Once you have a great idea you think can change the world, one of the most important next steps is securing funding. While there might not be one formula for finding financing for your business, those who have done it say there are ways to increase your chances. The top winners at WeWork’s Creator Awards Berlin 2018—both of which are focused on solving intractable problems—share their tips for landing funding for a purpose-driven idea.

Look for grants in the beginning

“People working in the social impact realm are usually willing to reduce their profits in order to make an impact,” said Lucas Paes de Melo, founder and CEO of Amparo, which makes affordable prosthetic devices accessible around the world. The company took home the grand prize in the Business Venture category at Creator Awards Berlin. “Investors don’t necessarily want to see that.”

At the Creator Awards Berlin, part of a global competition sponsored by Wework, Amparo won €318,000 (about $362,000). Paes de Melo says the funding will help Amparo “get closer to our vision of building our clinics and increasing access to prosthetics in every corner of the planet.”  

Felix Hallwachs, managing director at the Berlin-based Little Sun Foundation, pitches the nonprofit at the Creator Awards Berlin.

When you’re in the early stages of your business plan, the Berlin-based entrepreneur highly recommends looking for grant funding to create a proof of concept and build a track record.

“There are a lot of governmental institutions and organizations, like the European Union, for instance, as well as different kinds of foundations offering grants,”” he says. “Even some banks give out grants.” Amparo received early funding from government grants and a business development bank, among other sources, which supported the company’s mission and helped it scale.

Be clear about your vision and purpose

Whether it’s writing grant applications or speaking to potential investors, it’s crucial to clearly communicate the problem you’re tackling and how your company is the best solution.

“Think about why your project is an interesting prospect for the person you’re talking to,” says Felix Hallwachs, managing director at the Berlin-based Little Sun Foundation, the winner in the Nonprofit category. Completely financed by grants and donations, Little Sun Foundation provides solar-powered lamps to areas with little or no electricity. “You have to inspire people to believe in your model, your idea, and your thinking.”

Founded by internationally renowned artist Olafur Eliasson, Little Sun took home €60,000 ($68,000) in funding at the Creator Awards Berlin.  

Halliwachs advises to be aware of the kind of language you’re using when pitching your idea to potential funders. Remember that many of them won’t be well-versed in your industry. Avoid jargon. Use easy-to-understand language. And most important of all, tell a compelling story.

The Amparo team faced challenges early on because the prosthetics industry uses an array of technical terms. “Frame the problem so people understand what you’re doing,” Pais de Melo says. “Make sure to communicate the benefits of your solution and why it’s better than what’s already out there.”

Have your numbers ready

Perhaps the best way to impress potential backers is by showing metrics that demonstrate the impact your company is making. Regardless of the industry, investors love numbers that justify why they should put money into the cause.

“Make sure to be specific when outlining how your startup will use the investment to fuel growth,” says Pais de Melo. “Even if you have a beautiful product that’s solving a big problem, you have to convince investors with numbers on why they should give you money, what the gains would be, and exactly how you’ll use the funding.”

At the Creator Awards Berlin, Pais de Melo had the number of people his startup had already helped at his fingertips. It’s one of the reasons his company impressed the judges and went home with the evening’s top prize.

Of the thousands of people film producer Brian Grazer has contrived to meet in the past few decades—including hundreds of Nobel laureates—one encounter stands out. He spent three years trying to get a meeting with Jonas Salk, the inventor of the polio vaccine.

“I called many times, I sent many letters,” Grazer told the audience of WeWork employees at a “Make It Work” panel discussion at the company’s recent Global Summit in Los Angeles. (He’s a fan of WeWork through his wife, marketing specialist Veronica Smiley Grazer, who has an office at WeWork 312 Arizona Ave in Santa Monica.) “Eventually he got a new assistant who said, ‘I’ll let you say hi and shake hands, but this is not a full meeting.’ I had so much anticipatory anxiety that as I approached him, I projectile vomited on him.”

