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While the Brandery’s Demo Day served as an important launching pad for organizations from around the US, many players of the Cincinnati entrepreneurial ecosystem helped to accelerate entrepreneurship on the other side of the world in a region where entrepreneurship is not so common – Afghanistan. Over a five day period ending earlier this month, Miami University’s Institute for Entrepreneurship hosted over 60 post-graduate Fulbright students for a seminar on social entrepreneurship informally called Startup Afghanistan. The goal was to provide the best and the brightest from Afghanistan with the tools, experiences and knowledge to develop entrepreneurial solutions to some of the most pressing problems when they return back to their home country. The program was sponsored by the US Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) and administered in cooperation with the Institute of International Education.

Startup Weekend Methodology

While the Fulbright Program – the flagship international educational exchange program of the US government – offers enrichment seminars for the visiting scholars, it generally does so through traditional workshops and experiences. However, given the focus on gaining entrepreneurial knowledge, Miami convinced the US Department of State to experiment with this seminar through the use of the Startup Weekend methodology. As such, 60 Fulbright students from Afghanistan engaged in a 54-hour immersion experience of moving from idea to prototype. The Startup methodology was directed primarily through Mark Lacker and Tony Alexander. Lacker is the Altman Clinical Professor of Entrepreneurship at Miami, who has become a national expert in Startup Weekends and recently ran one for the national kick-off of Venture for America.  Alexander is co-founder of three start-ups including Travelers Joy, Simple Registry and Smarty Tags and a mentor at the Brandery.

Local Knowledge to the Develop Local Solutions

Guided by Lacker and Alexander, the Fulbright students, ranging in age from 25 to 60, were encouraged to offer opening pitches to solve real problems in Afghanistan. As the US Department of State held their breath for fear that no one would pitch an idea, the students displayed incredible enthusiasm and courage by pitching 39 different ideas that were organized into nine different teams. Cutting across the sectors of healthcare, education, business and energy, the students worked tirelessly – guided by Lacker, Alexander, 2nd year mentors from Afghanistan, and peer mentors in Miami’s entrepreneurship program – to develop nine business models grounded in the day to day reality of Afghanistan. After two days, the nine teams made presentations to a panel of judges including a nonprofit university, a business research center, a manufacturing business producing saffron, a low-cost marriage business, a solar energy business, a community development bank, a plastic bottle recycling business, an Afghan consulting business, and a diabetes management business. In the end, the community development bank for farmers emerged as the winning business model.

Partnering with the Cincinnati Ecosystem

While the Institute for Entrepreneurship at the Farmer School of Business of Miami University was selected to host the Fulbright Program because of the international reputation of its work in social entrepreneurship, the success of the program was greatly enhanced because of several key players in the entrepreneurial ecosystem. In addition to Alexander, Mike Bott (General Manager, Brandery), Johnmark Oudersluys (Executive Director, CityLink), Joe Hansbauer (Executive Director, UGive) and Richard Palmer (President, Nehemiah Manufacturing Company) shared their time and experiences with the Fulbright students to greatly advance their ideas. The goals of the seminar were to advance mutual understanding of people from different countries / cultures, to build sustainable human networks, and to gain actionable knowledge of the entrepreneurial process. Given the startup weekend methodology, the local knowledge of students and the support of the Cincinnati entrepreneurial ecosystem, the Fulbright students have accelerated the rebuilding of their country and the changing of the world in Afghanistan through entrepreneurship.

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Thanks to Mark Zuckerburg, it is not necessary to define a social network. Whether through the movie, the recent IPO filing news or the many different businesses (such as LinkedIn) developed around the concept, nearly everyone understands the potential value of a social network. While the concept is understood, the process by which players are attracted to, retained within, and connected to other parts of the social network are less clear. Yet, these processes of attracting, retaining and connecting are critical if the entrepreneurial network of Greater Cincinnati is to realize its full potential.

