The view from inside a DC incubator

Entrepreneurship, especially in small startups, is uniquely posed to create actual significant social and environmental benefit for the world, instead of just focusing on making a profit. To talk about how incubators in the region are spurring entrepreneurs to work for the common good, we spoke with Josh Mandell, director of policy and international programs at Halcyon, one of the leading accelerators of social ventures in the United States.

ABERMAN: So, what is Halcyon?

MANDELL: So the short answer is that we find some of the most creative people in the world, whether it’s in business or in art, and teach them how to have an impact in the world. And so, we provide the tools, and the setting, for them to actually turn their transformative ideas into, in the case of the incubator, into sustainable and impactful businesses.

ABERMAN: That’s a big job. And the difference between creativity and creating something sustainable, that’s a big challenge. As you look at it, what are the biggest differences between doing this as an accelerator to create a for-profit business, or doing it, as it sounds like you’re doing, around the holistic, the social venture aspect. How is it different?

MANDELL: I see very little difference between your typical technology-oriented startup, and today’s highest-performing social enterprises. A lot of the founders that come into Halcyon, that are accepted into the program, have an incredibly transformative idea, either in health or education, or civic engagement, or agrobusiness, or food, but that transformative idea is only going to actually have the impact that they want if they think about how they can actually turn that into a business. And it’s not just giving some back to good causes, some of their profits back to good causes, it’s about weaving the actual social impact into the business plan, and the business strategy. That’s how we see real impact, and sustainable impact, taking place.

Subscribe to the What’s Working in Washington podcast on iTunes.

ABERMAN: When I am asked about it, or I talk with social entrepreneurs, what I say is that, ultimately, any activity where you’re trying to achieve sustainability, you have to figure out what your customer is, and you have to figure out where you’re going to find the money to sustain your business. And it can come from customers, but it can also come from donors.

It can come from grants, it can come from lots of different places, and where I see a lot of social ventures fall down is, they don’t really look at it as gathering resources, they look at it as, Oh, I’m doing this to make money, or I’m doing this to change the world. And it sounds to me like, in Halcyon, what you’re really saying with sustainability is, find people who care, and find money to support what it is you’re trying to make people care about.

MANDELL: Yeah, and a lot of times, an entrepreneur, a social enterprise, will come into Halcyon with this incredibly mission-oriented idea, but a lot of times, we have to teach them to know, it’s okay to have dollar bills in your eyes, right? It’s okay to think of yourself as a business person. The impact will come. We teach them the exact same kind of things that any traditional startup in Silicon Valley, or New York, or Boston, would need to know: how to build your team, how to secure finance, how to actually negotiate, how to work with corporate partners.

So, all of these things are the same, whether you’re a pure technology startup, or a social enterprise. Actually, I’ll mention that we have an arts lab as well. It’s interesting that the artists that we bring to our program that are, it’s also part of a competitive program, they need a lot of the same things. They need to learn how to find financing, they need to learn how to get into gallery space. They need to learn how to build teams. So, we actually align a lot of our programming between the incubator for social enterprises, and our emerging artists that we’re teaching how to have more of a social impact through their art.

ABERMAN: Why D.C.? What is it about this ecosystem that makes us particularly amenable to social ventures, vis-a-vis doing this in Silicon Valley, New York, or Columbus, Ohio? Why here?

MANDELL: It’s a great question. So, Washington D.C. has a lot of things that make it very attractive for social enterprises, and we always look at it from the perspective of the social enterprise. Where do I want to live, where am I going to be able to build my team, where am I going to be able to get the access to information and knowledge and expertise?

So, Washington D.C. is kind of a perfect storm for that kind of information and environment. Every major international company has some kind of presence here in Washington. A lot of our startups are dealing with policy issues, and regulatory issues, that they’re looking to either improve, or they need to have knowledge of. There is an incredible dearth of expertise out of local universities. If you look at Washington D.C., there’s probably more than a dozen top performing universities within a ten-mile radius of D.C., so you have that access to talent. And Washington D.C. also happens to be an incredibly livable city, and a very young, dynamic population.

So, those are the things we see as being critical for successful social enterprise ecosystems to survive. In fact, we produced a report called the Social Enterprise Ecosystem Report, which is available online for anybody, which actually ranks 21 cities across the United States on how well they’re doing as far as attracting social enterprises, and the kinds of things that make social enterprise work in those cities. So, the cities you mentioned are all on that list, the most recent data shows Washington D.C. as being third in the nation.

ABERMAN: You mentioned startups. There are a large number of NGOs and not-for-profits here in this town. How much are you working with existing organizations to help them become more entrepreneurial?

MANDELL: We are interested in how organizations can become more innovative, and entrepreneurial, and really a lot of that has to do with being able to attract the innovative person. That one person that really brings dynamism and creativity to an organization. Although we focus almost exclusively on that small enterprise, we also do consult and provide expertise to larger organizations on how they can be more dynamic and interesting, and we’re doing this both domestically and abroad.

ABERMAN: Well Josh, I really appreciate you coming in. Congratulations on all the work that you and Halcyon are doing, it’s a really important part of the local ecosystem.

MANDELL: Thanks a lot, it was a pleasure being here.