key speaker at the G For Good “Creating Shared Value” conference, which he designated as a “outstanding opportunity to bring like-minded people together to network and explore ways of doing good”.
Describing Hong Kong as an “epicentre of innovation” in the Asia-Pacific region underpinned by a “generation of young smart people”, Epstein believes the main impediment to entrepreneurial endeavours in the City is a fear of failing. “Failure is an entrepreneurial rite of passage,” stresses Epstein. “In fact,” he adds. “It shouldn’t be considered as a failure because failure is an integral part of the cycle of learning,” suggests Epstein who explains that, in the US entrepreneurs looking for funding are likely to face elements of scepticism from possible investors if their don’t bear the scars of lessons learned from a few business malfunctions.
To overcome the fear of failing, Epstein believes, it requires a sea-change in societal thinking. Looking ahead, in the slipstream of the empowering effect of the democratisation of knowledge and information coupled with widespread digital disruption, Epstein foresees more opportunities for entrepreneurs to pivot towards solving societal and environmental problems. He also emphasises that entrepreneurial solutions don’t necessarily need to be complicated. “It can be a simple solution,” he says, “but what is absolutely necessary is having the passion and determination to see the vision through,” Epstein stresses. Like an itch that constantly requires scratching, entrepreneurs need to be “obsessively and passionately” obsessed with solving a problem.
For individuals contemplating taking their first steps along the entrepreneurial journey, Epstein says there should be no illusions about the voyage being easy or without road bumps that at times will seem like mountains. Drawn from experience, adding a further note of caution, he says entrepreneurs that become overly attached to their technology, business model or solution, instead of the problem, will most likely taste the bitter pill of failure. “Without question, becoming an entrepreneur takes a bit of foolhardiness, but once the inertial and momentum click-in, it can become something quite incredible,” says Epstein.