Attracting Players to the Entrepreneurial Network
Many different organizations in the entrepreneurial network of Greater Cincinnati contribute to bringing new entrepreneurial individuals and organizations to the area. For example, funders and accelerators often require start-ups to re-relocate to Cincinnati. Both the Brandery and CincyTech act as magnets that attract excellent ideas and people to the region. Venture for America, thanks to the work of Eric Avner of US Bank / Haile Foundation, will bring talented college graduates from around the country to connect them to the entrepreneurial scene in Cincinnati. And universities – including three in the area ranked in the top 25 undergraduate entrepreneurship programs in the country – attract younger entrepreneurial talent from across the state and the country. One important question is whether the area is attracting and / or training the necessary technical skills. As longer term solutions emerge, shorter term solutions may include the growth of programs such as Code Academy. (more…)

Contrary to popular belief social entrepreneurship does not equal nonprofit organizations. While social entrepreneurship may occur within and through 501(c) 3 organizations, the legal entity is not the primary criterion for social entrepreneurial activity.  In social entrepreneurship, it is the explicit social mission that distinguishes social entrepreneurship from other start-ups. In this way, social entrepreneurship can occur along a continuum of for-profit to non-profit organizations where the social mission is central and explicit.  Following are a few of the many examples in the Cincinnati area that use different models to deliver social value.

Nonprofit focused on social value creation: GCEA

Greater Cincinnati Energy Alliance (GCEA) www.greatercea.org is a nonprofit organization whose explicit social mission is to lower consumer, business and nonprofit use of energy. The Department of Energy provided early stage funding with goals of reducing energy / environmental costs and of creating jobs for Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. A recent study indicates that energy efficiency could save residents and nonprofits more than $60 million and create more than 300 jobs, adding another $13 million in economic benefit to the area. In this way, the founding of GCEA by Andy Holzhauser created a nonprofit organization focused on creating social value by reducing unnecessary energy consumption.

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“If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish you feed him for a lifetime.” However, teaching a man to fish may not be enough. Bill Drayton, founder of Ashoka, suggests, “Social entrepreneurs are not content until they revolutionize the fishing industry.” This statement raises at least three questions. What is a social entrepreneur? What does it mean to revolutionize the fishing industry? And finally, how is social entrepreneurship expanding in Cincinnati?

Defining Social Entrepreneurship

Social entrepreneurship can be defined broadly as developing innovative solutions to persistent social problems. In this way, social entrepreneurship borrows the creativity and imagination from entrepreneurship, but applies it to address social problems such as hunger or poverty. According to Greg Dees at Duke University, “a social entrepreneur is of the genus entrepreneur and the species social.” In this way, an entrepreneurial mindset identifies opportunities, marshals resources and creates value, but the primarily focuses on the creation of social value – value often for the marginalized of society – rather than private economic value.

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In late October, the Brandery held its second annual Demo Day for its eight portfolio companies.  Following their 12 week program at the Brandery, the companies – Choremonster, Keepio, Leap, Receept, Rent Share, Roadtrippers, Spaceity, and Style ZEN – had the opportunity to showcase their concepts on Demo Day to an audience of more than 350 attendees at the Champions Club at Great American Ball Park. By all accounts, Brandery Demo Day was an important event not only for the eight portfolio companies but also for the entire Greater Cincinnati entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Connecting the Past

Drawing from the roots of ecology, an ecosystem approach is concerned with the components of a system and how those component parts interact. In prior columns, the Cincinnati entrepreneurial ecosystem has been described as consisting of nine components including universities, government, angel investors, venture capitalists, incubators, events, grass roots initiatives, networks and support groups. While each of these components has been individually identified, the Brandery and its Demo Day provided a wonderful opportunity for the component parts of the ecosystem to interact. Throughout the 12 week program, universities, angel investors, venture capitalists and many others contributed different forms of collective capital – human, financial, social and intellectual – to advance the work of the Brandery portfolio companies. At Demo Day, each of these interacting parts was present and engaged in the collective conversation about both the portfolio companies and about how to continue to find ways to interact going forward with each other.  In this way, the Brandery served as a catalyst to connect many of the component parts of the ecosystem. (more…)