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Emerging Resources for Social Entrepreneurs: A Handy Guide

You've got a lot of questions—and different types of challenges for social entrepreneurs can be addressed best in different venues.

The continued growth in social ventures and the challenges social entrepreneurs encounter when seeking funding have resulted in an increased number of resources available to provide assistance. A recent Huffington post article sizes the current social enterprise sector at employing over 10 million people, with revenues of $500 billion—roughly 3.5 percent of total U.S. GDP.

The subject interests me because I’m one of them, a social entrepreneur launching a tech startup called AMP—a collaborative bookmarking platform and resource marketplace for sustainability professionals. Our target audience includes students of sustainability, people working within established businesses to drive social and environmental progress, and those starting social ventures of their own. Having received my MBA from Presidio Graduate School, a program dedicated to sustainability, I speak from personal experience when saying this is currently a difficult space to navigate, in part due to its dynamic growth.

Yearly conferences like SOCAP, Investor’s Circle, Net Impact, SXSW Eco, Bioneers, Sustainable Brands, Opportunity Green and ISSP create environments to learn, share and connect in-person with a select number of key players. But maintaining inspiration and translating information gathered into action can be a challenge.

Additional online resources to support social entrepreneurs exist at destinations like the Social Venture Network, setoolbelt, MosiacHUB, Echoing Green, Ashoka, Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, Social Edge, Stanford Center for Social Innovation and the Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship (CASE).

But when a question arises, which destination do you choose, and for what?

Many social entrepreneurs are seeking more individualized support in the form of shared working spaces, incubators and/or accelerators that provide a mix of networking opportunities, events, funding, and mentorship in exchange for a monthly membership fee or equity stake in their company.

Founded in 2005, The HUB is now the largest and best-known social entrepreneur community offering shared office and event space, with over 30 locally owned HUBs now spanning the globe. For Elizabeth Stewart, co-founder of the newly opened HUB L.A., creating an urban space offering to house educational programming for the individuals and teams creating the sustainable, impact economy in L.A. seemed an obvious evolution given her background.

“I’m grateful for the opportunity to apply my experience in fostering community collaboration, social enterprise strategy, and urban development to create unique programming and start-up tools for our members, all of whom are accepted based on the action they are taking to make the world a better place,” says Stewart.

For social entrepreneurs interested in a more structured experience that typically ends with pitching to a roomful of investors, the tech incubator/accelerator trend is slowly bleeding over into the social venture space with companies like Greenstart, Fledge, HUB Ventures and Green Business Basecamp, which will soon take its weekend bootcamp international. Not all companies coming out of these programs secure additional funding, however, and while open access networks like Angelist are great for increasing exposure, there’s no guarantee of fund matching. B Revolution is trying to close this gap by creating an angel network of individuals interested in funding Benefit Corporations while consulting startups on how to register as a “B-Corp” and deliver convincing investor pitches. But how are the majority of social entrepreneurs now beginning to raise money? You guessed it: crowdfunding.

Crowdfunding democratizes the fundraising process and provides valuable market research, making it a go-to solution for social ventures seeking to build community and gain leverage needed to progress. Several platforms currently enable charitable donations with emerging platforms like Crowdfunder positioned to add debt and equity models of financing to their offering once the SEC finalizes rules associated with the JOBS Act. Empowering social entrepreneurs and small-to-medium sized businesses is a motivating factor for Chance Barnett, co-founder and CEO of Crowdfunder. Says Barnett, “Our platform allows business owners to tap into local community support and successfully scale growth and sustain operations, adding jobs and creating additional opportunities that wouldn’t have otherwise existed.”

Business plan competitions and contests offer another venue for social entrepreneurs seeking exposure, funding and support. Presidio Graduate School partners with Bainbridge Graduate Institute for the Madrona League competition, with others of note including the Hult Prize, the Global Social Venture Competition, Clean Tech Open, The Tech Awards and The Purpose Prize. But not everyone is a fan of this approach. Steve Blank—author, speaker and respected entrepreneur—criticizes business plan competitions for rewarding entrepreneur’s ability to articulate known variables, instead of preparing them for the dynamic and iterative reality startups face.

Ryan Kushner and Ali Hart, co-founders of COZMOS—an early stage startup and portfolio company of the design-focused tech incubator Mix & Stir, would likely agree. When asked what’s allowed them to continue moving their venture forward? Says Kushner, “Confidence, commitment, and working with our alpha clients to continue evolving our product to meet their needs.” Sounds like someone’s read The Lean Startup, yet one more resource worth checking out.

Photo via Flickr (cc) user L. Marie.

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