For District-based Compass Partners, entrepreneurship is a social mission

By Steven Overly
March 27, 2011

Four newly minted college graduates packed into a house on U Street this past summer hell-bent on turning a student club into a national organization. Determined to encourage student entrepreneurs to pursue ventures with a social mission, they deferred job offers, worked well beyond 5 p.m. and hemorrhaged their bank accounts.

Their ambition may be overly optimistic, but so far it’s working.

Compass Partners spread from its home campus at Georgetown University to four other colleges at the start of this school year. This fall, it could be at another 10.

“We said, ‘How are we going to pay the rent on this nice house?’ That was a very real dilemma we were facing and it just took this continued faith to move forward and say we can do this,” co-founder and president Arthur Woods said.

Compass Partners selects 15 freshmen at each university to participate in a year-long entrepreneurship program. They attend weekly gatherings with guest speakers, meet one on one with upperclassman mentors and develop business ventures that fulfill a social mission.

The idea came from the founders’ own experience. Then students in Georgetown’s business school, Woods and Executive Director Neil Shah devised plans to launch social ventures with help from friends Michael Durante and William Huster. Armed with enthusiasm and little else, they turned to the college for guidance.

“The story, in a nutshell, was the university was not equipped to help us with our businesses. We were told more or less to go back to class,” Woods said.

Instead, they began Compass Partners as a club for like-minded students. When the founders became upperclassmen, it evolved into a mentorship program. Today, the word they use to describe their still-expanding network is “community.”

They have secured $75,000 from the Prudential Foundation to date and caught the attention of Tom Raffa, the founder and chief executive of a District-based consulting and accounting firm for nonprofits. He donated money to the fledgling start-up and lent it space in his downtown office.

“[Compass Partners] will change the way people think about how they do business, whether they start their own companies or not,” Raffa said. “It’s amazing what these guys have come up with and their optimism and how much they can do.”

The four are constantly tweaking, or at times overhauling, the curriculum as ideas emerge or suggestions are made. They then license it to universities for an undisclosed fee. But the pitch they make is not to find the next blockbuster company. For Shah, that’s not the definition of success.

“A lot of programs like ours, they track the ventures,” he said. “They say, ‘This is what our program does . . . this is the amount of money we’ve created, these are the jobs that we’ve created.’ But to us, if all the ventures fail then the program is still a success because the students have learned from that.”

Those students include Nicole Mortimer, a 20-year-old freshman journalism major who enrolled at George Washington University last fall after a year of volunteer work and travel abroad. She found a link to Compass Partners on Facebook.

Her yet-to-be-named venture will let small, nongovernmental organizations raise their online presence and fundraising prowess by making short documentaries on inexpensive, handheld video cameras. It marries her desire to tell stories and encourage social justice in a way she would not have envisioned before applying to Compass.

“I like the idea of social entrepreneurship, of business being able to make a difference,” Mortimer said. “I was never really interested in the corporate world or the business world but this gave me a new perspective on things. It doesn’t all have to be about making money.”

The organization is poised to host its first national conference, called Shift Series, this coming weekend, bringing together students from its five campus chapters, as well as businesses leaders and educators to discuss social entrepreneurship. Featured speakers include fashion designer Kenneth Cole, Nextel Communications founder Morgan O’Brien and “Chicken Soup for the Soul” publisher Amy Newmark.

But much like the entrepreneurial ventures it aims to foster, Compass Partners is very much a work in progress. Durante and Woods have taken on full-time jobs in other cities, though they still remain deeply involved. Shah and Huster maintain most day-to-day operations.

“We often say that entrepreneurs kind of walk to the beat of their own drum. Everyone wants to be a soloist,” Woods said. “We can’t do this alone. We have to work together, and that’s how it’s always been.”