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Incubating Social Enterprise in Baltimore City

May 13, 2012

I stumbled upon an interesting article by Forbes.com contributor Anne Field concerning the growth of incubators for social purpose startups not long after I had a great conversation with long-time Chicago arts entrepreneur and civic activist Tom Tresser. Tom is launching CivicLab, a new nonprofit social venture that will provide a store front space for educators, activists and tech entrepreneurs to meet, teach and collaborate to create tools and apps for civic engagement.

CivicLab is a fascinating and compelling concept, but it doesn’t get mentioned in Field’s article–likely because it lacks a commercial component. But Field does profile Chicago-based Panzanzee, described by its founder as “part incubator, part accelerator, part co-working space,” and focused on providing a one-stop shop for fledgling social enterprises. Panzanzee plans on locating into a 15,000 square-foot space and will take between a 5 percent and 10 percent equity stake in the companies it works with. Panzanzee is currently incubating Ignite Progress, a startup that provides test prep and college readiness services to underprivileged kids.

Philadelphia, where many people believe will one day rival San Francisco as a center for social entrepreneurship, is home to GoodCompany Group, a nonprofit that nurtures socially responsible for-profit enterprises. Unlike Panzanzee, GoodCompany does not take an equity stake from the companies it nurtures. Garrett Melby, co-founder and CEO of GoodCompany Group, describes his group simply as a service organization that’s trying to accelerate the outcomes for social entrepreneurs.

Not only is Baltimore well-positioned to become a leader in educational technology, I believe it is poised to become a city rivaling San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Durham as a hub for social enterprise. Maryland is one of just a few states that recognizes benefit corporations and Baltimore is a social services city home to numerous nonprofits, nearly 150,000 people below the poverty line and a plethora of seemingly intractable social, health and environmental problems.

Several Baltimore-based early-stage companies, such as GiveCorps, Common Curriculum and Curiosityville meet the criteria for social purpose business, and there are emerging entrepreneurs coming out of programs like Social Innovation Lab. There are also many individuals working without much guidance, mentorship or seed capital: I’m advising an ambitious, entrepreneurial recent college grad developing promising new products that fulfill overlooked social needs.

Baltimore’s innovation community is certainly growing and its entrepreneurial ecosystem is evolving. Hopefully, there is space and place for these social entrepreneurs. Perhaps their needs can be met by all of the dynamic activity underway in Baltimore’s evolving entrepreneurial ecosystem–but perhaps not.

After all, the motives, necessary guidance and intended outcomes are slightly different for social entrepreneurs: matching mission to market and purpose to profits are great ideals and catchphrases, but difficult to achieve.

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