June 12, 2018, 7 min read
Interview by Julia Wagner
This week’s interview is with Neetal Parekh, CEO of Innov8Social. Having moved globally more than 20 times growing up and being trained in law, she finally found her home and mission in the San Francisco Bay Area. Here she teaches and supports social entrepreneurship, via content, tools, and interactive ‘Impactathon’ events.
In our conversation, we talked about the emerging ecosystem for social entrepreneurship, the importance of patience, publishing a book via Amazon and what it means to be a content curator.
We also recommend listening to Neetal's The Impact Podcast, she has a beautiful voice!
If you like to read more interviews on female entrepreneurs, check out our features of Madi Group Founder Madi Sharma or indoor habitat re-shaper Diva Tommei.
Hello Neetal. Great to have you here. Why don't you briefly introduce yourself to us? What do you do?
My name is Neetal Parekh, and I am the founder and CEO of Innov8Social, which has tools, content, and programs to make social entrepreneurship more accessible and actionable. I love the space of social impact and I the idea of empowering and encouraging people to get involved. Originally, I studied law and am licensed to practice in Washington. My path has been a little unconventional.
You obviously saw a need in starting this business. Do you see that there's something that's fundamentally misunderstood or a skill that a lot of people lack that you want to build?
Social entrepreneurship is basically using business to create social impact, i.e. business for good. I think this is something that many people are interested in but it is a different paradigm than what many are used to. It is different from the single bottom line goals that we traditionally focus on in business. With this shift in thinking, there’s a whole ecosystem that is emerging around legal structures, business models, impact measurement. People are trying to catch up to all of those different variables. I think that's where the need is, to bring people to the table, to be speaking a common language about social enterprise. And then, we really have a chance to be innovative in the field and reach new milestones. I see my work as helping build the ecosystem and develop the right leadership within it.
“With the U.N. and their agencies, (…) you have to have what I call ‘institutional patience’”
Related to your special background in law, I know there are new legal forms of companies and things you can do and in order to have both profit and social impact. Can you briefly point out some of these constructs that exist?
The legal side is really what brought me into the social enterprise. If you look at the current corporate law, the case law tends to favor focusing on maximizing shareholder wealth. That does not only always match social impact goals because you might be creating waste or other externalities in the process of pursuing a strong bottom line. I started Innov8Social as a blog in 2011 and was following the California legislation to pass two legal structures: One was the 'benefit corporation' and one is what is now called the 'social purpose corporation'. The benefit corporation takes the idea of shareholders and expanded it to stakeholders, who include the shareholders and also the community and environment, aside from pursuing the profit. The focus of benefit corporations is to maximize stakeholder return, which includes profit but also factors in social impact. Similarly, social purpose corporations in California also seek to benefit a particular social purpose that they identify in their charters.
Now the company’s leadership might be less worried that the shareholders will sew them, it adds a layer of protection. California was the sixth state to institutionalize it, now more than 36 states and jurisdictions have some sort of benefit corporation. These new options are also shifting the paradigms of the new ecosystem.
Going a little bit into your pathway: when did you decide to study law and what was your driver?
I was in undergrad and I started out in the life sciences but grew interested in international law. I moved around a lot growing up, my family is from India, and this international focus was the lens through which I kind of saw the world.
So I started law school and in the first summer, I studied abroad in Geneva and Strasbourg, international human rights law, learning about the incredible history of the Red Cross and other things. Throughout this, I gained a sense that with the U.N. and their agencies, it takes a long time for things to happen and you have to have what I call ‘institutional patience’. It shifted my view. I came back to law school and finished my degree but I knew at that point that I would have a non-conventional path in law. A couple years after finishing my degree I had a chance to move to the Bay Area. Here, people are working on ideas and moving fast, people are not afraid to say ‘how can we work on an idea that might change an entire industry?’ or ‘how can we change this and make this better?’ There’s no need to wait for a signal. Social entrepreneurship combines the buoyancy of entrepreneurship and the focus of social impact. Lastly, the development of the new legal structures and the link to law was my validation that I might have to take a leap of faith and jump into this space.
