Changing the World, One Startup at a Time

Words of wisdom and experience from Matt Flannery

Matt Flannery launched Kiva in 2005. The website leverages the internet and a worldwide network of microfinance to create entrepreneurial opportunity across the globe.

“We can make a lot of progress for the world and in our personal lives through this vessel of social good.”

— Matt Flannery, co-founder, and founder, Branch International

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More than 100 aspiring and early-stage entrepreneurs—students, faculty, researchers and staff from the UC Davis campus and beyond—joined with some of the region’s top business leaders, entrepreneurs and investors at the 15th annual UC Davis Big Bang! Business Competition Kickoff on October 27, 2015.

The Big Bang! provides resources for starting or growing a business. In addition to the competition, it offers a comprehensive series of workshops for building business skills. The kickoff drew both the curious and the committed to meet other aspiring and early-stage entrepreneurs, share ideas, talk with past contest winners—and determine if they were ready to take the leap themselves.

They also came to hear from Matt Flannery, co-founder of and founder of Branch International, who explored with them the transformative power of entrepreneurship.

Flannery began developing Kiva in late 2004 as a side project while working as a programmer at TiVo Inc. Seeking greater meaning in his career, he volunteered with a microfinance organization in Africa. “It was very uplifting and inspiring,” he said. “I met so many entrepreneurs who had amazing dreams and really good ideas.”

A year later Flannery left TiVo to launch Kiva. The nonprofit leverages the internet and a global network of microfinance institutions to facilitate loans as small as $25 that empower individuals to create opportunity around the world. Today Kiva is an established online service with partnerships in 84 countries and $846.3+ million loaned to low-income entrepreneurs.

Flannery launched Branch, a for-profit, Android-based “branchless bank” for sub-Saharan Africans, in spring 2015. Six months—and already tens of thousands of loans in Kenya—into the venture, Flannery said, “I feel like I’m totally on fire again.”

“Just get started.”

 Flannery shared his key lessons for success, encouraging the audience to “Just get started. That’s the most important rule for entrepreneurship.

“A lot of aspiring entrepreneurs are walking around, carrying a dream in their heads, but it never gets any further,” Flannery said. “Somewhere they hear a narrative that they’re not good enough. You have to ignore that voice.”

Flannery’s second rule: Be vulnerable and share. “Entrepreneurs can have a great vision but exclude others,” he said. Crediting Kiva’s volunteer program for its central role in the venture’s dramatic growth, he added, “I’ve learned to give away everything I have, and in the process I’ve grown—and my organization has grown.”

He urged framing a business or service in the context of a higher cause. “Connect your intellect with a deeper purpose— that’s when you have a lot of power,” he said, adding that this also takes the pressure of the venture’s leadership.

“We can make a lot of progress for the world and in our personal lives through this vessel of social good.”

Sharing it forward

Rose Hong Truong (left) and Natalya Shelby discuss their innovation, the VisionFinder, with Professor Tu Jarvis, director of the Blum Center for Developing Economies at UC Davis.

 Following Flannery’s talk, winners in the 2015 Big Bang! shared their experiences.

Vision Vanguard team members Rose Hong Truong and Natalya Shelby explained how they grew their innovation into a viable venture. Their VisionFinder is portable, durable and cost-effective device that diagnoses the vast majority of vision deficiencies common in developing nations. The team of engineering students developed the device as their senior project. It won the $3,000 Poverty Alleviation Award, sponsored by the UC Davis Blum Center for Developing Economies, in the 2015 competition.

“Big Bang! felt more like a bootcamp than a competition,” said Shelby. “We were undergraduates who met lawyers, investors and business advisors who gave invaluable advice and support.”

The Big Bang! provides a year-round forum for new and early-stage startups to collaborate, develop and test business ideas. Resources include team creation, education, mentorship, networking and financing; the program begins with the fall kickoff and ends the following May. Last year the competition awarded nearly $40,000 in prize money. This year’s winners will take home more than $50,000.

Ready to make the leap

Many attending the kickoff did get involved in this year’s competition, which had 42 teams; the 15 semifinalists were announced in late April. They will compete for the five finalist spots—and a chance to present their ventures at the awards ceremony in late May.

“The teams work incredibly hard throughout the year,” noted Program Coordinator Amber Harris. “It’s impressive to see their perseverance and their leadership skills develop. By the time teams reach the final round, they’ve been through up to 16 workshops and three rounds of feedback.

“Our speakers and mentors share experiences gained through years of hard work, giving Big Bang! participants an edge in creating their business strategy. The teams learn to accept new ideas, and apply the lessons learned to improve their innovations.”

Hosted by the UC Davis Child Family Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, the Big Bang! is the largest annual business competition in the Sacramento region.

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