Grazer is a relaxed and affable speaker, even as he recounts throwing up on a personal hero. It’s a trait cultivated through years of face-to-face conversations with interesting and influential people, a pursuit he launched 35 years ago as a child who felt hamstrung by dyslexia. “I realized I could learn much more from human interaction and human connectivity,” he explains. “By looking at people and being present and genuinely interested in learning.”

Projectile vomiting on Salk became just a funny anecdote in what turned out to be a decades-long friendship. Shortly after that first meeting, Salk offered to bring a handful of equally intellectual people to Grazer’s home for a visit—and suggested that the producer round up a few of his chums. (Grazer’s guest list included the late Sydney Pollack, Steven Spielberg, and George Lucas.) “We were friends until his death,” Grazer says of Salk.

“If I do anything just for me, I’ve failed,” says Brian Grazer. “I think it’s bad karma. I try to create win-wins. It’s as simple as that.”

Grazer’s “curiosity conversations,” as he calls these biweekly meetings with individuals who are “experts in anything other than entertainment,” have introduced him to a wide variety of people—including presidents, Princess Diana, Andy Warhol, and Fidel Castro. (He recounted his experiences in his 2016 best-seller, A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life.)

“They can be in medicine, politics, religion, all art forms, gurus, cult leaders—all types of people,” says the 67-year-old producer of critical and commercial hits like A Beautiful MindApollo 13. “I don’t have to agree with their philosophy or their point of view. I don’t have to like them, or for them to like me. I’m just out to try and learn something.”

His passion for human connectivity has served his professional career as well: Over the years, he has gravitated towards film and TV projects that have themes of love and redemption at their core (which is why he doesn’t do horror films, he explains—lots of gore, no redemption).

“I champion projects that have a theme, and where I can see the heartbeat,” he says. “The heartbeat is everything to me.”

Those principles of connectivity will be laid out in Grazer’s book, Eye Contact, out this fall. But he’s doing more than just putting his own learning to paper. Among his recent initiatives: Imagine Impact, a fully funded eight-week bootcamp to help new creative talent find a home in Hollywood at WeWork Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles that launched with his partner—director, producer, and actor Ron Howard—last September.

“I looked around at the landscape of the content space, and realized that it’s not democratized at all. It’s a caste system,” he explains. “And the caste system creates barriers that make it really hard for a writer with a new but original voice to get heard.” The bootcamp, he says, “will allow for original and sustainable voices to be heard quicker than struggling for several years at the bottom rung of a ladder.”

Grazer says he’s learned over the years that while making it in Hollywood may look like the ultimate goal, true success encompasses bringing people along for the ride.

“If I do anything just for me, I’ve failed,” he says. “I think it’s bad karma. I try to create win-wins. It’s as simple as that.”

Because she is the name and face of the operation, it’s easy to assume that Issa Rae alone is responsible for parlaying her web series, Awkward Black Girl, into a thriving business that includes producing her hit HBO show, Insecure, and other endeavors. But she would be the first to dispel such misconceptions.

“I like to hire people who have a specific lane, who do something very well,” Rae told WeWork employees from around the world as part of the “Team Awesome” track at the company’s Global Summit in Los Angeles in early January. “I hire a lot of people who are smarter than me. If I’m the smartest person in my company, then my company will go nowhere.”

(Left to right) Benoni Tagoe, Deniese Davis, and Issa Rae talk about how they work together to fund passion projects at WeWork’s Global Summit.

Two of those people—Benoni Tagoe, business-development director of Issa Rae Productions, and Deniese Davis, her co-founder at ColorCreative, which shepherds underserved voices in Hollywood—joined her on the panel. They spoke both about how they work together to fund passion projects that will also elevate their brand and how they find other team members who may not always be the obvious choices.

“Sometimes you may not have the skill set; sometimes you may not have the talent,” says Tagoe, a friend-of-a-friend Rae hired when he explained to her all the ways she was missing out on monetizing her business. He says the important thing is to “always have the curiosity” because “with curiosity, as long as you’re trying and figuring things out, you’re allowed to make mistakes.”

