Silicon Valley based entrepreneur Josh Kwan co-founded a unique non-profit organization called Praxis to help entrepreneurs build companies and nonprofits to make a significant impact on the world. He is driven by his Christian faith to see social injustice remedied and the poor escape the clutches of poverty. The Bible verse Micah 6:8 sums up his drive:
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
Kwan started his career as a journalist with the San Jose Mercury News. “When I left college,” remarks Kwan, “I was idealistic. I wanted to change how people thought about society and public policy. I wanted to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable, to shine light on injustice, and to celebrate the heroes of society.” Kwan worked for five years for the Mercury News, first covering high tech businesses in the late 1990s during the time of the dotcom boom, and later covering general news, including crime and politics. He got married and followed his wife, a medical school graduate, to Chicago, where she was matched for residency. Having left his job at the newspaper, Kwan decided to go to business school and was accepted at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern.
During a summer break, Kwan took a job at the New York Times in strategic planning. “I loved New York and loved journalism,” says Kwan. “I hoped to stay in New York, but my wife wanted to be close to her family in the Bay Area.”
Just a year into their marriage, Kwan and his wife were already experiencing the tension between work and family. Giving up his dream job required a sacrifice that he was not yet mature enough to make on his own. “My mom told me if you want to live like a king, you need to treat your wife like a queen,” Kwan recalls.
Kwan says he was still thick-headed, and he prayed a desperate, selfish prayer: “God, I don’t want to be bitter at my wife. If I honor her wishes, and give up this dream, please give me something more exciting to do.” His prayer was answered. “Out of the blue, a person at my mom’s church emailed me about an opportunity with a successful entrepreneur who wanted to give money to help the poor, and was looking for someone to help him do it,” says Kwan. The philanthropist was David Weekley, who started one of the country’s largest privately-held home-building companies. Kwan won the job and was able to work out of the Bay Area, where his wife began working as a physician.
Helping Non-profits Fight Poverty
Kwan served for seven years as the Director of International Giving for the David Weekley Family Foundation, which applies the principles of “venture philanthropy” to eradicating global poverty. This approach to social impact mirrors venture capital by supporting entrepreneurs with funding, expertise, and networks to drive scale and improve outcomes. With a focus on health, education, and livelihoods, he has helped the foundation give and invest about $25 million to charities, social enterprises, and impact investment funds. In his role, Kwan also serves on the boards of portfolio organizations and helps with strategic planning. “By example, David showed me how to be generous with everything God gives you, from money to time to relationships. It all belongs to God.”
In 2010, together with Dave Blanchard, Kwan co-founded Praxis to nurture and equip entrepreneurs compelled by their Christian faith to advance the common good. They run an accelerator to help entrepreneurs in both the non-profit and for profit sectors. In October of this year, Kwan expects to move into an advisory role with the Weekley Foundation and begin fulltime work at Praxis.
A business accelerator typically provides entrepreneurs a small amount of funding, shared work space, and access to mentors. Perhaps the best-known example of an accelerator is San Francisco based Y-Combinator (Y-C). Since Y-Combinator started in 2005, it has helped over 600 companies, including Dropbox, Airbnb, and FiveStars. FiveStars is a Y-C company that was co-founded by Victor Ho, who was featured on this Website in September 2013.
Praxis is different, however, from other accelerators. While most serve businesses only, Praxis serves both for profit and non-profit entrepreneurs. Second, Praxis is not aimed at a particular place but draws its entrepreneurs from across the country, even internationally. Third, it does not yet offer a shared work space, but meets three times during the year-long program at lodges and inns in beautiful and secluded settings to help entrepreneurs focus and to have a safe place for vulnerable conversations. And fourth, Praxis is a faith-based organization. When Kwan and his co-founder, Dave Blanchard, started Praxis, they said they wanted to help entrepreneurs who felt lonely because their Christian friends could not understand the challenges of starting something from scratch, and whose friends in entrepreneurship could not fathom why faith had any place in launching a startup.
Kwan is a life-long follower of Christ. He grew up in a Christian family and attended church regularly.
I loved everything about church. I loved the community. I loved the singing. I loved learning the Bible stories. I loved the history. I loved thinking about how people relate to each other. Faith for me came easily. Maybe it is weird, but even as a kid I wondered what would happen to me when I die? Why are we here on Earth? I believe that there is some higher purpose for why we’re on earth. Serving the God who created the heavens and the earth is a pretty good one.
