Online dating could be considered a force for social good – bringing people together – but it isn’t the first thing the springs to mind when setting up a social enterprise. However, it was just this that inspired i-genius founder, Tommy Hutchinson, and his team to set up a global online community for social entrepreneurs to connect with each other, and to share expertise.
“Some of these sites [online dating sites] have 40 or 50 million members,” Hutchinson excitedly points out, “we wanted to see what lessons we could learn from this and apply it to social good”.
i-genius is a world community of social entrepreneurs and seeks to inspire a new generation of “social innovators”. Its main purpose is to encourage social entrepreneurs to connect and partner with one another and help them create partnerships with corporations and other organisations.
While working in the City of London for ten years, Hutchinson travelled widely and it was through this that he realised that “the world is literally just full of amazing people” but that there was not a “great deal of connecting them up with one another”.
“What I really wanted to do was to create a new organisation that was truly global and wasn’t trying to come from a Westernised, developed country, perspective but to actually put the individuals themselves at the heart of it and to connect them up with one another,” Hutchinson explains. “I thought that if people do connect and are encouraged to work together, the world might be a better place.”
i-genius was launched at the start of this year, but it has been in the planning stages for two years. According to Hutchinson, i-genius is run by a team of “roughly 11 people”, which includes full-time staff, part-time staff and some staff working on ad-hoc arrangements. There are also i-genius ambassadors in a number of countries – Japan, Pakistan, US, Brazil, Mauritius – as well as film crews based in Japan and China. The ambassadors promote i-genius, and also keep the i-genius team informed about any developments in a specific country.
Hutchinson owns the majority of the business and is supported by his business partner – Mike Ward – who owns a third. “The business was at first mainly funded by my own money, which is now virtually gone,” he smiles. Further support is provided by Equator Media – the social marketing agency Hutchinson and Ward also set up.
His funding philosophy is that “there is no point in going to someone with a good idea [and asking for money] – you have to be out there doing it. And when people see that it is working, and there is potential for success, then you can start approaching them”. The organisation now finds itself in a position to apply for funding, and it is seeking partnerships particularly with the telecommunications, financial and academic sectors.
Who can join?
I-genius appeals to entrepreneurs from a wide variety of backgrounds and expertise. Some members run established social enterprises, whereas others simply have an idea. These “sit comfortably alongside each other” and Hutchinson says that this is part of i-genius’ aim.
“We very overtly want to be mass market,” says Hutchinson, and adds that i-genius is deliberately not looking for an “elite” type of person and that “we think the world would be a better place the more people are encouraged and stimulated and want to do good stuff”. The organisation already has over 1,000 members from 65 countries – and this only in the first six months.
An ambitious project such as i-genius does not come without challenges. And Hutchinson acknowledges that there have been a few.
One of the major issues facing anyone setting up an internet venture is that of security, and i-genius has not been immune to this. It has had three cases where members claimed to be from the Ivory Coast and attempted to carry out fraudulent activities. They were deleted and now i-genius is running an awareness campaign to alert its members of such conduct. It is also working on a delayed registration system, so that i-genius can first check the legitimacy of a profile before making it available on the site.
But i-genius is aiming for a membership of 5 million within the next three years. Currently its community is growing at a rate of 10 to 15 new members per day but this is likely to increase significantly through larger scale marketing and a new media partnership soon to be announced. So, even with a few challenges along the way, the organisation is looking towards the future.
Hutchinson plans for i-genius to develop two new roles over time – as a medium for communication and a platform for investment.
With regard to its communication role, he hopes i-genius could spread into the internet television sector, and either produce content for existing television companies, or it will develop its own internet television venture.
As for the investment arm of the business – Hutchinson aims to provide high-risk investment for “some of the great ideas out there”. However, he admits that such a venture is very ambitious and it probably “a few years away”. He cites Venturesome – an organisation run by the Charities Aid Foundation that provides specialist finance for charities and social enterprises – as a good UK-based example, and aspires to see a worldwide version of this.
But for the moment, i-genius is concentrating on connecting people and encouraging them to partner with one another.
In the coming months, the team plans on running a learning series, which will involve members running online workshops in aspects such as how to use photography or film making to promote your work as well as pooling member experiences on areas like raising finance, finding a good business partner and bringing up a young family whilst running a social business. These sessions, which tend not to form part of traditional business school modules will be member-driven and will “tap into the great talent we have in our membership”. He adds that “everything we do, including our learning programme has a focus on encouraging people to connect and partner with each other”. The organisation is also setting up Mandarin and Japanese versions of the site in the next three months, with Spanish and Portuguese to follow.
With the current boom in online social networking there is always the risk that it is just this – a boom. And booms can bust.
However, Hutchinson is confident that even if this happens, i-genius is protected because it plans to take many of its activities offline – for instance through the development of offline partnership centres and its forthcoming World Summit in Thailand – “to encourage people to spend more time with each other and develop how they can work together”.
Hutchinson emphasises the importance of staying flexible. “One thing is that we keep totally focused on what our community wants, and what they are using in their everyday lives. If we keep flexible and move with our members we should be okay.”
So, i-genius is run by its members for its members, and Hutchinson and his team carry out the logistics and occasionally stimulate new activities. Hutchinson believes that it is this “absolute focus on our members and what they want combined with the use of media channels they use in their every day lives” approach that sets i-genius apart for others: “We are not trying to teach anyone anything. We are just trying to stimulate and visualise what is already there.”
i-genius World Summit, March 2008, Phuket, Thailand. See www.i-genius.org
Biography: Tommy Hutchinson
Founder and CEO of i-genius limited – a world community of social entrepreneurs – and director of Equator Media Limited – a social marketing agency and director of City Academy – an acting and performance school for professionals.
From Northern Ireland, Tommy studied in Leeds before becoming treasurer and head of the international department of the NUS (and chair of European Students Bureau). He then worked for NatWest for 10 years until 2000, first as an aerospace analyst and then European analyst in the marketing intelligence department, culminating for three years as the Group’s political adviser. In 1997 he stood for Parliament as Labour candidate for Chingford and Woodford Green.
Leaving NatWest he became director of Industry Forum for two years and co-created youth charity Kikass and remained its chair of trustees until 2006. During this period Tommy established a number of entrepreneur initiatives including Champ which promoted peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland, an events company Hot Potato limited, and Eurobandits, which ran the official online campaign to encourage citizens to vote in the European Parliament elections.
Tommy is an associate of ProbusBNW and a trustee of Maytree Respite Centre for the suicidal. He co-authored A risky business, which looked at the nature of risk in society.