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Embracing the “Virtue Economy” at the Social Enterprise Alliance conference, #SEASummit19

Kupendiza joined the Social Enterprise Alliance in early 2017.

 

I envisioned SEA as a small, poor, and humble community of people creating companies whose products and services directly address systemic inequities in society. I’m talking about homelessness; joblessness; poor health; incarceration; gender inequity; and inequities in education, healthcare, and capital investment. Oh, and the environmental effects of life on the wrong side of the tracks. I pictured them as a next generation of nonprofits, and doing good work, but…small, poor, humble.

 

Well, the Social Enterprise Alliance conference (#SEAsummit19) blasted those ideas out of my head. It was my first clue of the size and scale of the growing “virtue economy.” That “small community” that may have been birthed when cheap airline travel opened up the rest of the world to ordinary Westerners (the world according to Karen, lol.) is actually creating something new.

The organizational and issue-oriented silos, the poverty-mentality thinking about sustainability and fundraising, are gone. Once disjunct, very individual groups are now a web, massive and growing, and a lot of revolutionary thinking and dynamic collaboration is going on inside it.

The Big Tent

What I found at the SEA Summit in Chicago two years after wasting our year of corporate membership is a huge, dynamic ecosystem. It’s a Big Tent that encompasses organizations as diverse as The Lighthouse, Inspiration Kitchens, Vehicles for Change – and little outfits like us!

 

Under the tent are a legion of organizations increasingly working together, and actively mentoring and fostering the next generation. They’re starting to see themselves as no longer competing for funding, but helping each other develop market-driven solutions to the funding conundrum.

Under the tent is Gen Z, our next generation; and the first 100% digital natives. The youngest of these are still in their teens; the oldest are starting to run things. And they think differently. They are the fruit of Free Agent Nation, born to be independent. They want work that means something. They’ve been told they should work at something they’re passionate about. (God knows, nobody told me that!) They’ve already been laid off, or seen their parents buffeted about in the corporate world. And they, like the Millennials, may have student loans. Way more than any generation of Americans before them, they are likely to have an international view.

 

Maybe it’s just me, but I also felt a tidal wave of optimism at #SEAsummit19. I watched the Millenials operate as the leadership of this national organization, marveling at how easily they can build community across the entire planet.

There was plenty of gray hair in the room, as well, and that’s part of the excitement. The wealth of experience is being passed on, and the social enterprise sector is beginning to flex its economic muscle.

Social enterprise, defined

SEA graphic - What IS Social Enterprise?

Where there is economic muscle, there are of necessity banks and lenders. New (to me) funders were prominent at #SEAsummit19, among them conference sponsors REDF (venture philanthropy that invests exclusively in social enterprises that employ and empower people overcoming barriers to work.) and RSF (social finance). These offer not just funding, but technical assistance and consulting services to build the capacity of small enterprises. And they are not the only ones; there are a growing number of players in the sector. A few traditional lenders, sensing new opportunity, were there as well.

Local Chicago Folks

We’ve known The Lighthouse since forever as “Lighthouse for the Blind.” For the better part of a century they have manufactured multiple products that concurrently earn revenue and train the blind and handicapped. I probably still have some of their lightbulbs in my basement!!! (And they probably still work too.)

A Safe Haven is a legacy nonprofit offering wraparound services in a holistic approach to homelessness, job readiness, substance abuse, and more – they actually get people back on their feet. Their social enterprises have large landscaping, catering, and other workforce contracts with the city of Chicago and the state of Illinois. They serve some 5,000 people a year.

Inspiration Kitchens is a model like our DC Central Kitchen; a free foodservice job training program that places more than 85% of their graduates into Chicago restaurants thirsty for the labor.

Other Surprises

And, we ran into 20-year old, Baltimore-based Vehicles for Change. Local to us, this organization gets used cars into the hands of (mostly) single parents with children, to help them navigate these Maryland / DC Beltway communities that are not – let’s face it – built for walkability. Schools, lessons, jobs, groceries – with kids, how can you do it without a car? You don’t! What I hadn’t known is that the Vehicles for Change automobile mechanics are returning citizens – facing barriers to employment after incarceration, time in the military, etc. They train auto mechanics and get them certified. Here again, the marketplace is thirsty for people. Talk about impact!

This year SEA selected Kupendiza as one of 15 Jim Schorr/Pave A Path scholars. Schorr was the visionary SEA leader who passed away in January 2019. With the scholarship has come active mentoring from a broad community of veteran social enterprises. The summit brought us face-to-face, with the community and with each other.

Jim Schorr scholars in 2019 - SEA

The 2019 Jim Schorr-Pave A Path Scholarship Winners

 

Chicago, Chicago!

It's About Impact, Folks!

Impact. That’s the word of the day. Every organization in this community keeps a laser focus on measurement – whatever measurement looks like for their business. What value do you actually produce with all this effort? How do you quantify your impact in the world? What are the metrics of your industry – and can you meet or exceed them? For-profits have to do it! So do social enterprises.

For those who do good because they see the waste of human potential all around them in their cities and towns; for those who know it doesn’t have to be this way; for those who just want to do business, and don’t think of themselves as missionaries…welcome to social enterprise!

 


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