Could Detroit Become the Silicon Valley of Social Entrepreneurship?
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The first rule of starting any entrepreneurial venture is: Find a problem that needs solving. Detroit, as we all know, has some big social problems: poverty; crime; homelessness; abysmal literacy rates; rampant unemployment. It should hardly be a surprise, then, that a motivated young class of social entrepreneurs has sprung up in the city, and the successful startups they’ve created are gaining the attention of the region’s veteran entrepreneurs. The local boom in social entrepreneurship has even spawned a business incubator, Wayne State University’s Blackstone LaunchPad, and a capital fund, University of Michigan’s Social Venture Fund.
“Detroit is a great testing ground,” said Jeremy Schifeling, a fellow at the Social Venture Fund. “We want to make this city the epicenter of social impact.”
U-M’s Social Venture Fund, launched in September 2009, is the first student-run fund of its kind in the nation. Schifeling described its business model as having a “triple bottom line” of profit, environmental concerns, and social impact. The fund focuses its investments in four areas: health, education, food systems, and the environment and urban revitalization.
Housed at the Zell Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies, the U-M Social Venture Fund received more than 100 business plans for consideration during its first year of operation. Though most of the interest comes from startups in Southeast Michigan, it’s not exclusive. Thirty students from across campus, both graduate and undergrad and from schools as diverse as Natural Resources, Finance, Education, and Public Health, administer the fund, which has the capacity to invest $250,000 per company, though Schifeling says the typical investment amount is $50,000 to $100,000. The money in the fund comes from within the university, from high-net-worth individuals, and educational foundations.