SocEnt Weekend: Business Ideas That Can Make a Difference
When they set out to start a business, plenty of entrepreneurs hope to change some slice of the world by solving a problem, making their customers happy, and giving people jobs along the way. And that’s plenty of work on its own.
But some companies, says longtime mobile entrepreneur Michael “Luni” Libes, see business as an opportunity to have a broader effect on society—missions like helping the poor, protecting the environment, or supporting education.
It’s that second group of entrepreneurs that Libes and friends are trying to cultivate with SocEnt Weekend, a three-day startup experiment in Seattle aimed at encouraging social entrepreneurship.
The event kicks off Friday evening at the Hub Seattle, a co-working space in Pioneer Square aimed at people tackling social issues. Mayor Mike McGinn is expected to speak, and there are all-star mentors, prizes for the winners, and some entrepreneurial lessons during the program.
SocEnt Weekend borrows heavily from the template of Startup Weekend, the Seattle-based crash-entrepreneurship festivals that have spread worldwide in just a few years. (It’s officially just “inspired by” Startup Weekend, which Startup Weekend CEO Marc Nager says is just fine.)
Even though it’s focused on do-gooder ideas, SocEnt Weekend isn’t looking to start nonprofits. Libes, who left mobile-data startup Ground Truth after its merger with Boston’s Umber Systems, wants to see for-profit business ideas that can also make a difference in society.
Libes, who’s been serving as an entrepreneur-in-residence at the Bainbridge Graduate Institute and University of Washington, says organizers haven’t heard of anyone else trying a hackathon-type approach for encouraging social enterprises.
Seattle seems like a decent place to kick off such an effort. The city’s voters are reliably liberal, and even fiscal conservatives tend to lean to the left on many social issues (Libes himself notes that he’s a “libertarian capitalist.”)
The Puget Sound region also has a notable roster of businesses that have kept environmental protection, premium compensation for workers, and other greater-good causes close to their hearts. A good poster child is Starbucks, the Seattle coffee titan that gives health benefits to baristas, has upped standards for coffee growers, and is aiming for fully recycled coffee cups in the next few years.
“They create a product that no one needs,” Libes says. “But they do it in a highly public, socially conscious manner … Their impact on society is positive. As opposed to Boston’s poster child for coffee, which is Dunkin’ Donuts.”
Libes contends that a socially responsible halo effect is a big reason that people want to do business with Starbucks, taste in coffee aside. And there are other examples, like Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, Patagonia and REI in outdoor sports gear, and even Craigslist, which has always put community commerce ahead of making tons of money for itself.
For local flavor, I’d even throw in Dick’s Hamburgers—the family-owned company pays excellent wages for food service (almost $10 an hour to start) and offers free health insurance, subsidized dental coverage, college scholarships, paid volunteer time, and child-care stipends for part-time employees.
“There’s a growing number of companies, big, established, successful companies, that fall in this definition of for-profit social enterprise,” he says. And who knows—the next one of those big ideas could find its spark this weekend.