Earlier this week I met a fabulous ally in the movement to accelerate social innovation in Austin and the Southwest region. Jessica Shortall recently moved to Austin from a 3-year stint in London. She has a very impressive social innovation resume. She started as a Peace Corps volunteer in Uzbekistan conducting community development projects and teaching English. She then spent four years as co-founder and co-director of The Campus Kitchens Project, a U.S.-based social venture with a network of integrated leadership development, nutrition education, job training, food rescue, and hunger relief programs run by university students. After earning an MBA at Said Business School, Oxford, as one of five Skoll Scholars in Social Entrepreneurship, she started Catalyst Strategy Advisors advising social businesses on growth strategy, income-generation, and marketing and positioning. You can listen to an audio interview with her from a few years back on the SocialEdge website.
I asked Jessica to write a post on the social innovation movement in London and what Austin can learn from what is happening there. Here is her post:
Although I’m American, I’ve lived in London for the past three years, and have just moved to Austin to settle down. I was lucky enough to meet Nell last week, and she asked me if I’d share some thoughts on the “social innovation” scene in which I’ve been involved in the UK.
First, some of my own definitions of this “field” of social innovation. I would exclude from this category, at one end, non-profits doing traditional direct service, without attempting to make any systemic impact on the problem (not that these don’t have a very important place in the ecosystem). On the other end, I’d leave out anything termed “Corporate Social Responsibility”.
In between is a world of varying approaches to making the world a fundamentally better place. You’ve got non-profits doing innovative work at the root causes of problems. On my best days I’d like to think The Campus Kitchens Project, which I helped get off the ground, is one of those non-profits. There are social enterprises taking a commercial approach to their social impact – trying to run a business that covers both its operational and “social” costs with earned income. In Austin, there’s a social enterprise called English at Work doing just that. Then you’ve got “social businesses” that want a bit of both – make some money, run a solid business, but focus on social benefits. The UK’s Cafédirect, which holds 5% of the UK hot drinks market, is such a company. Its tea, coffee, and cocoa farmers are major shareholders in the company, as are some UK foundations and retail investors, who receive dividends. Finally, there are those “ethical businesses” who want to do well by doing good. I’d put Whole Foods, the clean tech industry, and websites with social benefits (such as the UK’s JustGiving.com, which is very profitable) in this category.
The most interesting thing to me about London’s development of the spectrum of social innovation is how many angles people are approaching it from in order to build a thriving sector. It’s got a long way to go, but consider these elements:
- Public sector: A Cabinet-level “Minister for the Third Sector” who focuses much of his time on social enterprise.
- Foundations: A “foundation for social entrepreneurs” makes small grants to people across the country wanting to test out ideas for social change. Another foundation has an incubator that invests in social innovation-based businesses in education and health. There’s also an informal monthly breakfast for foundations to talk about innovations in social finance and confidentially share ideas and deal flow.
- Social Investors: There’s a small fund called Venturesome that is making loan guarantees for charities to access debt, and innovative quasi-equity deals to social enterprises. Body Shop entrepreneur Gordon Roddick has a small portfolio of social businesses and enterprises into which he has invested equity, commercial-rate debt, “soft” debt, and grants, and which he supports with networks, advice, and his deep knowledge of fast-moving consumer goods.
- Academia: The Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at the business school at Oxford is a center for research on social entrepreneurship globally. London’s School for Social Entrepreneurs is a non-profit that helps budding social entrepreneurs get their ideas off the ground.
- Big and small ideas: Year round you can find events that help social entrepreneurship and innovation bubble up around London. Make Your Mark for a Tenner, part of the national Enterprise Week (another cool thing) challenges young people to make the most out of a ten-pound note. Social Innovation Camp – something I’d love to see happen in Austin – brings together web geeks and social media people with folks who have new ideas about how to use the web for social change.
In my month or so in Austin, I’ve met with a lot of passionate, intelligent people who share a sense of optimism with the social innovation sector here in town. This city has so many of the core elements to become a truly world-leading center for social innovation, creative social financing, and social entrepreneurship: Entrepreneurs, with all their knowledge, experience, and risk-taking spirit. Great wealth. A concerned and interested citizenry. Passionate and energetic non-profit professionals. Strong charitable foundations. A growing economy. World-class universities. Austin and London have these things in common, if little else – sunny skies and smiles at strangers on the street are pretty rare in London, and so far it doesn’t look to me like Austin is a short plane ride from Amsterdam.
So how to get there? I certainly don’t have that answer. But in the London example, a lot of people and organizations in many different sectors and industries are involved (and they don’t always agree). I think the starting point is when people begin to talk to each other in open-ended conversations that ask, “What if…?”
Imagine foundation directors regularly talking to each other, to their boards, and to social entrepreneurs about ways they could use their endowments more creatively, and actually piloting some interesting equity, quasi-equity, or debt deals with promising social enterprises in town – maybe even losing some money from time to time.
Imagine networks where social entrepreneurs can connect with each other and with investors and advisors, the way “regular” entrepreneurs do.
Imagine entrepreneurs and corporate volunteers bringing their business brains to the table to help social entrepreneurs marry “social” and “business” to create a thriving new class of enterprises in Austin.
Imagine the mayor’s office declaring “Social Innovation Week” in Austin, with workshops, competitions, and a Social Innovation camp like the one held in London.
It’s an ecosystem approach, where things swirl and evolve over time, with different players watching for patterns; making connections; providing physical, social, intellectual capital; and taking risks.
I’m going to be watching my new hometown in the coming months, and trying to learn more and more from the amazing people already thinking about and doing this stuff right here in Austin. I am really looking forward to being part of it.