Finding A Way For Fledgling Startups To Adopt The Sustainable Development Goals

A couple of years ago, the folks at the Founder Institute began pondering how the very early-stage startups in their accelerator could adopt some of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). While many company founders were all for supporting the SDGs, which are a series of inter-connected goals aimed at creating a more-sustainable world, they didn’t quite see what they could do about it.

“The SDGs are so big,” says co-founder Jonathan Greechan. “How can a little, fledgling startup having a hard time hitting payroll do any of these things?”

Jonathan Greechan

But, with a goal of accomplishing all 17 global SDGs by 2030, avoiding the issue didn’t seem like an option. “If you had thousands of small businesses each doing its part, you could accelerate the long tail of entrepreneurship toward impact, and collectively make a big difference,” says Greechan.

With that in mind, Greechan, co-founder Adeo Ressi and the rest of their team decided on an approach: boil down the sprawling SDGs, each of which have multiple targets, into actionable, bite-size, small-business friendly steps, which they called Impact Key Performance Indicators (iKPIs). It took two years, but they eventually ended up with 332 possibilities for startups to choose.


The team started working on the iKPIs about two years ago, all the while realizing that the process could take a while, since each of the 17 SDGs have many targets. (There are 169 in all). For example, SDG #1, which is “no poverty”, includes such targets as, “By 2030, eradicate extreme poverty for all people everywhere, currently measured as people living on less than $1.25 a day,” and “By 2030, reduce at least by half the proportion of men, women and children of all ages living in poverty in all its dimensions according to national definitions.”

The Google doc they worked on grew to over 100 pages although, eventually, they created an online tool with which startup founders can research and select the most appropriate iKPIs and then come up with a way to measure their progress.

For a look at what this might mean, consider the Founder Institute’s iKPI analysis for its own operations. First, they chose three goals, one of which, SDG #8, calls for promoting “sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.” Then they selected the target, “Achieve full and productive employment and decent work for all women and men.” And finally, they picked the iKPI: “Increase the total number of people employed in decent work as defined by the International Labor Organization”. Then they came up with a metric to measure progress, specifically, the number of new founders graduated by the accelerator per quarter.

The plan, which is being rolled out now for the fall, is for every founder at the beginning of each program to select two to three iKPIs they’ll pursue as they build their company. “We’re baking it into the business from the start,” says Greechan. “Otherwise, it can morph into just a marketing campaign.”

The Founder Institute runs four-month programs for pre-seed stage startups, including companies that are still just a twinkle in a founder’s eye. Since they’re at such a fledgling step in their evolution, applicants are chosen based on their answers to a 40-minute assessment of entrepreneurial personality traits that correlate with success in building a business, created with data collected from over 60,000 startup founders.

Once they’re in a program, entrepreneurs don’t give up equity. Instead, about halfway through the program, they contribute 4% into warrants into what’s called an “Equity Collective”, with one-quarter going to alumni, one-quarter to mentors, one quarter to cohort leaders and one-quarter to the Founder Institute.

I’m an award-winning journalist with a particular interest in for-profit social enterprise, as well as entrepreneurship and small business in general. I’ve covered those