Austin’s Impacted Social Enterprises

As the Live Music Capital of the World, Austin knows how to make a lot of noise about things it likes. We like computers so we write code and build gadgets. We like art so we host some of the world’s largest music and film festivals. We like food and drink so we make some incredible beer and BBQ. We like starting companies that make the world a better place so we…wait…

Is Austin really creating a Social Enterprise sector?

What does “Social Enterprise” mean in Austin? What kind of Social Enterprise can someone start here, with what money and what local talent? Does Austin have the resources or interest to support a Social Enterprise industry?

These are subjects panelists Zoe Schlag (@UnLtdUSA), Steve Wanta (Xco) and Matt McDonnell (Notley Ventures) took on at last night’s “State of Innovation”, hosted by AustinInno (@AustinInno) in true Austin style: tackling world-changing ideas over local craft beers while sitting in a warehouse converted into a co-working space renovated to look a warehouse, etc.

The discussion covered a lot but I was left with more questions than answers about Austin’s Social Impact/Enterprise Scene. Some of my concerns:

  • Markets: In Austin’s Social Impact/Enterprise ecosystem, how do we identify the markets and sub-markets for goods, services, jobs, skills, etc.?
    (e.g. healthcare or employing the economically disadvantaged, creating mobile apps or consulting services for existing Social Enterprises, programming or teaching)
  • Cost of Entry: Starting a Social Enterprise seems even harder (i.e. expensive in time and money) than starting a “normal” venture. There’s also an information cost, since a Social Entrepreneur (+ their investor or donor) has to define “Social Enterprise” — a term both broad and new, unlike “microlending” which is at least anchored to the specific activity of banking. How can Austin lower these costs of entry?
  • Being Inclusive: Related to the Cost of Entry, Austin can’t let the Social Enterprise/Impact scene be too homogeneous ethnically and income-level (i.e. mostly rich and/or white people). Especially if as panelist Matt McDonnell put it, “Maybe one of the biggest ways we can make a social impact is to fund women and minority businesses.”
  • Standing Out: Unlike with “Fair Trade” anyone can describe their activity in terms of “Social Impact” or “Social Enterprise” (Walmart, Nike and Archer Daniels Midland already do). Should Austin try to create a Social Enterprise “brand” so that the word really means something to the producers, funders and consumers? Should Austin have an SXSW-type event or Armadillo Bazaar-type annual market to showcase local Social Enterprises? (SXSW Eco tried to do this, but it seems to be devolving into interactive advertisements and PR for universities and companies like Clorox).
  • Mapping and Matchmaking: A big advantage to the term “Social Enterprise” is that it offers a new language to donors, investors, entrepreneurs and would-be employees with a specific social mission. Shouldn’t there be an easy way for these people to find each other, especially those with specific interests? UnLtd USA made a great interactive map (available here) but what about a searchable directory?
  • Focus: Would Austin’s Social Enterprise/Impact industry benefit from a focus, e.g. on technology (phone apps), a geographic area, agriculture?

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