“It takes a decade to become an overnight success. A lot of it is simply the amount of time that you have been in a space.”
I should also mention you're an expert in social media marketing. You are also quite well networked, you have 4,000-5,000 LinkedIn followers, 30,000 followers on Facebook. This step of going to a new place and then building your network is hard to a lot of people. What are some strategies that you can share with us to go from overwhelm to action?
There is never just one thing that happens when you see people that are super successful. There's a saying: ‘It takes a decade to become an overnight success.’ So a lot of it is simply the amount of time that you have been in a space.
I come professionally from a space of creating content and building audience through social media social media and have learned a lot about how it works. First of all, if you are trying to build a name in a certain space, you are hopefully passionate about it. A lot of things can start with content. Ask yourself: What do you love to create and that you would enjoy producing, which you can replicate and create over time. It might be a podcast, interview or a series of blogs, or postings through Instagram or Snapchat. What you'll see over time is that you can link those pieces of content in creative ways. Those are shared so whenever someone links to one, they can find all the others. You can personalize recommendations to say if you like this article, maybe you'll like these other articles. The nice thing about content is that it has a long shelf life. So it's really up to you as a content creator and curator to create value. Also don’t forget about common sense search engine optimization, focusing on what the keywords are that you are optimizing for in your work. It helps to be relatively specific, for instance rather than a female interviewing entrepreneurs, be a female who interviews seed-stage entrepreneurs together with other female founders.
"It is not the concept but the implementation and execution of the idea that has value."
With regards to the in-person relationships - how did you approach that? Did you find anything specific about the Bay Area?
What I love about the Bay Area is that there's this focus on idea sharing and giving feedback. It is not the concept but the implementation and execution of the idea that has value. So there is a little bit more free exchange of thoughts and ideas than in other places and that leads to powerful innovation.
“Content is amazing but you cannot control the flow of how it is consumed. At live events, some of that magic can happen. We call ours the ‘Impactathons’.”
What is something that you've learned in the process of publishing the book?
The book was such a labor of love, you put so much effort into it. I started the book with a co-author but we headed in different directions and I essentially re-started from scratch, back at the drawing board. The gratification is a little bit delayed, given how long the process takes, three years in my case. What is great is that it is a more formalized way of writing and researching, and you have editors who look over your work. It being a physical product means that you have to think about the look of the cover, the type of pages, the number of prints. It was printed through Amazon as a drop-ship printing, which means I have never seen the place where it's getting printed.
"Your ‘how’ can change once you know what your personal ‘why’ is, but you should find your ‘why’."
I'll stick with the topic of personal growth. To a high-school student, just graduating, which advice would you give?
If you're finishing high school, you're in this mode of collecting experiences and findings.
I think that's an amazing place to be. Collect a lot of experiences, work experiences life experiences with the idea of finding the thing that you really are interested in and passionate about and really good at. Try to put yourself in different experiences to try to find that thing. Your ‘how’ can change once you know what your personal ‘why’ is, but you should find your ‘why’.
Take different classes, pick up jobs to get a taste of what it’s like to be in the workplace, or get a barista job. Be around people that are like you but also different from you. Then look back and reflect on which of these situations you felt happy and you were successful, and identify what made you successful.
Can you let us in a little bit into the relationship with your sister?
I feel like I was born with my best friend already waiting for me. We moved a lot growing up and our family became really close because of that. We were bonded as we were moving to the countries, in total about 20 times. Mostly to the US but we lived in South America, Saudi Arabia, and Canada as well. My sister is an entrepreneur as well, she has a home staging business, and we are supportive of each other in that. We also have a lot of common interests around leadership, creativity, and innovation. I don't know if I would be doing what I do in this way if I didn't have my sister who is figuring out that path in parallel. You need courage as an entrepreneur to keep moving forward.
