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Social entrepreneurship gaining ground at WSU with help from Blackstone LaunchPad
Wayne State students recently described how they are using business practices to tackle societal problems at a university forum on “social entrepreneurship,” an innovative business paradigm that promotes both profit and positive social impact.
The students recounted their experiences starting economically and socially sustainable businesses during a panel discussion at Get Launched, a two-hour informational and networking event hosted on Nov. 7 by the university’s business incubator, Blackstone LaunchPad. By teaching them strategic and practical methods to obtain their business objectives, the panelists said, BLP helped them harness their passion for improving the health and well-being of Detroit-area residents and make a measurable difference in the city.
The concept of social entrepreneurship was presented at Get Launched by guest speaker Jamie Shea, a strategy developer at the Southfield, MI-based social entrepreneurship incubator Mission Throttle. Because conventional business models focus solely on maximizing shareholder value, Shea explained, most businesses first seek to generate the greatest possible profit, and only then engage in philanthropy through charitable donations or through social services funded with the taxes they pay the government. Social entrepreneurship, by contrast, blends for-profit and not-for-profit strategies so that financial and philanthropic objectives are aligned and achieved concurrently.
“The traditional system is to make money and then figure out how to give it away,” noted Shea, a proponent of replacing the term “non-profit” with “for-impact”. “But what’s the fastest way to get to a healthy society and planet? It’s to make money and create social impact simultaneously.”
There is growing interest in social entrepreneurship among the WSU student body’s aspiring business leaders, and BLP is responding by furnishing information on new legal structures that are emerging to capture the unique goals of these “hybrid organizations.” Chief among these are the L3C, or low-profit liability corporation, and the B Corp, or benefit corporation. B Corps are certified by the nonprofit B Lab to meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency.
BLP also encourages student entrepreneurs to take advantage of Wayne State’s Business and Community Law Clinic, which represents both for-profit and nonprofit clients who cannot afford to pay for legal services offered by attorneys in the private bar. The clinic provides Detroit-area businesses with free services that include entity formation, contract review and preparation, review and drafting of commercial real estate documents, preparation of trademark and copyright applications, and preparation of tax exempt applications for 501(c)(3) status.
Eric Williams, Wayne Law assistant (clinical) professor and director of the law clinic, said the clinic has a waiting list, however clients are prioritized based on their level of preparedness. Those who have developed a business plan, compiled a board of directors, or thoroughly researched relevant patents, for example, will be seen more quickly, Williams said.
WSU students take the lead
Panelist Charlie Cavell, who with BLP’s help created the job training program Pay It Forward while earning his bachelor of social work at Wayne State, said his initiative differs from other workforce development programs in that it assists job providers as well as job seekers. While most job training programs focus solely on training workers, Cavell said, Pay It Forward works with employers to help them achieve the financial stability they need to hire more staff. Consistent with the aim of social entrepreneurship, Pay It Forward realizes financial and social payoffs, bolstering business output while decreasing unemployment. Due to its success, Cavell said, Pay It Forward is the model for a Lansing-based initiative that will strive to employ 1,000 people within the next year.
Also on the panel was Timothy Hooker, who with BLP’s assistance started the nonprofit Pure As Pond Ice while studying at WSU last year. Pure As Pond Ice provides hockey associations and communities with volunteer instructors, programs, services and equipment to increase youth hockey participation, build character and promote healthy life choices. Through youth hockey clinics and an after-school excellence program slated to launch in 2013, Pure As Pond Ice is making a profound impact among communities in need. It’s also modeling how to hustle for area funding: this month it won a $1,000 “tweet award” from Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition for tweeting the most succinct description of its mission: “Creating a healthier Detroit for youth by using hockey as a tool for life success.”
Motivational speaker and WSU senior Krystle Antonio; Norman Dotson, an industrial engineering major at Wayne State whose nonprofit, Click The Cause, connects social entrepreneurs with investors; and Jackie Zimmerman, a WSU master’s student and co-founder of the organization Girls-With-Guts, also were on the panel.
Girls-With-Guts is an advocate and resource for women and girls with inflammatory bowel disease, sending care packages to post-operative patients, collecting and distributing supplies, empowering those with the condition to share their stories, and offering yearly retreats for adult women to connect and build community.
Zimmerman said the greatest asset a nonprofit has is a strategically compiled board of directors, which can proffer expertise on taxes, legal matters, and other important organizations issues. Entrepreneurs, she said, also benefit from the ability “to just ask.”
“Put yourself in that awkward position,” Zimmerman said. “Learn how to ask for money. Learn how to ask for help.”
“Passion” is the engine
Conditions in Southeast Michigan are ripe for businesses to realize both profit and social impact, said Shea, explaining that Mission Throttle would like Michigan to become the nation’s “leading state for social entrepreneurship.”
“There is a great culture of entrepreneurship here, although it needs to be updated, and a great philanthropic tradition,” Shea said. “It comes from the people, through a collective identity and purpose.”
But there will only be a way where there’s a will, cautioned Dotson. “If you’re not passionate about your project,” he said, “it’s going to be very difficult to get anyone else to be passionate about it.”