Exploring Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation

By:Rebecca Saltman Issue: Biennial of the Americas 2010 Section:The Americas Roundtables Social Entrepreneurship

Led by an international group of established and emerging artists, leaders, innovators, and celebrated individuals, The Nature of Things - Speaker Series explored the Western Hemisphere’s most pressing challenges and exciting innovations. Designed as an open platform for conversation and idea exchange, the series provided a public forum for engaging with speakers, panels, and dialogue sessions, with topics ranging from ecology, art, technology and society, to culture, design, education and civic engagement. Appropriately enough, the setting was one of Denver’s oldest continually-occupied government buildings besides the golden-domed Capitol Building. Biennial speakers and attendees enjoyed the first public access granted to the building since 1955. True to the series’ lofty ideals (commitment to change and community development – be it personal, local, statewide, or international), the recently renovated McNichols Civic Center Building provided a perfect backdrop. The site’s history as Denver’s first public library, built in 1909, and its many subsequent uses and facelifts made the locale a visual reminder that change takes many forms. Denver’s evolution over the years and its impact on the Front Range, and on the country as a whole, spoke volumes to the panelists and their audiences.

The Speakers Series, developed by Lauren Higgins, an artist, organizer, and social strategist, included two outstanding panels of social entrepreneurs. The panels were titled Catalysts for Social Good: Redefining Global Impact Through Social Entrepreneurship and Be a Changemaker: Local Transformation Through Homegrown Innovation. Both Roundtables presented the far-ranging hopes, ideas, and repartee of a host of social strategists, each with an engaging story to tell. Catalyst speakers addressed strategizing through experience and mentorship and how they stepped into impactful roles and accomplished their goals. These long-term innovators all had to learn their roles through baby steps and collaboration. Changemakers speakers spoke most often of using local resources, and keeping their goals close to home and heart to achieve success. Ultimately the panelists all agreed on one point: the goal of social entrepreneurship is to make it obsolete.

Higgins has always found social innovation to be a powerful lens through which to see the current and future potential of the Americas and the world at large. “These innovators and entrepreneurs are painting the picture of a more socially just and economically viable future, and are a wonderful resource as we consider how to move forward on some of our world’s most challenging social, economic, and environmental issues. These panels added something very special to the Speakers’ Series in that they offered Biennial audiences strategies, anecdotes, and inspirations to work towards change in their own careers and communities," Higgens said.

On July 7, 2010, the Roundtable on Catalysts for Social Good: Redefining Global Impact Through Social Entrepreneurship was co-hosted by Ashoka: Innovators for the Public (www.ashoka.org). This panel of prestigious social entrepreneurs and Ashoka Fellows explored how they have creatively powered their own careers while making the world a better place. This impressive panel of social innovators was moderated by Greg Berry of W1sd0m (http://w1sd0m.net/). The panel discussed how social innovation is looking beyond traditional models of change, providing comprehensive solutions involving lasting social and economic value.

These changemakers and innovators have used backgrounds in non-profit management, engineering, education, and more to start their own socially-minded endeavors. Panelists included Lynn Price of Camp to Belong which has created camps for siblings separated by the foster care system. She says, “Camp to Belong is for foster children who are injured but not broken, emotionally and mentally, but can heal themselves if given the right environment.” Price urges, “Spread your message sideways, to people tangentially, so that you can affect change indirectly.” “When empowered and given the opportunity, young people have the passion and ability to create systematic change, both locally and globally." - Ian Carter

Elizabeth Hausler of Build Change designs, builds and trains people to construct earthquake-resistant housing. She says, “Perfect is the enemy of good. It is better to build more homes for more people that will do the job than burn resources over-engineering fewer homes.” In her opinion, we all must reduce bureaucratic checks and focus on the essentials.

America’s Family, a non-profit run by Steve Bigari helps low-income working families with assistance programs to eradicate poverty in the U.S. Bigari says, “Tom Sawyer everything. Do what you do well, and organize or outsource the rest. It is all about collaboration. We must get people to solve their problems and stop making them feel entitled.”

Susan Kiely, founder of Women With A Cause promotes education and skills to get women out of poverty – it is about women helping women to help themselves. She urges that we all must partner for local and specialized knowledge because no one knows everything. She says, “Train people for needed jobs, not jobs for the poor. If the region needs nurses, train them to be nurses. Train up to what’s in demand so that they are more likely to be guaranteed a living.”

Engineers Without Borders, the brainchild of Bernard Amadei, involves the implementation of sustainable engineering projects in developing communities, while involving and training internationally responsible engineers and engineering students. “You must help people without taking away their dignity. If all problems were technical, we’d have it all solved,” Amadei professes.

Be a Changemaker - Local Transformation Through Homegrown Innovation was held on July 21, and was again co-hosted by Ashoka: Innovators for the Public and the Change Your City Denver campaign. This panel of local “imagineers,” explored how everyday people are becoming inspired to make a difference in their communities. Leading by example, the panelists have successfully inspired change in their cities through greening local communities, creating inclusive and engaging communities for senior citizens, supporting young entrepreneurs, and supporting socially innovative students. This panel delved into the ingredients for neighborhood civic engagement and what each of us can do to be a “changemaker” in our own communities. Greg Berry of W1sd0m described this panel by saying, “What is so interesting about this group is the depth of passion and the breadth of experience.”

The thoughts ranged from the poetic to the sublime. Ashara Ekundayo discussed her involvement with The GrowHaus, north Denver’s premiere interactive indoor farming opportunity, committed to eco-equity. When encountering prejudice she says, “You have to be graceful. We do this work so our ancestors will be pleased.”

Teju Ravilochan’s Unreasonable Institute is an “incubator” of mentor-focused, self-sustaining social ventures. “When we started, we had lots of ignorance, which was in fact a strength. It led us to outsource everything!” said Ravilochan.

Similarly, Ian Carter launched the Sustainable Social Venture Incubator pilot this year and serves as the program manager at the University of Colorado’s AshokaU program, which supports five student run businesses and organizations. Carter believes that, “When empowered and given the opportunity, young people have the passion and ability to create systematic change, both locally and globally. What we have to start doing is realizing the potential in those around us, no matter their age, background or experience, and support them with the tools necessary to carry out their dreams.” With the support of Youth Venture, the University of Colorado’s "incubator" will help launch at least ten more social ventures this coming year.

Kendra Sandoval often finds strength in the humility of her organization’s pursuits. Blue and Yellow Logic, a sustainability coalition whose motto is, “It takes more than one color to make green,” doesn’t depend on rigid structure or ego to accomplish her goals. "As social entrepreneurs, we connect people, business, government and academia to create change. You don't have to be a hero or have a title to be a changemaker. It's about connecting, caring, and taking responsibility,” she says.

Wrapping up the discussion, Berry explained, “These folks are really focused – resulting from sometimes painful experiences – on how the community can support the social entrepreneur during the growth phase of their venture.”

Rebecca Saltman is a social entrepreneur and the president and founder of an independent collaboration building firm designed to bridge business, government, non-profits and academia. To learn more, visit www.foot-in-door.com.