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Business as a Platform for Change

Entrepreneurial Alchemy: Local Innovators Tackle Global Challenges With Technology, Collaboration

Editor’s Note: This article originally published in March 2021 and was updated in May 2022 to reflect the latest.

On a beach in Kerala, India, Alexei Levene and William Janssen sat cross-legged in the sand, with a new type of solar panel in their hands — trying to work out how to solve one of the world’s most pressing challenges — using just sun and seawater.

Not far from their seat, local villagers lacked access to clean drinking water. More than 2 billion people, around the world in fact, were wrestling with the same problem, but Janssen and Levene had prototyped a new solution and were determined they could make an impact. However as ecopreneurs, the odds were stacked against them. 

“There is far too little support and investment at the early stages for the systems needed for a green industrial revolution. You have to really fight for every win until you’re fully productized — and getting to that point is the big challenge,” Levene says today, reflecting on the obstacles they have faced in the five years since then. Today their company Desolenator is 22-people-strong and is about to launch two flagship projects for sustainable, solar-powered water purification. 

You have to really fight for every win until you’re fully productized — and getting to that point is the big challenge.

Alexei Levene, Founder, Desolenator

In reality, to Levene’s point, most entrepreneurial pursuits fail. Even after someone musters the rare combination of tenacity, resilience, and drive to pursue success in the face of adversity, it can feel impossible to land on an idea, let alone take action. They need help. 

“It took us time, and we finally found our perfect first investor. But many companies are not so fortunate,” Levene added.

[L-R] Desolenator Founder, Alexei Levene with Co-Founder, William Janssen

When most entrepreneurs finally pursue an idea, they often gravitate to the places and people in their networks that can provide resources, which ultimately tie them to corporate or profit-driven goals. As a result, humanitarian entrepreneurs have historically struggled to fuel and fund their innovation even as the pandemic, climate change, and growing inequality have increased the need for their projects.

At the same time, companies like Salesforce that actively search for human-impact projects to fund as part of their philanthropic and sustainability efforts, have trouble finding entrepreneurs who align to their goals. 

As Suzanne DiBianca, Chief Impact Officer at Salesforce, explained, “Ecopreneurs are launching innovative ideas to protect the planet and drive climate impact locally and at scale,” DiBianca said. “Business leaders need to invest in and empower them.”

It was precisely this that inspired the World Economic Forum (WEF), Deloitte, and Salesforce to collaborate on a solution. The result was UpLink: a digital platform that connects local innovators with the people and resources that can transform their ideas into reality. Aligned with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, the platform helps entrepreneurs and environmentally-minded “ecopreneurs” surface ideas to end extreme poverty, reduce inequality, and protect the planet by 2030.

The result has been nothing short of entrepreneurial alchemy. In its first two years alone, UpLink has helped nearly 30,000 innovators connect, collaborate, and focus their combined energy on helping address challenges faced by impoverished and disparaged communities around the world. 

John Dutton, now Head of UpLink at the World Economic Forum, shared a genuine sense of excitement for the platform’s progress. On a call with 10 of UpLink’s innovators, Dutton greeted each person by their first name with a warm sense of familiarity.

“The [World Economic] Forum has a long tradition of seeking insights and world-renowned innovations from across the globe,” Dutton later said. “With UpLink, we’re looking to continue along this trajectory and go beyond the traditional ecosystems of leaders by democratizing the search for innovative solutions.”

With UpLink, we’re looking to continue along this trajectory and go beyond the traditional ecosystems of leaders by democratizing the search for innovative solutions.

John Dutton, Head of UpLink, World Economic Forum

UpLink, in this sense, is a free platform and community where people from all backgrounds can engage the leaders and entrepreneurs who are identifying and solving problems locally, everywhere from Anchorage to Zimbabwe. DiBianca acknowledges the platform’s potential with a similar sense of excitement. 

“We want to enable, inspire, and empower younger generations and a much wider audience that feels a whole level of ownership over the problem, and equip people with the tools to solve those problems — that’s powerful,” DiBianca added. 

