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Impact Entrepreneurs: making more than just profit
Author: Laura Gleim, Institute for Sustainable Solutions
Posted: August 14, 2012

What could you do to make the world a better place? If you’re a social entrepreneur, you could find a way to do it through business.

“Social entrepreneurship takes the best of business and the best of the nonprofit world to develop organizations that mitigate social and environmental problems,” said Cindy Cooper, a Portland State University business instructor and co-founder of Impact Entrepreneurs, an organization focused on using business to catalyze positive social change.

Cooper and fellow business instructor Carolyn McKnight founded Impact Entrepreneurs in 2010 after launching individual social entrepreneurship initiatives. Although the organization is housed in the PSU School of Business Administration and funded in part by the Institute for Sustainable Solutions, Impact Entrepreneurs supports its programs largely with income earned from enterprise activities.

And that’s exactly the kind of revenue model they are trying to instill in businesses and organizations both locally and around the world.

Through the Entrepreneurial Leadership Program, Impact Entrepreneurs has partnered with organizations like Mercy Corps and Digital Divide Data to train managers in developing countries on how to make their social initiatives more effective and economically sustainable through social innovation, leadership, and business fundamentals.

“A lot of these organizations are moving away from traditional philanthropic models because the money just isn’t there anymore,” Cooper said. “Charity will always be an important support tool, but there are also benefits that come from having to be responsive to customer markets.”

For instance, Digital Divide Data (DDD) provides data entry and other digital services to create educational opportunities and jobs for impoverished youth in Cambodia, Laos, and Kenya. Like many social enterprises, DDD exists for the sole purpose of creating opportunities for disadvantaged young people living in places that lack employment. With support from the Rockefeller Foundation, DDD contracted Impact Entrepreneurs to teach organizations how to replicate the DDD model in four other countries.

Impact Entrepreneurs also runs a program for social entrepreneurs here in Portland, called the Social Innovation Incubator. This annual program helps both PSU students and community members develop and launch innovative business ideas that have the potential to generate social and environmental benefits as well as a sustainable economic profit.

Examples of Social Innovation Incubator businesses include My Street Grocery, a mobile food provider that delivers healthy food to urban food deserts in Portland; and EcoZoom, a company that manufactures high-efficiency cookstoves that save carbon emissions and prevent upper-respiratory disease, which is a leading cause of death in the developing world.

“Funding from the world’s governments is declining,” said McKnight, “and this model is so much more empowering. Find something you love and follow it completely. That makes the world a better place.”