From Idea to Launch: How Fuqua MBAs Began MedServe & 4 Lessons They Learned in Launching a Social Venture

scrubs pic 3Each year, CASE awards one Fuqua MBA student with a budding social venture the CASE Launch Pad award. This $10,000 grant also comes with one-on-one coaching from CASE Senior Fellow and author Dan Heath, known for his best-selling books Decisive, Switch, and Made to Stick.

Last year’s recipient was Anne Steptoe for her idea to launch an organization called MedServe, a 2-year post-college fellowship in underserved community primary care – a “Teach for America” for healthcare. With the support of the CASE Launch Pad the program has already made incredible strides:

  • Starting this summer, MedServe – led by Anne Steptoe and her MedServe partner, Patrick O’Shea – will pilot the program with 13 clinics across North Carolina – 3 private practices, 8 community health centers and 2 non-profit community clinics (8 rural, 5 urban). These are areas that traditionally have a difficult time recruiting primary care doctors and where doctors first starting their careers can gain valuable experience.
  • With only 13 openings for fellows, MedServe has already seen incredible interest – they have already received 70 applications, 5 times the number of open positions!
  • Since the Launch Pad, they have also won awards from the Duke Start-Up Challenge, 1st place in the UNC Social Entrepreneurship Competition, and sponsorship by UNC-Chapel Hill’s The Cube. They’ve also gathered funding from a number of grantees, including their ongoing Indiegogo campaign.

Kevin Trapani, President and CEO of The Redwoods Group and chair of CASE Advisory Council, said of MedServe, “I tell [people] it should be called Heal for America for all the potential it has to help our communities across North Carolina. Our team at CASE is thrilled to support Duke MBA social entrepreneurs trying to change the world and we look forward to seeing MedServe tackle this critical public health issue.”

All of this success so far has not come without a lot of hard work. We asked Anne what some of her advice would be to others looking to start their social ventures from the experiences she has had so far. She had these four tips to give:

  1. Diversify, diversify, diversify: aim to diversify and rapidly test different sources of capital.
    MedServe works best as a non-profit, for a multitude of tactical reasons. But that opens our enterprise to the risks of relying on foundation grants for operational stability; two of the largest health-related service year programs have had to shut down for a year in the past when similar funding streams haven’t been renewed. We’re determined to be different and have asked for clinics to literally “buy into” the program to help reduce our risk of being crippled by funding.Our non-profit status has also meant that we’ve been running on 2 different timelines as a start-up — a “start tomorrow” timeline driven by student and clinic interest and a slower timeline driven by foundation grant cycle timing and processes. We’ve tested just about every way to diversify those streams to reduce our risk and meet our customers’ demand as quickly as possible – everything from small earned income streams to corporate sponsorship to an ongoing Indiegogo campaign (https://www.generosity.com/medical-fundraising/medserve).
  1. Find a mission you’re willing to sweat for and don’t lose sight of it
    We’ve had days that started with 5:00am drives out to rural clinics or regional universities that wanted to hear about the program and ended with late-night drives back home. We’ve had meetings with topical experts who told us we’d never get primary care clinics to be interested in hosting young people or young people interested in going to clinics. We’ve even accumulated a few funny “sweat” stories along the way – from a team member canceling their own birthday party when a prospective clinic needed to reschedule their meeting to almost driving through a tornado on the way to a student recruitment event.Our policy has been to work through all these challenges; sometimes that effort has been rewarded. Other times, it hasn’t. If we didn’t genuinely enjoy the work and believe unwaveringly in our mission, any one of these experiences might have led us to reconsider this crazy entrepreneurial process.
  1. Be willing to mis-hear “no” and learn from those “no’s”
    In our first month, we randomly called primary care providers who’d signed up to talk to graduate students about the field. We assumed they’d be thrilled to talk to us; instead, they told us (we’re paraphrasing) that the primary care shortage was hopeless and we couldn’t hope to help solve it unless we radically overturned everything having to do with the US healthcare system — not great market research data for a budding social enterprise.That alone might have killed the idea if we hadn’t internally decided that the “no” we were hearing didn’t represent the whole picture. And, the next month, we got our first “yes” from the CEO of a primary care chain. Over the subsequent months, we learned who the “right” physician to ask was and how to find them; from there a handful of early “no’s” seem properly contextualized.
  1. You’re only as successful as your friends: so ask for help, show gratitude and share your story
    We know (because we’ve been told by foundation Program Officers, marketing gurus and countless partners in clinic and student recruitment) that we owe significant parts of our success to-date to an alliance of stakeholders that have spent decades building regional and national reputations for their commitment to increasing access to primary care.We’ve formalized that network with our Advisory Board but our network of advisers, supporters and friends is so much wider and has opened doors for us that we couldn’t have hoped to open alone. That’s been a humbling lesson for us. We think we have a great idea but great ideas in a vacuum are just ideas. They don’t inspire clinics to host us, students to trust us with their learning or funders to invest in us — that we owe to the legion of other talented people who’ve stood up and asked that our work be recognized and supported.

We wish Anne and her team the best of luck as they begin to select their first cohort of fellows for MedServe and look forward to seeing where they are a year from now.

Interested in helping MedServe grow?  Click here to support their growth. Want to learn more about the CASE Launch Pad? Click here.

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