Three Ways to Make DC THE Social Enterprise City

Washington DC Skyline

DC is undoubtedly becoming a bigger host to social enterprises and entrepreneurs. To me, any organization pursuing social, economic, environmental, or cultural betterment through their products/services — without compromising their mission to achieve a greater profit — classifies as a “social enterprise”. Even with such a broad definition, the recent influx of these businesses in DC is an encouraging sign.

Sadly, in the eyes of many, our region is still seen as a polarizing bureaucracy full of politicking and, as such, an antithesis of progress.

But let us not forget, we’re home to companies like Groundswell (Founder Will Byrne recently landed on Forbes’ “Top 30 Under 30 Social Entrepreneurs” list) and OPower, who are radically transforming how both consumers and organizations related to their electricity consumption. The District is also the first city in North America to introduce a bike-sharing system, marrying convenience and low cost to give a more environmentally sound transport option for residents.

DC-based Blackboard and EverFi are improving modern-day education through their tech platforms, Waveborn is tweaking the TOMS’ buy-one, give-one model for their sunglasses, and Ashoka is funding thousands of social entrepreneurs and their endeavors around the world each day.  And in addition to hosting many social sector consultancies (e.g. Community Wealth Partners, Orr Associates, FSG, etc.), the recent spike of start-up incubator labs and co-working spaces in DC like 1776, PunchRock, and Impact Hub DC is astounding.

So, we’re on the right track. No doubt about it.

But more can be done to help drive social innovation and cultivate more of these enterprises right here in the nation’s capital. Here are a few ways that come to mind:

1. Support accommodating policy.

We need to push for more local legislation that allows social entrepreneurs to refine, test, and expand their business models through affordable, temporary office space.  Policy initiatives like the “Temporary Small Business and Entrepreneurship Amendment Act of 2012” are a step in the right direction.

Specifically, this amendment would allow temporary certificates of occupancy and business licenses for social entrepreneurs, as well as establish a public database of government-owned property available for their temporary commercial use.

More impermanent use of underutilized property in the District would help jump-start new social enterprises. Just to give you a sense of how prevalent these dead spaces are,  in Ward 1 alone there are 255 vacant or blighted properties. Along with affordable housing, medical clinics, legal intake services and the like, those vacancies could be used to formulate DC’s next breakthrough social venture, making it easier for entrepreneurs to start operating and testing ideas without significant costs up-front.

2. Strengthen “hyper-local” philanthropy.

Of the hundreds of nonprofits and charitable organizations in the nation’s capital, only a small fraction directs their work back into the District. Many conglomerate causes in DC are doing work everywhere but our own city, and just so happen to have headquarters or office presence here—not to mention the dollars and cents to attract donors. We need to shift the paradigm of civic focus back to our own neighborhoods.

With more localized philanthropic engagement, I’m convinced more and more privately held social enterprises will rise up to support this growing attention — organizations like my own, Raise Your City LLC, which helps high-impact community nonprofits in DC through benefit events and digital marketing services.

At the same time, new organizations similar to Venture Philanthropy Partners and DC Social Innovation Project may start to blossom to then support mine and others’ enterprises through seed funding, pro-bono consulting and legal services, and so on.

Making DC THE social enterprise city3. Engage the city’s academia.

The District and surrounding region is home to eight major colleges and universities. Plus, student backgrounds in DC are arguably the most diversified of any other US city, offering a plethora of ideas and perspectives to solve social issues.

We need to engage and leverage this population as future thought leaders in social enterprise to sustain the growth we’ve had thus far. A heightened attention must be given to civic business and the “triple bottom line”, and must be embedded in every standard business curricula for undergraduate and graduate programs alike.

Our universities must offer more MBA programs on social entrepreneurship and summer internships at local social enterprises, more social-sector degrees (e.g., non-profit management, social innovation, health and social care, social justice and human rights), and more student organizations like American’s social enterprise association.

So, with the right policy support we can make the District conducive for social entrepreneurs to build and refine their ventures. With an increased focus on hyper-local philanthropy, we can re-focus our civic activities back to our own Wards. And by engaging local academia along the way, we can garner support for social enterprise for many years to come.

We’re discussing DC as a social enterprise city on UnSectored leading up to our DC Entrepreneurship Week event on October 9th, co-hosted with RaiseDC. Learn more and sign up! Hope to see you there to continue the discussion.