When we first met Corinne Gray back in 2016, the artist-turned-humanitarian was working at the forefront of the U.N. Refugee Agency’s innovation programme. At the time, part of her job was to curate creative solutions to address the issues facing some of the world’s most vulnerable people, and we were lucky that this led to her joining the very first WDCD Challenge Jury.
Since then, Corinne’s work has expanded into the field of social entrepreneurship and the world of climate tech financing. Today she is part of the Unreasonable Group, a global company that supports impact-focused startups and partners with institutions to drive capital towards solving global problems. She also sits on the boards of two nonprofits in Uganda, while acting as co-founder and CEO of the Uncomfortable Revolution — a digital media platform working to change the way we talk about chronic illness and disability.
We’re excited to welcome Corinne back into our orbit this month as a member of the Make it Circular Challenge Jury, who will be selecting the 13 winners of this year’s competition, to be announced on 3 May. Last week, we sent Corinne a few questions via email to learn more about her work in impact investing, her approach to inclusion and diversity, and what she’ll be looking for in a winning idea. Read our full conversation below.
Hi Corinne! We’d love to know more about WHy you describe yourself as an ‘artist-turned-humanitarian’. How do these two worlds meet in your work?
I grew up in a developing country with a mother who was a social worker and spent her evenings playing the piano. I think that had a huge role in shaping my passions. She would often help her clients with her own money, or she would bring them to our home. So from a young age, the idea of helping others or making the world a better place became deeply ingrained in me. I thought that changing the world was something everyone strived for.
I always loved music as a child, too. I would spend my afternoons listening to records, and at the age of four I begged my mother to let me start piano lessons. As I got older, I studied art and went on to do my bachelor’s degree in music. This took me to Asia and the Middle East where I worked as a professional singer for a few years. But I felt empty and like I wanted to really make a difference in the world, so I gave up singing and went to do my master’s degree with the aim of running my own non-profit. Eventually I ended up working at the UN before moving into the social entrepreneurship and the impact investing ecosystem. I’d say my background as a creative greatly shapes my work today. I think about problems differently. I can think of new ways to address challenges. And of course, I make amazing PowerPoint slides 😉
Corinne and other participants of the 2022 Unreasonable Impact event in London.
As part of the Unreasonable Group, you’ve helped hundreds of entrepreneurs around the world to expand their impact. Can you tell us more about how you do this?
Unreasonable is in the business of building ecosystems and networks of support for the world’s most impactful ventures operating at the growth stage. These are ventures that have a social and environmental mission baked into their business model, and are working to disrupt entire sectors sustainably. We recognise that these ventures are key to solving our planet’s greatest challenges, and can provide much-needed tech solutions that can transform the operations of big multinationals. And so, we partner with multinationals who are looking for disruptive technologies that can be integrated at scale to make their supply chains sustainable, while also creating jobs.
Together we select the most impactful ventures and induct them into the Unreasonable Fellowship. We strive for 50% female and/or under-represented entrepreneurs as we recognise the funding gap is huge for this group. We then support these entrepreneurs for life, helping with annual fundraising, introducing them to our network of VC’s and 1,000+ mentors and advisors.
My role as Deputy to the CEO is to work alongside our Founder and CEO to build relationships with potential partners. I also work on our network of investors and mentors, as well as a new Fund we are building to invest in our ventures. Being able to directly invest in our ventures is the biggest impact we can have as they continue to scale their breakthrough solutions.
‘We recognise that impact-driven ventures are key to solving our planet’s greatest challenges, and can provide much-needed tech solutions that can transform the operations of big multinationals.’
Recently you also co-founded a social enterprise called the Uncomfortable Revolution. What’s the mission and vision behind this project?
Uncomfortable Revolution is on a mission to change the way we view disability, and to prove that there is a market for accessible-designed products. There are 1 billion disabled people in the world, yet few products (or even content) are ever designed for them in mind. Just walk around any city and try to think about how much or how little someone who uses a wheelchair, or is deaf, or is blind might be able to access and enjoy. Our vision is to engage businesses and designers to rethink the way they design products. So we run a magazine that features articles on what it’s like to live with a disability — whether it’s at work, school, or even dating and having sex. We also run an online shop that sells products that showcase disability and disability culture in a much more empowering light.
Designs from the ‘Be Inclusive’ campaign by the Uncomfortable Revolution.
On a more general note, what is something that excites you about the future of entrepreneurship?
How much it’s moving towards impact and sustainability. Greenwashing isn’t new. Since the 80’s and 90’s, slapped-on recyclable labels have won hearts and minds at the store. But what we’re seeing now is a true shift in business-as-usual. This year’s Earth Day theme is “Invest in Our Planet”. The future of entrepreneurship will see entire business models with sustainability baked in — not as an after-thought or part of corporate citizenship. The entrepreneurs of the future will scale their impact as their bottom line grows, and that’s exciting to see!
‘The future of entrepreneurship will see entire business models with sustainability baked in — not as an after-thought or part of corporate citizenship.’
We’re honoured to have you on board as part of the Make it Circular Challenge Jury. What made you decide to participate in the project?
I’ve always loved What Design Can Do and enjoyed being part of the Jury for the Refugee Challenge in 2016. It was not a hard choice to participate again this year! At Unreasonable, a large proportion of our portfolio is in the climate tech / circular economy space and so I’m really excited to discover new ideas in these sectors.
What are some things you will be looking out for in a winning idea?
I’m looking for an idea rooted in local research with plans to scale alongside local stakeholders through deep partnerships. I’d be looking for a solution that can be readily integrated into existing infrastructure as this decreases the need for significant (and expensive) changes to existing operational infrastructure. For me, a compelling idea is an idea that has a true moat — not easy to duplicate and/or would take a while for incumbents to catch up. The team behind it is also incredibly important — I’m looking for the right skill sets and know-how to execute on the idea. Most importantly, I’ll be looking at the total potential impact and the theory of change that the team presents. I’d want to see ideas that achieve true circularity and have sustainability completely baked into the business model.
‘I’m looking for an idea rooted in local research with plans to scale alongside local stakeholders through deep partnerships.’
Corinne at a Make it Circular Challenge Jury Meet-Up.
Getting a creative enterprise off the ground isn’t always easy. What’s one key advice you’d like to share with our nominated teams?
Think very carefully of your entrepreneurial strategy i.e. what approach you will take in exploring and evaluating the core choices that you need to make as you translate your ideas into a reality. As an entrepreneur you have to make precise decisions about where you spend your time with the resources you have. Most of us, when we’ve designed a product, we immediately think of launching a B2C business. Of course there is no inherent problem with this. But I think it’s important to consider if that’s the play you need to make. Launching a consumer brand is just one path. Maybe you’ll find a more profitable, sustainable pathway by inserting your product into someone else’s supply chain. So I’d say think very strategically about the pond your product might be best suited to swim in.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Top image: Corinne in conversation with Alvyn Severien, one of the 2022 Unreasonable Impact entrepreneurs.