Social Enterprise in Virginia: A Snapshot

A month ago I was fortunate to host a panel on social entrepreneurship at Virginia Venture Summit. I had invited a group of practitioners who were willing to spill the beans about what it means to run a social enterprise in Virginia. For all those who could not be there, here’s a quick recap:

Following Felix Brandon Lloyd’s keynote about his journey as a social entrepreneur, the room had settled into an attentive silence. Ever since I moved to Richmond a year and a half ago, I have been advocating for social entrepreneurship and the power of business to be a force for good. Finally, someone — Venture Forum — had given me a stage for 45 minutes. But instead of sharing my experiences from the past 19 months (which I’ll be happy to do if anyone else wants to invite me!), I was thrilled to turn the mic over to the four speakers who live the ups and downs of social entrepreneurship in a mid-sized market city day in and day out:

  • Adam Dreyfus, co-founder of AnswersNow
  • Bethany Rubin Henderson, executive director of DC SCORES (community-oriented, + academic background as adjunct professor for social entrepreneurship at George Mason)
  • Rupa Singh, founder of Love This (B-2-C, product-based small business)
  • Michael Pirron, founder of Impact Makers (B-2-B, service-oriented, B Corp)

Adam Dreyfus, AnswersNow. Spending most of his career working with children with autism, Adam is acutely aware of the challenges parents face in not only raising a child with different needs but in keeping their families and relationships as a couple healthy and intact. Many everyday situations call for immediate intervention. Neither schools (if the child is fortunate enough to attend a needs-focused school such as St. Joseph’s Villa) nor scheduled meetings with counselors provide that type of timely and individualized support. AnswersNow provides real-time support to parents of children with autism. As a first-time startup co-founder with a strong clinical background, Adam spoke to the challenges of trying to find the right talent to build their application for a service-oriented business that also has a social mission.

Adam Dreyfus, co-founder AnswersNow

Bethany Rubin Henderson, D.C. Scores. As a White House Fellow from 2012 to 2013, Bethany was involved in developing My Brother’s Keeper, a public-private partnership designed to help young boys and men stay on track and achieve their potential from “cradle to career”. Prior, Bethany launched City Hall Fellows to raise young people’s interest in civic service. At the moment, Bethany is the Executive Director of DC SCORES and teaches social entrepreneurship at George Mason University which allowed her to address social entrepreneurship not only from a practitioner’s but an academic’s perspective.

Rupa Singh, Love This. Rupa is the owner and manager of Love This, a retail airstream shop that sells socially responsible apparel and accessories. More than just a shop owner, Rupa is an activist for thoughtful consumption; reminding her clients of their enormous power thanks to their purchasing decisions. Rupa was a unique position to speak to the importance of consumer awareness and education in product-based retail that is driven by ethical standards.

Michael Pirron, Impact Makers. Founded with 50 dollars and a laptop, Michael Pirron has grown Impact Makers into a successful IT consultancy with over 120 employees within the last ten years. The business is entirely owned by two public charities and will invest 100% of its net profits back into the community over the lifetime of the company. Thanks to its involvement in the B Corp community, Michael provided insights into impact investing in VA as well as B Corp certification.

What is Social Entrepreneurship?

Michael Pirron: “To me, social entrepreneurship means using business and the free market to solve social and environmental issues. I distinguish between two types of social enterprise — the “earned income model” — nonprofit generating its own revenue like Goodwill; and the for-profit model like Ben and Jerry’s and B Corps.”

Rupa Singh: “Using your business as force for good. Providing a benefit, knowledge and education to the consumer but also provide means to positively impact social, environmental and economic issues. Having a social mission as a part of your business means you are a changemaker, you are a part of a movement that uses business as a path to better something. “

Rupa Singh, founder of Love This RVA

Adam Dreyfus: “Building a viable for-profit company around a social problem that aligns with my avocation.”

Bethany Henderson: “Social entrepreneurship is innovative, systems-changing, scalable, measurable, replicable and sustainable. It is not a 501(c)3 or a nonprofit, it’s not CSR or philanthropy or volunteering; all of these serve important purposes but they are NOT social entrepreneurship. Social entrepreneurship means understanding the root cause of the problem, developing a strategy how to get to that root and change the system that caused the issue in the first place, and to intentionally measure the success of doing so.”

As a social entrepreneur, how do you measure and communicate your impact?

Michael Pirron: “As a B Corp, we go through a rigorous assessment every two years that helps us assess our performance in five core areas of our business:

  • Environment
  • Community
  • Workers
  • Governance, and
  • Impact Business Models.

That gives us an in-depth understanding how we are doing as a company that strives to create a strong triple-bottom line. Besides, we support our nonprofit partners through pro-bono services and financial contributions — both of which we can track and evaluate for their effectiveness.”

Michael Pirron, founder of Impact Makers

Rupa Singh: “I like to look at it as planting seeds. When customers buy something in the shop I get to share the story of that particular product. And these stories make a difference, it empowers my customers to go and tell THEIR friends what this item stands for, who it was made by and how it makes a difference, an impact in someone else’s life.”

Adam Dreyfus: ”Through AnswersNow we are able to track millions of data points about each intervention between autistic children and their parents. Thanks to my clinical training, I insist on rigorous performance assessment; it allows us to understand whether an intervention was a success or not; thanks to machine learning, we can constantly adapt and improve our app.”

Your magic wand: What’s next for social entrepreneurship in Virginia?

Bethany Henderson:”Students are increasingly interested in becoming social entrepreneurs. Generation Z does not just want to work nine to five in some planned-out position for the sake of security. They are looking for purpose and to use their careers to make a difference. To many of them, social entrepreneurship is the way to exactly that. In order to succeed, they need entrepreneurial training like any other entrepreneur. We need to instill in them a curious mind, critical thinking, and the willingness to fail.”

Bethany Henderson, Executive Director DC SCORES

Rupa Singh: “We need more support and programs that help entrepreneurs understand how to build robust companies that use business as a force for good. There is so much that fledgling entrepreneurs don’t know, and as a single-founder, it can get lonely quickly. Participating in programs like Unreasonable Lab VA and benefitting from business mentoring through Thrive are incredible resources for emerging social entrepreneurs.”

Michael Pirron: ”I see socially responsible and impact investing gain momentum. The former is a way of investing that prevents harm by not investing in companies that make weapons or tobacco, for example. Impact Investing, on the other hand, actively tries to make a positive impact by channeling funds to companies that are proactively creating social good. The Virginia Impact Investing Forum has been instrumental in surveying the landscape in Virginia, assessing knowledge gaps among stakeholders, and raising awareness about impact investing. What I hope for in the near future is that investors understand that their philanthropy and investment don’t have to be two separate commitments anymore. They can invest in startups and companies AND do good at the same time.”