Kwan’s faith was challenged, however, as a student at Harvard. He comments:
Harvard takes pride in being a place of tolerance and reason. It is tolerant of nearly everything, but for a place that started as a training ground for clergy, many people on campus are disdainful of Christianity. But fortunately I found a great group of friends who were believers and who helped me continue my walk of faith.
Faith is at the center of Kwan’s purpose today and is the reason he co-founded Praxis. He remarks, “I want to nurture, support, and equip a generation of entrepreneurs who make such a positive impact on their communities that people are drawn to hear about their faith.”
How Praxis Works
Entrepreneurs, or “Fellows” as Praxis calls them, are chosen from the many applications they receive. Kwan says, “We are looking for A+ entrepreneurs with Gospel-minded ideas.” For its business accelerator, Praxis is looking for 12 Fellows each year. Those entrepreneurs must have a passion for excellence, a deep interest in the integration of faith and work, a humble and teachable leadership style, and ideally a desire to create virtue and shape culture through their businesses.
In the business accelerator, Fellows gather for three retreats at which they are introduced to mentors who have deep experience building companies or investing in companies. Fellows also can get feedback on their business plans from potential investors. The community of people – mentors, peers, investors, and the Praxis team – is the prime value Fellows receive from their involvement with Praxis. And although most of the activity is focused around the retreats, mentoring and advice is provided throughout the year as needed by the fellows, including help in finding investors.
The non-profit accelerator works in much the same way. Praxis looks for similar characteristics for its non-profit entrepreneurs. The focus, however, is on the impact and scalability of the organization’s social mission. The non-profit accelerator also offers benefits similar to the business accelerator, including a community of people. In addition, it provides $100k in awards.
Kwan comments, “Our ideal outcome for both the businesses and non-profit organizations is that they show high growth and high impact.”
In May, more than 70 investors from around the country attended a pitch day for Fellows in Menlo Park organized by Praxis. The graduating Fellows who attended were engaged in a variety of businesses globally, including an inexpensive software platform to help non-profits with fundraising and events, a collective of social enterprises in Singapore, an outdoor lifestyle brand that’s showing how to care for both people and the environment, a video game company which embeds Christian values and virtues, and a Nepal-based firm creating high-value technology-related jobs in developing countries.
Praxis’s non-profit accelerator has graduated nearly two dozen Fellows engaged in a range of activities, including a program to prepare underemployed women in Africa for leadership roles, a program in Kenya to build a sustainable infrastructure to help HIV people with their daily needs, and a program to eliminate educational inequality in America’s public schools.
Each year, 12 nonprofits and 12 businesses complete the two accelerator programs and join the alumni community. And in August 2014, Praxis Academy will host a weeklong experience to “inspire the imagination of Christian college students who have a bent toward entrepreneurship.” Through seminars, panels, and group discussions, 100 students will examine theology, learn practical skills, and connect with peers and mentors.
Integration of Faith and Business
Kwan notes that for a business leader to build a strong culture he or she must have a deep spiritual and family life. “Having the right culture is primary to everything,” says Kwan. “It starts at the top. If you are the founder, you set the stage for how people work and act.” Humility; servant-leadership; and the practice of the spiritual disciplines, including prayer, worship, and Bible reading, form the character traits of committed Christian leaders. Business outcome is important, but equally important is how entrepreneurs run their businesses. “God doesn’t guarantee success, and He has a different definition of failure,” Kwan says. “He cares more about your process than your profits.”
Advice for Entrepreneurs
I asked Kwan what advice he would offer a budding entrepreneur. He suggested a framework he learned from Steve Garber of the Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation, and Culture:
- Comprehensive worldview — “Have a worldview that is comprehensive and defensible. As an entrepreneur, your faith will be tested. Are you going to cut corners? Are you going to be tempted to do questionable things to survive? Your faith ought to provide a centering set of values, and your worldview ought to define what products you build. If your faith doesn’t provide a centering set of values and a worldview which is not comprehensive and rock solid, it’s going to be broken.”
- Peer accountability — “Be in a community of people who share your faith and understand what you are going through. Have at least one other person who can hold you accountable.”
- Mentors – “You need to have someone who has walked ahead of you — someone who has built a business and who can look at tough situations and ask the right questions.”
For more advice for entrepreneurs, see the book Kwan co-authored: From Concept to Scale: Creating a Gospel-Minded Organization.
To learn more about Praxis see their Website.