Because these executives came up through nontraditional means, Davis stresses to her coworkers the old adages that there are no bad ideas and you shouldn’t be afraid to speak up. Even when budgeting or scheduling won’t allow them to implement an idea right away, she says, “We love to come up with ideas to attain and aspire and achieve, even if it’s going to be three or four years down the line.”

Rae admits that she’s sometimes had doubts about pitches, but when others persuaded her to have the patience to wait it out, “I found out, pleasantly, that I was wrong, and I’m glad I didn’t say no.” She also keeps a file of the projects that didn’t pan out, which keeps their egos in check and reminds them that there’s more work to do. “I don’t necessarily believe in failure; I just believe in the opportunity to learn and grow.”

Davis and her team never stop learning—and because of that, she says, “we’ve gotten really good at identifying the priorities that need to take place” even if they require extra meetings and work to make their time efficient.

Sometimes this is easier said than done. Tagoe says that even though he may be the type of person who is always looking for the next big idea, “in a team setting, you can’t get everyone to move at the same time. You have to approach people individually.”

While Rae acknowledges that there can be extra pressure on people of color to always “have your best feet forward,” she firmly believes that “within your company and within your team members and the people you’re working with,” it’s OK to sometimes bring your B-game.

“The world is watching,” agrees Tagoe. But, he says, every year has built on the last. “I think we’re excited about 2019 because all our ideas are coming together.”

Much of this is due to employee retention, he says. It’s not just about “making sure [you’re] taking care of [your] people,” he says. “It’s making sure that the company you work for is telling that story of, This is a great place to work.”

The head of the operation isn’t anything without the support of the bodies behind her.

When the producers of If Beale Street Could Talk wanted to help promote the Oscar-nominated and Golden Globe-winning film set in Harlem, they reached out to Teri Johnson, founder of Harlem Candle Company.

Annapurna Pictures wanted a scent that could evoke the movie’s exact time and place. And Johnson, who knows the history of Harlem and renowned residents like performer Josephine Baker and musician Duke Ellington, was the right person for the job.

Johnson began researching James Baldwin, the author of the 1974 novel that inspired the film. She discovered that at the time he wrote it, Baldwin was living in the south of France. Journalists who visited him there often wrote about his love for his garden.

“Of course, any good writer is going to tell you how it smells,” says Johnson, a member at WeWork 8 W 126th St. “So I found stories about the fragrances in his garden—orange blossom, wild lavender, and rosemary.”

All of which inspired her candle “Love,” which she says evokes Baldwin’s home in the village of St-Paul-de-Vence. Ranging from $14 to $60, the candles are available on her website

“I’ve been obsessed with beautiful scents my entire life,” says Johnson. “I’ve been very inspired by places I’ve been and things I’ve smelled and tasted.”

Johnson began selling her candles in 2015, making them in the kitchen of her apartment in Harlem. Although she now has help making them, she remains hands-on, especially during peak periods. “Do I still pour and package when I need to? Sure.”

Since she started her company, Johnson has sold more than 20,000 candles inspired by the New York City neighborhood.

The first step, says Johnson, is always research into Harlem’s history. For her “Langston” candle inspired by writer Langston Hughes, an avid smoker, she wanted “something with tobacco notes.” Then she discovered that he had twice lived in Mexico, where he frequented small, dusky churches.

“He became a little obsessed with the incense burning in these churches,” says Johnson. “So I said, ‘Oh, I want incense notes in the candle.”

Johnson works with perfumers to come up with just the right scent. The entire process, she says, can take close to a year.

Johnson uses soy wax for her candles, which she buys in 50-pound boxes. After weighing the wax chips, she liquefies them on the stove.

Johnson lets the wax cool. She knows it’s ready, she says, by just by touching the pot. At this point, she can pour the fragrance oil.

Johnson stirs the oil into the wax for a solid minute and lets it sit until it’s ready to be poured—another temperature she knows by touch.

