Sandra Enos/Kelly Ramirez: The potential good of social enterprise

01:00 AM EDT on Tuesday, November 2, 2010
By Sandra Enos Kelly Ramirez

Under the umbrella of for- and nonprofit social enterprise or social entrepreneurship, communities are organizing themselves to address challenges that old ways have failed to solve.

Social enterprises apply market-based strategies and entrepreneurship to maximize social impact. Imagine a restaurant whose employees work their way out of homelessness and whose profits are directed back to serving other clients. Envision artisanal granola prepared by refugees from Iraq, Sudan and Burundi cooked up in the kitchen at Amos House. Think organic soda produced by high-school students learning business skills and funneling the profits to support college scholarships.

These are just a few examples of the more than 100 homegrown social enterprises in our community. Because of the size, creativity and critical mass of this movement in Rhode Island, the state is emerging as a national leader in the new and exciting sector of social enterprise.

Eight factors contribute to this development. Rhode Island has a concentration of social ventures — 100 strong and still counting. Amos House, a leading social-service agency, manages five social enterprises, all training and employing former Amos House clients and achieving the organization’s mission to move people from homelessness to self-sufficiency. Edesia, which employs recent immigrants and refugees, makes nutritional supplements shipped to Haiti and other nations. Social ventures elsewhere across the state include copy and print businesses, bakeries, green-energy enterprises and a piñatas business.

Social Venture Partners Rhode Island (SVPRI) is taking the lead in convening this new network of innovators. In the inaugural year of SVPRI’s annual Social Enterprise Rhode Island (SERI) Summit more than 350 people attended. (Don’t miss this year’s summit on Thursday at Bryant University, in Smithfield.)

At the recent launch of SVPRI/SERI in Newport County 125 people crowded into a room at Salve Regina University. Why? Because the double-bottom-line approach that combines consumer power with social mission makes sense. The state’s concentration of high-quality universities provides a strong pipeline of new ventures. Brown University’s Social Innovation Initiative, Bryant University’s new concentration in social enterprise, Providence College, Salve Regina, Johnson & Wales University, the Rhode Island School of Design and the University of Rhode Island are partners in offering programs, courses and concentrations in this rapidly growing field.

Students are developing initiatives while in school and upon graduation launch these ventures in Providence. The Capital Good Fund, a micro-lender, and Generation Citizen, which brings civics education to public high schools, are a couple of great examples.

Individuals successful in business and looking for a compelling second career are also providing leadership, some by building such new enterprises as Solar Sister and Maternova, others by taking the lead in creating social enterprises that support some of the state’s leading nonprofits, such as Amos House and Crossroads.

The creative talent that is one of Rhode Island’s core competencies makes our state ripe for developing this sector. Social ventures are innovative — similar to how businesses develop in response to market needs, social ventures arise from social needs.

Social entrepreneurs tell us that Rhode Island has unique capabilities to nurture the sector. Arising from our pride of place is a grassroots movement that has yielded powerful results. Companion movements such as “buy local” and Farm Fresh Rhode Island require developing infrastructure and material and social capital.

These efforts energize communities and make Rhode Island a galvanizing point for economic revitalization. The Ocean State offers a pipeline of capital — human and intellectual as well as financial — directed toward social ventures. Through SVPRI programs, community leaders have contributed more than 3,000 volunteer hours to support social-venture sector and individual ventures.

Partners invest funds in developing enterprises, but more sources of capital are needed. Consciousness about social enterprise and social ventures is growing, but we aim to build greater awareness through the SVPRI Buy with Heart program and matchmaking campaign to drive traffic to the soon-to-be-launched portal for social ventures. The matchmaking campaign will encourage large businesses and government agencies to contract and buy through social ventures.

Finally, Rhode Island leaders now recognize the social-venture sector, which now employs hundreds of Rhode Islanders — many of whom have barriers to employment.

For too long, and with mixed results, we’ve ceded job development to large public investments and the promise of tax breaks for large corporations. We are interested in exploring the impact of social enterprises on the community, reducing costs to welfare and income supports, and generating economic benefits for our localities.

While no one would argue that social enterprises can replace the jobs and opportunities that decades of disinvestment have lost, this movement places the core of economic creativity with small entrepreneurs building local capacity.

Sandra Enos is an associate professor of sociology at Bryant University. Kelly Ramirez is chief executive of Social Venture Partners of Rhode Island.

Written by Keith and Geoff

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