Who is a person in your life who is challenging you or has challenged you in the past?
My dad. He always made sure that we got into leadership and sports. There was nothing that we felt we couldn't do. He came to the U.S. as an immigrant and learned English as a second language, and he's built this incredible life, which is quite impressive to me.
Here in the Bay Area, we're talking about moonshots, 10x. What's your personal hack to dream big?
A lot of my work is solo-preneurship. One of my hacks has been going to hackathons, where I can work on big ideas with a team over a short period of time. The energy and potential are amazing and I have met incredible problem solvers at these events. Everything can become possible with a small group of aligned people. This helps me continue to think big with my work with Innov8social and also think critically about the kind of team needed to achieve those goals.
I don't know if I would be doing what I do in this way if I didn't have my sister who is figuring out that path in parallel. You need courage as an entrepreneur to keep moving forward.
What is a routine that helps you to get through the day? And how do you self-discipline yourself to pursue the things you want to achieve, given you are working alone?
I have noticed that I am far more motivated to achieve goals when other people are involved than just for myself. If only working for myself, I can tend to waste time and get overwhelmed. Therefore I try to schedule meetings and establish partnerships. These become benchmarks that determine what I need to deliver. Also, it helps in staying organized. A lot about entrepreneurship is follow-up and follow-through.
Do you live by a mantra or model of life?
One of my favorite hashtags is #goanddo. Using it reminds me that you just have to start, we can always make it better. The difference between not doing something and doing something imperfect is huge. We constantly have to find ways to make that move from inertia to momentum.
“Growth happens in the conversations with people.”
How much of networking and attending events makes sense to you?
It depends on the focus I need to have and the situation. There are times when there are events exactly in my wheelhouse and attending can spark new ideas and connections; yet, other times when I may opt out of relevant and awesome events, in order not to dilute that focus and momentum that I have to finish something. It is kind of a pendulum and you have to be okay with that.
You need both sides of it because growth happens in the conversations with people, before and after the lectures, in giving each other candid feedback, as well as in quiet reflection. You might need to have a handful of conversations before you reach the clarity on which partnerships you want, and you may also need quiet time to ideate and innovate new ideas.
What's the next milestone you're striving for, or growth you want to achieve for yourself?
For me it is partnerships. I have been actively pitching and speaking to different organizations, companies, and universities. One of the ways that I know works well is the concept of the ‘Impactathon’. Connect and partner to serve.
Thank you so much, Neetal. We have enjoyed having you on.
Thank you for the interview, it has been wonderful. In interviews, you can always learn both ways.
Neetal Parekh is an attorney-turned-entrepreneur with a proven track record of delivering interactive learning experiences, creating dynamic content, building an audience, and providing strategic guidance on social entrepreneurship, social intrapreneurship, and social impact. She believes when we act from a place of service, we always have something valuable to offer and we never run out of worthwhile work to do when we are driven by questions bigger than ourselves.
- Convener of Impactathon® - a customizable hackathon-style workshop focused on social impact and successfully delivered in partnership with universities, companies, events.
- Author of “51 Questions on Social Entrepreneurship”, which reached Amazon Bestseller status and is being used by universities and instructors as an introductory text for social enterprise.
- Host of The Impact Podcast by Innov8social featuring 150+ episodes with social impact thinkers and doers and candid reflections on opportunities and challenges in the space.
- Frequent speaker, facilitator, moderator on topics including: what every founder should know about social entrepreneurship, key slides for social impact pitch, failing fast and pivoting in social enterprise, adopting a social entrepreneurship mindset for innovation, finding your passion and your tribe, moving forward from loss to engage in meaningful work, teaching and reaching Generation Z.
Some of the companies Neetal has worked with are D-Rev (delivering medical technologies for under-served populations) and indoor gardening kit producer 'Back to the Roots'