The Michigan Social Entrepreneurship Challenge gives entrepreneurs in the state an opportunity to make a difference
Michigan Corps‘ motto is a call to action that invokes the famous line President John F. Kennedy delivered in his 1961 inaugural address, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
Three months earlier, he had delivered an impromptu speech on the steps of the University of Michigan Student Union in which he challenged the crowd to spend two years serving in developing countries through what would later become the Peace Corps.
The same spirit of civic engagement inspired the founding of Michigan Corps during a low point of the economic recession, as people across the state were losing their jobs and their homes. The organization was founded in 2010 to give Michiganders everywhere the opportunity to make a difference in their home state. One of our primary initiatives, the Michigan Social Entrepreneurship Challenge, is an embodiment of this mission.
When ‘The Challenge’ launched last year, it was the nation’s first statewide social entrepreneurship contest. We created the program to inspire Michiganders everywhere to share their ideas for addressing social challenges in communities across the state. Michigan Corps then nourished these ideas with training, investment and connections to experts in the field of social innovation. At the outset, we knew we needed a simple and inclusive definition of a social entrepreneur.
We created a 5-point definition that describes a social entrepreneur as a “pragmatic visionary who tenaciously addresses social problems by creating a sustainable, system-changing solution.” The Challenge succeeded in shining a spotlight on many inspiring people within the state that fit this description.
The social entrepreneurs that participated in 2013, and the success they have achieved since, are nothing short of remarkable. Nearly 300 people registered for the contest, 150 submitted business plans, and eight of the ten prize winners have received commitments for new investment that collectively total over $1 million. This new investment gives promising social entrepreneurs the opportunity to strategically grow their businesses, encourages their progress by increasing their accountability, and grants them opportunities to explore replicating their models in order to expand their impact.
Our second Michigan Social Entrepreneurship Challenge kicked off in March 2014 and we’re hoping to build on last year’s successes. The competition is open to both aspiring and existing entrepreneurs and we welcome applicants with for-profit and nonprofit models. There are two phases of the Challenge: a business plan competition culminating in a pitch event with judges who are leaders in the social entrepreneurship space, followed by a fellowship program for all of the prize winners, designed to help them take on investment of more than $50,000.
There are currently a number of highly regarded business plan competitions for social entrepreneurs, so what makes the Michigan Social Entrepreneurship Challenge unique?
First, it is the nation’s first statewide social entrepreneurship competition, challenging Michiganders everywhere – residents and expats alike – to imagine a better, brighter future for the state, and to transform that vision into thriving businesses and organizations. Do Michiganders care enough about their own state to not only create businesses here, but to invest in social change? The Challenge has proven that they do.
One of this year’s prizes, the Drive Flint prize, is funded by a New York City banker who heard about the success of last year’s competition and decided to become involved out of concern for his hometown of Flint. He has joined together with a group of philanthropists in Flint to fund a prize designated for an entrepreneur making an impact in their hometown.
They hope to fund the efforts of individuals participating in this year’s Challenge, individuals like Leon El-Alamin, a returned citizen from Flint who now runs a successful landscaping business that employs troubled teens and other returned citizens. These current and former Flint residents firmly believe in the role of business in bringing about change within their community, and they’re willing to put their money on it.
Further, our statewide competition highlights enterprises that are led by individuals who are deeply entrenched in the communities they seek to serve. These entrepreneurs are directly impacted by the success of their ventures, and care about the long-term consequences of their work. No one is parachuting in to solve Michigan’s high unemployment rate, troubled cities, struggling schools, environmental concerns, or health issues – the state’s own residents are creating sustainable solutions to these challenges.
What does this look like? At this time last year, Michigan Corps fellow Jeff Adams’ P3 Enterprise was a great idea on paper. His social venture concept was to help transform his Detroit neighborhood by creating an indoor hydroponic farm that would supply fresh fish and produce year-round while employing disadvantaged youth and chronically unemployed individuals. Today, Jeff has taken on $250,000 in investment and purchased a vacant warehouse for his operation.
Where did the investment come from? A recently formed impact investing fund made up of business leaders in Michigan. The pitch event we held gave him a chance to tell impact investors (both local and national) and members of the Detroit community about his idea for helping fellow residents and building an innovative business that creates jobs where they are desperately needed and connects residents to local food. The social challenge, the change agent, the solution, and the means to make it a reality were all local. This is the power of a statewide social entrepreneurship contest.
Finally, the Michigan Social Entrepreneurship Challenge has catalyzed a remarkable degree of cross-sector collaboration around the idea of social entrepreneurship. The concentration of efforts within the state has spread awareness of the concept of social entrepreneurship to a wide variety of individuals and organizations. Entities ranging from government to corporations to philanthropic institutions, have stepped up to fund the competition prizes and fellowship program.
Such partners include a national foundation, a regional bank, an impact investing fund, a utility company, a local law firm, and the state of Michigan’s economic development arm. It’s important to note that the involvement of these organizations goes beyond writing a check. They each have a role in selecting the winner of the cash prize they fund, meeting these entrepreneurs and often maintaining an ongoing relationship with them. The competition fosters collaboration across sectors and unites unlikely organizations around a single cause. Many organizations that two years ago were entirely unfamiliar with the concept of social enterprise are now in the midst of making it part of their strategic focus.
The success of the Michigan Social Entrepreneurship Challenge has proven the value of statewide social enterprise competitions in eliciting new and innovative solutions to local social problems from the state’s own entrepreneurs. Not only this, but these competitions provide an opportunity for a wide array of individuals and organizations to support and invest in these solutions. They give people a concrete way to respond to the call to action, “Ask what you can do for your state.”
For more information on the Michigan Social Entrepreneurship Challenge and how to register, please visit http://michigancorps.org/TheChallenge.
The deadline to register is April 30th.
Peter Benedetto is the manager of strategic initiatives for Michigan Corps, a role which encompasses both helping to run the Michigan Social Entrepreneurship Challenge and managing Kiva Michigan – a crowdfinancing platform for small business owners. He has worked with an impact investing fund and with social enterprises in the US and the Philippines.
B Corp certification is distinct from the benefit corporation form of business that is legislated in many U.S. states.