The trailer for the new Great Gatsby movie, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, has this voiceover: “New York, 1922. The tempo of the city had changed sharply. The buildings were higher. The parties were bigger. The morals were looser and the liquor was cheaper. The restlessness approached hysteria.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald may well have described the summer of 2008, a time when all the materialistic restlessness of the Aughts came to a head. It was a chain-smoked and beer-soaked, intoxicating summer.
That kind of hysteria will not happen again any time soon.
After the financial crisis, we’re not in a “Let the good times roll” 1920s-like state anymore. What’s happening in the country right now is actually reminiscent of the 1940s, in that these few years are a process of returning to values, to what’s basic and stable.
Social entrepreneurship, focusing on financial and environmental sustainability and social impact, is a sensitive area that will be indicative of what the emerging economic system will look like. Whether social enterprises in the Triangle succeed or fail will tell everyone else whether our local ecosystem, our local culture, supports values-oriented businesses — And if so, what kind.
So I was glad for the opportunity to check out what’s happening at Bull City Forward, the social entrepreneurship incubator in downtown Durham, and to hear Executive Director Christopher Gergen’s thoughts.
BCF had opened with a concept emphasizing a hub-and-spoke model in partnership with community organizations. Now, it is currently running its first-ever accelerator for health startups, open to startups statewide. The accelerator is being done in partnership with Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina and the Institute for Emerging Issues to target obesity. (The choice of Blue Cross was interesting. BCBSNC is simply not a company that has the best reputation for positive social impact in North Carolina.)
There are 11 finalists in the accelerator, including local startups The Walking Classroom and Sqord, both of Chapel Hill, and INRFOOD and Lomo Market, based in Durham. For the full list and what they all do, here is the press release.
Blue Cross provided the funding. BCF is running the accelerator. Blue Cross will pick up to three winners who will receive up to $20,000 at the end of September. Neither Blue Cross nor Bull City Forward will have equity stakes. Both Christopher and Roshen Sethna, BCF’s resource manager say they would like to partner with major companies in other industries, like, for instance, Duke Energy. BCF operations are healthy. Membership is at 70. Annual budget is $200,000. And the incubator is being advised by Monica Doss, the former president of CED.
I asked Christopher about his thoughts on social entrepreneurship and partnering with BCBSNC. His answers below.
Is social entrepreneurship having a ‘what are we’ moment? What is social entrepreneurship?
I think the definition of social entrepreneurship, if anything, is becoming clearer and crisper. How do you come up with sustainable solutions? Do you have a financial model to help support the positive impact that you want to make? You maintain the triple bottomline (People, Planet, Profit) and you have more metrics measuring it.
An increasing number of organizations are aspiring to become more socially impactful, and there are spectrums of that. If you think about a social entrepreneurship being financial sustainable and being socially impactful — Think of it as being on an X-Y axis, financial sustainability on one, social impact on the other — You are going to have people on various ends of that spectrum. So, online gambling is 100 percent profitable but has zero social impact, or negative social impact.
There is the issue of ‘greenwashing.’ Are companies being greenwashed or not, and how intentional are they about positive social impact? I think increasing numbers of companies and organizations are trying to be socially impactful, and more nonprofits are trying to think about being more financially sustainable.
Ultimately, that is an enlightened perspective on both sides that we are trying to help and encourage.
Tell me about the partnership with Blue Cross, which is a company that many people would not think of as making positive social impact.
Blue Cross Blue Shield — People can have varied perspectives on the positive and negative impacts they’ve had on North Carolina. They have a strong focus right now on increasing preventive health care. The healthier citizens we have, the fewer liabilities there are. For them, it’s a win-win.
Out of that win is a win for the community as well because it’s more resources going into preventive care, promoting a healthier lifestyle.
That’s what this is in keeping with. Blue Cross has a commitment to reduce obesity in North Carolina. It’s certainly positive press. They are authentically interested in these solutions and looking at the innovations for these solutions and helping these solutions have an impact in the community. It’s not only in line with their foundation goals, but it’s also in line with their strategic goals.
If it was entirely altruistic, it would be hard to sustain. When you can get that (financial sustainability-social impact) alignment, it works out perfectly. So we want to help facilitate that positive action.
What is BCF hoping to learn from this?
I think a lot of scrappy entrepreneurs are trying to get smarter about developing sustainable businesses. I think Blue Cross can help provide some strategic focus, disciplines, etc. I think as Blue Cross can learn from the entrepreneurs themselves to become more socially impactful. There’s a nice shared learning experience that happens by connecting, and it’s a two-way street.
At BCF, we learn a tremendous amounts in terms of what motivates the larger corporations, why they want to stimulate these challenges ,and we learn how to work with them strategically. We learn how to support entrepreneurs themselves and we learn how to translate between the larger corporations and we’ve learned how to run a challenge.
They’re looking to make strategic investments, and to be able to license technology. Even as a marketplace, these corporations are incredible investors for these entrepreneurs. And that’s not lost on the entrepreneurs.