From Baltimore to Rome:

Changing the World, One Company and one Neighborhood at a time!

Photo of the Pantheon from my trip to Rome to participate in the Laudato Si Challenge

My friend Jamie McDonald, CEO of Generosity, Inc. is an expert at curating amazing conversations. This weekend I attended a dinner party at her exquisite home in Baltimore and her talent for bringing people together was on full display. Never really setting forth a topic for discussion, Jamie simply fills the room with a cadre of interesting and intelligent people of wildly diverse backgrounds. Her husband and my main man, Tom — an ex-bartender like myself — plies the group with just enough booze to loosen things up. Great food and great discussions ensue.

This time around I found myself surrounded by a world-renowned Johns Hopkins neurologist, a barber whose shop doubles as a West Baltimore neighborhood hub and art gallery, a film maker and hip-hop “curator,” a social activist, a socialite, a writer, a defense specialist and of course Jamie’s kennel of dogs, her amazing kids and a few business and investment types like me.

During dinner the conversation quickly turned to politics, the outcome of the Presidential election, the impact of Millennials and the ability of politicians at the national and local level to impact our lives. The general consensus was that we all need to learn some hard lessons from the outcome of this most recent election — and more importantly — that we all have a responsibility to take more ownership of the circumstances we find impacting our local communities if we are to create the world in which we all want to live.

As it turns out we are all prone to focus on the big news, the national initiatives, the presidents and prime ministers because there is both a reality and perception of the power that resides in those offices and events. But increasingly it’s the mayors and local activists, the small businesses in our communities that have an outsized impact on how we experience daily life. It’s not that we shouldn’t participate and care about the big initiatives, national elections and the consequences thereof. It’s that we also need to work the grass roots if we want to effect real change. The big events garner our attention, but the revolution explodes from the ground up!

This discussion and the insight got me thinking about the two initiatives I find myself most focused on at the moment with my colleagues at the Conscious Venture Lab and SHIFT Ventures.

The Laudato Si Challenge is an accelerator and investment program created as a response to Pope Francis’s (non-denominational) call to action that we realign our business practices to accord with ecology. As a part of this once-in-a-lifetime program, I was inside the walls of the Vatican in the Pontifical Academy of Sciences for the official announcement of the Challenge on May 5th.

Inspired by the topics in Pope Francis’ 2nd Encyclical, the title, Laudato Si’ (and thus the name of the challenge) “On care for our common home,” the writings and the investment challenge are highly concerned with the current form of unfettered capitalism on the planet and the most vulnerable among us.

Even in the US we know that wherever there is a vulnerable ecosystem, there are vulnerable people (Flint, Michigan being an obvious example). So the goal is to find startups that are solving big, societal problems and build them into profitable, world-class companies that can impact a billion people.

It is an amazing initiative that will undoubtedly garner worldwide attention.

I truly believe that the Pope asking for large-scale business solutions that accord with ecology is a game changer in the world of impact investing and Conscious Capitalism®. The organizers of the challenge, in particular my friend Eric Harr, has assembled and curated an amazing group of investors and advisors who are deeply committed to finding companies that can solve global social and environmental problems. We are dedicated to finding companies that will elevate humanity by virtue of their products and their business models and we are clearly dedicated to finding companies that can scale quickly to have massive impact, and produce market rate — not concessionary — financial returns. I’m proud to be a part of the founding team and my colleagues and I at SHIFT Ventures and the Conscious Venture Lab are excited to return to Rome this summer as mentors and facilitators for the accelerator program.

Meanwhile, back here in Baltimore, we are about to launch the third iteration of the Conscious Venture Lab. We’re moving the physical Lab (which was founded in partnership with the Howard County Economic Development Authority in 2013) into West Baltimore. We’re launching in partnership with the Innovation Village — the first innovation district in Baltimore — and we’ll be focusing on companies that are solving problems associated with urban resilience and smart cities technologies.

The technical focus of the companies we’ll accelerate is very important. Our focus is in fact related and connected to the work we’ll be doing in Rome. Innovation in areas of energy, food access, urban environments, connected finance, health and transportation are critical to mid-sized cities like Baltimore that have experienced the pains of growth and uneven economic inclusion. In this regard however, of equal if not more significance is the fact that we are locating the Conscious Venture Lab in West Baltimore on a permanent basis. By enticing entrepreneurs and new investment capital into West Baltimore and actively seeking to engage minority and female entrepreneurs who reside in West Baltimore, we will have very distinct social and economic impact on a traditionally underserved community in our city.

Indeed we certainly expect our companies to be solving for issues of local and, yes, global impact. And beyond the technical problems that the companies will actually solve, our focus on building societal purpose, servant leadership, moral and ethical cultures and a stakeholder (as opposed to shareholder) mindset — the tenets of Conscious Capitalism® — we expect will have a profound impact on the employees, suppliers, communities and families of the companies we accelerate. And, in doing so we are certain we can expand economic activity and opportunity in West Baltimore.

In his most recent book, How The Poor Can Save Capitalism, John Hope Bryant, said this: (societies) “…thrive when there is a high level of individual economic energy and at least the perception of enough economic opportunity to go around. And all of this is about one thing: hope made real through a pathway to the middle class … and an opportunity for everyone to become a stakeholder in the… dream.”

For me this quote speaks to both the Pope’s encouragement for a more integral human experience on a global scale as well as the need for us to do all we can in our own communities to start that “revolution of tenderness” he spoke of in his recent TED Talk.

As an investor and entrepreneur I feel compelled to support big audacious initiatives like Laudato Si’, and to work here, in my own city to drive change at the local level. I’m looking to impact the global discussion of how capitalism is practiced as well as to have an immediate impact on how a more humane form of capitalism creates a more just, joyous and equitable society here in Baltimore.

If you’re an entrepreneur in West Africa, or in West Baltimore I urge you to step up, lean in and get involved. Because while we provide the platform in Rome or here in Baltimore, it’s you, the entrepreneur, who will create the innovations that will move our society forward.


To apply for the Conscious Venture Lab Urban Resilience/Smart Cities in West Baltimore please visit the application site here.

To find out more about the Laudato Si’ Challenge you can visit the website here or go to the application site here.

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