She places pre-tabbed wicks into candleholders and adheres the tab to the glass or metal, keeping the wick centered.

After she pours the candles, Johnson sets them aside to harden. Afterward, she trims the wick to size.

When they are ready to ship, Johnson affixes the label. The logo above the company name is a flame, but if you look closely another image appears.

“It’s actually a person holding their arms up, representing unity, community, and love,” says Johnson. “We wanted to embrace the past and the present, to celebrate old-school Harlem that is still here, to keep that alive.”

Photos by Katelyn Perry

For Jaden Smith, The Pursuit of Happyness is more than just the creatively misspelled title of the film he debuted in at age 7 with his superstar dad, Will Smith.

It’s the overarching goal in life, says the 20-year-old musician-activist-entrepreneur. “Unhindered, long-term happiness,” he emphasizes. “People think it’s the new car, the job promotion, but it’s not. That’s not what success looks like. Success is happiness.”

Smith alighted on the subject as part of an insightful address at the “Make It Happen” track, a panel discussion at WeWork’s recent Global Summit in Los Angeles. Sporting powder-pink hair and clad in apparel from his MSFTSRep sustainably-sourced fashion brand Smith possessed his father’s charisma; the directness of his mother, actress Jada Pinkett Smith; and a preternatural maturity.

“I’m young and on the path of trying to make things happen,” he says. “But everything I do in my life, I do for my parents.”

“Failure is important because it’s how you keep going,” says Jaden Smith.

So far, he’s done a lot. He went into acting against the advice of his well-meaning parents, who warned him that it was a lot harder than it looked. But when his dad had trouble finding the right young boy to play his son in Pursuit, Smith got his chance. He nabbed roles in other films—The Karate KidAfter Earth—while segueing into music; his debut album, SYRE, which came out in late 2017, hit 100 million streams on Spotify. His clothing brand, MSFTSRep, has the lofty ambition of reusing materials as much as possible: Pants that Smith wore on stage were embellished with patches of old T-shirts that would have otherwise ended up in a landfill.

And then there’s JUST Water, his brand of water bottled in Glen Falls, New York, which comes in plant-derived packaging with a cap made from sugarcane, designed to be reused or recycled with none of the long-term environmental impact of plastic. On the market since 2012, JUST Water—a member at WeWork 311 W 43rd St in New York—is now sold in 30,000 locations across the country, including Target, Ralph’s, and CVS.

The success of the brand fueled JUST Impact, a nonprofit arm of the company predicated on environmental preservation. JUST Impact’s latest initiative involves installing a reverse-osmosis filtration system in the lead-ridden water supply in Flint, Michigan. With this pilot program, the city can purify 10 gallons of water every 60 seconds, allowing residents to ultimately wean themselves off of the reported 3 million bottles of water consumed each year.

“Instead of having to outsource [water], we said, ‘Let’s create something for you here where you can pump your own clean water, in your community,’” Smith explains. “I’d been seeing them struggle for so long, and I asked, ‘Why isn’t someone doing something about this?’ Ultimately, what I’m trying to do is to help people around the world.”

As if this weren’t enough to keep anyone busy, with Smith there are always more ideas percolating, companies incubating, and partnerships forming. “If it’s more of a complex idea, the first thing I will do is find a business partner, someone I can explain it to and they get it,” he says.

Next, he focuses on team-building, which he says is a critical step in any endeavor. “We look for the next piece of this puzzle. We go through our phone books and find someone who could be a business manager. Then I say, ‘Do we all still get this vision? Do we get the mood boards?’ I repeat that the whole time, meeting after meeting until we’re sitting around a conference table with 10 people, and we can say, ‘OK, let’s get it done. Let’s go.’”

For Smith, the true measure of success may be happiness, but he also finds value in failure. “Failure is important because it’s how you keep going—it’s what you do right after you fail,” he says. “Nobody is meant to win all the time. Instead of saying, ‘I failed today,’ start saying, ‘Here’s how I learned, experienced, or grew today.’”