We want to enable, inspire, and empower younger generations and a much wider audience that feels a whole level of ownership over the problem, and equip people with the tools to solve those problems — that’s powerful.

SUzanne DiBianca, Chief Impact Officer, Salesforce

Diego Saez-Gil, faced similar challenges to Levene with his project. Saez-Gil’s Pachama leverages data, artificial intelligence, and automation to protect ecosystems, restore forests, and improve carbon markets. 

Forest LiDAR+AI analysis: carbon concentration and tree count by Pachama

“UpLink has been especially helpful in raising awareness about our company. We were able to connect with corporate partners, investors and press, and that was super helpful,” Saez-Gil said, adding that he, “also connected with peer entrepreneurs, and that is key to sharing knowledge on how to lead teams, manage your mind and all the other challenges that entrepreneurs face.”

Thanks to connections made via UpLink, Pachama recently completed its series B funding round, raising $55 million dollars and gaining new investors, including talk-show host Ellen Degeneres. 

With UpLink, Saez-Gil and his team can start with an idea, and then recruit collaborators from around the world through the UpLink platform. 

Diego Saez-Gil, Founder, Pachama

But the connections and community are just the beginning. With partners like Salesforce, the UpLink innovators can also get access to tools tailored to their needs across industry-specific clouds, CRM software, and even cutting-edge technology like machine learning and AI translation. 

Building the platform for change

While UpLink benefits individual entrepreneurs most directly, Salesforce also sees it as a shining example of how business can act as a platform for change. 

That’s because UpLink can activate the full power of a company’s ecosystem to support initiatives ranging from specific software and tools to the connections and resources available through a company’s network of partners and customers. For the recent Trillion Trees Initiative, Salesforce tapped into its network of employees, partners, and customers to address a specific challenge surfaced through UpLink: planting 100 million trees over the next decade. In partnership with 1t.org, Salesforce has already conserved, restored and grown 42 million trees in just over two years, partly in thanks to the connections fostered by UpLink.

High-level initiatives like these typically come from the top-down, with NGO and government leadership subsequently helping local business leaders tackle local challenges. Progress under this approach can be slow, but by equipping local businesses with connections, community, and technology, UpLink can accelerate change from the ground up while those high-level policy efforts take time to gain momentum. 

“We must ignite an ecopreneur revolution. It’s not just creating tech companies, but creating companies that are a platform for change,” Salesforce Chair and Co-CEO Marc Benioff explained during a recent WEF event.

We must ignite an ecopreneur revolution. It’s not just creating tech companies, but creating companies that are a platform for change.

Marc Benioff, Salesforce Chair and Co-CEO

When describing the potential of the UpLink platform, DiBianca perked up in her chair.

“Imagine what we can accomplish by unleashing armies of passionate minds to solve issues and make a difference,“ she said, adding, “it’s not just the momentum but the quality of the engagements, too. It opens the door for the next chapter of UpLink’s growth.”

Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, echoes this sentiment. “How can we engage the entrepreneurial force — not only of large enterprises, of new startups, of young people?”

For Dutton and his team, UpLink’s massive first few years is just a small glimpse into a big future. 

“I want to see everything grow by a factor of ten. At least,” Dutton said.

The World Economic Forum, Salesforce, Deloitte, and thousands of UpLink users understand the power and potential of the platform: world-changing innovations that can come from anywhere and anyone. 

Though pursuing sustainable environmental solutions is essential, Salesforce recognizes UpLink can cater to the needs of entrepreneurs in many ways. Salesforce is sponsoring UpLink’s newest campaign of the Youth Mental Health Challenge, to help find innovative solutions that reduce the stigma around mental health and enable young people to address their needs.

So whether it’s a garden in South India, or a forest in Argentina, UpLink can connect local entrepreneurs with a global network of collaborators ready to lend a hand along with the technology to enable their ideas. And when the power of technology helps people work together, some might find that the weight of the world is a little easier to carry.

Interested in getting involved with UpLink? Sign up for UpLink here.

One trillion trees is off to a good start, and it’s easy to get involved. Read more about the initiative here, or donate a tree as a company, team, or individual here.

Learn tips from UpLink Innovators here.

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