Creating a centrally located, open office space where entrepreneurs could collaborate on ways to address the city’s economic and social problems was just one idea that teams of civic-minded professionals developed at a recent conference on social entrepreneurship.
“We want them (social entrepreneurs) to all talk to each other about their great ideas. … One way we break down silos is to create common places,” said Jerica Broeckling, member resource and partnership manager at United Neighborhood Centers of America in Milwaukee, who presented her team’s ideas.
Social entrepreneurs — people who use business principles to create solutions to social problems such as unemployment, poor education or inadequate housing — were the focus of a session on the intersection of social innovation and economic development. The session was part of the “Building Our Social Innovation Ecosystem” conference held at Manpower Global Headquarters.
During the session, teams of eight or nine professionals were asked to develop topics for a future hypothetical New York Times piece about how Milwaukee successfully addressed its problems through social entrepreneurship.Armed with poster paper and bright magic markers, the teams huddled, generating ideas and strategies to help spur social entrepreneurship.
“Just the fact that we are having this conversation is a win,” said Tim Syth, a social entrepreneur and the executive director of Bucketworks who attended the conference. Bucketworks is a space at 706 S. 5th St., where creative professionals can collaborate.
“At Bucketworks, we are talking about this stuff all of the time, but to have the universities and corporations perk up and support this type of (discussion), suggests really good things,” he added.
Another strategy suggested during the two-hour brainstorming session was to involve the corporate and small business community in providing financial resources, fellowships and mentorships to entrepreneurs.
“We are going to change talent retention to be a net positive. Not only are we stopping brain drain but we are creating brain gain,” said Laurel Osman, a project manager at Greater Milwaukee Committee, as she presented her team’s ideas.
Christopher Gergen, an expert on social entrepreneurship from Duke University, who facilitated the session, told of a fellowship program being developed in Raleigh, N.C., as an example of what Milwaukee could do to court social entrepreneurs.
The program would offer free housing, food and work space to 10 fellows from local colleges and universities. The year-long fellowship program would be underwritten by local corporations.
It would provide “a runway to help launch start-ups,” he said.
Another idea was to introduce social entrepreneurship to young schoolchildren, empowering them to take ownership of the social problems around them. This could be done through service learning projects and internships that connect the students with organizations throughout the city.After the session, McGee Young, entrepreneur faculty fellow at Marquette University, implored the attendees to proactively seek ways to attract social entrepreneurs.
“The most powerful thing you can do to change the culture of entrepreneurship is to be interested and excited about what someone else is doing and giving them that validation,” Young added.
The conference was organized by Marquette University’s Social Innovation Initiative. Other sponsors were the Helen Bader Foundation, ManpowerGroup, MiKE and the Zilber Family Foundation.
Sessions involving higher education and the philanthropic sector also took place at the conference.
“The reason we have to do this is because if we don’t, then we are in trouble,” Gergen said, adding, “We have to be able to close this innovation gap. We have too many complex challenges that are facing us right now.”