(Photo by Margaret Roth)
Inside a makerspace building a diverse community on a formerly blighted block in the Charles Street Corridor of Greenmount West, a dialogue between panelists and attendees alike grappled with what the reality and corresponding inequities of access to innovation means in a city like Baltimore on the final day of Baltimore Innovation Week 2019.
Facilitated by Jay Nwachu and the team at Innovation Works, Baltimore Innovation Week’s Access track featured a series of panels at Open Works on Friday, October 11, all aimed to answer some big questions — What does access mean? How do you get it? And once you have it, what do you do with it and how do you share it?
As an attempt to answer these questions, here are some key takeaways and resources from each of the day’s panel discussions:
Access begins with data.
During the hands-on opening session addressing data and technology in social innovation, attendees explored new tech platforms that have been created to allow citizens of all kinds to have direct, user-friendly access to data at their fingertips. They included:
- Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance: Seema Iyer, associate director of the Jacob France Institute at the University of Baltimore, explored free public resources that enable citizens to directly access data related to their communities. From BNIA’s Vital Signs site, citizens can download raw data related to neighborhoods in PDF or spreadsheet format. For stakeholders looking for a walkthrough tool, the Guidepost allows users to work with the Vital Signs indicators using an interactive data dashboard.
- EcoMap: For those seeking to understand the local funding landscape, founder Pava LaPere demoed the Baltimore EcoMap. The technology is designed to help entrepreneurs and underserved founders find resources applicable to their ventures. Whether building a startup, a nonprofit, or a small business, EcoMap aims to democratize access to the knowledge and resources needed to create a business, while providing a comprehensive picture of the overall characteristics that define an innovation community.
Ever wonder what resources are available in Baltimore’s entrepreneurial ecosystem? Head over to @EcoMapBaltimore for info on funding, accelerators, mentor ship & more! #accessday #biw19 pic.twitter.com/UikclshOuE
— Laura Flamm (@laura_flamm) October 11, 2019
- Collide by Think|Stack: CEO Chris Sachse of the customer experience design agency demoed an adaptation of their core product originally designed for for-profit businesses. Through a partnership with Innovation Works, the technology aims to enable the crowd-sourcing of ideas from stakeholders and connect them into conversation streams that aid in the organization of community development initiatives.
By making data and technology accessible, the panelists see a future where change agents, community members, and even entrepreneurs will be able to better understand the factors at play in their neighborhoods and use that data as a catalyst for transformation.
Those who are closest to problems are best-positioned to develop authentic solutions.
To bring the discussion from what could be done to what is being done, the next panel brought focus to the hyper-local work at the neighborhood level of four different organizations.
“These organizations are building the blocks to bridge the gap between the person on the street corner in Baltimore and this thing we call social innovation” said Nwachu in introduction.
The key message: Stakeholders that live in the neighborhood, no matter what neighborhood, have greater capacity to innovate the right solutions than outsiders. If their voices aren’t included, don’t expect change to take hold.
Moderator and City Councilman Zeke Cohen facilitated a discussion that led to these noteworthy remarks:
- “We are building leaders, not just helping people get jobs. In the same community they destroyed ten years ago, now they are the ones building it up.” — BUILD Baltimore executive director Melvin Wilson, referring to the work of the Turnaround Tuesday program to prepare returning and unemployed citizens to reenter the workforce.
- “Right now, just getting people to become homeowners in an area that has potential for increased value is an opportunity to create generational wealth.” — Kari Snyder, executive director of the Southeast Community Development Corporation, speaking on how the organization is working to provide down payment assistance to immigrants and the black community.
- “Black and Brown people in Baltimore have been doing social innovation work long before social innovation was a term. It’s not that the work hasn’t been being done it’s just that those people haven’t been listened to; now those residents are being invited to the table.” — Marie Anderson, Loyola alum, Govans resident, and assistant director for the York Road Initiative, on how they approach working across the boundaries of race in one of the most socio and economically divided corridors in the city.
- “In a city that has been starved of — deprived of — resources, when you suddenly have the money to spend on something, what do you spend it on? How do you take a stream of resources and put it to productive use?” said Brad Rogers, executive director of the Southwest Baltimore Gateway Partnership. His organization is charged with investing $6 million in revenue from casinos across the state into neighborhood-level change in Baltimore City in ways that he believes will lead to “a new generation of civic infrastructure in Baltimore.”
In closing, the panelists encouraged attendees and neighbors to be vigilant and keep asking questions. Nwachu concluded the discussion with action for the audience, encouraging that regardless of what neighborhood they live in they must ask “Is there a plan for it that I don’t know about? Who are the organizing bodies that are serving as the gatekeepers to my community?”
For social enterprises, there’s more available than venture capital.
While a return on investment is still a desired outcome, the success metrics that social enterprises are measured by diverge from the metrics of traditional venture capital. Especially in a city like Baltimore, there are different kinds of investors who focus on different kinds of criteria when evaluating an investment opportunity: lived experience over credentials, community impact over direct investor return, and even personal interest over an established investment thesis.
Here are four kinds of capital access in Baltimore for social entrepreneurs that bridge the capital divide when it comes to investing in social innovation:
- Kiva: A crowdsourced micro-lending website locally facilitated by Baltimore Corps. Kiva underwrites zero-percent-interest, zero-fee business loans of up to $10,000 through loans from individuals starting at $25, said Kiva Baltimore Manager Kaetlyn Bernal.
- Latino Economic Development Center: Small Business Lending Officer Alejandro Arizaga said the center is providing grants from $1,000 to $250,000 for small businesses that support the economic and social advancement of latinos.
- Neighborhood Impact Investment Fund: Only nine months into existence, Mark Kaufman said the NIIF is a mission-driven investment fund aimed at delivering capital that promotes inclusive and equitable growth in historically disinvested neighborhoods and provides economic opportunities for residents. Investments start at $100,000 and cap out at $3,000,000.
- The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation: The largest and most established of the resources shared, Program Director Darius Graham said grants focus on supporting organizations that work with older adults, women and children at risk, people with disabilities, veterans, and the Jewish community in the areas of Housing, Health, Jobs, Education, and Community Services. Grants start at $5000 and run up to enough to put their name on your building.
As a closing reminder to social entrepreneurs in the room, Kaufman, the president of the Neighborhood Impact Investment Fund, shared that the most important thing one can do is to “match the right capital to where you are.” If you’re just starting out, find a “Yes” through the right size funder. As you grow and are able to demonstrate your impact success, larger funders will be ready to hear your pitch.
It all comes down to impact-market fit.
The Access track closed out with a personal panel featuring four entrepreneurs that have put themselves on the line to move forward the causes that they care about. Speaking from their lived experience as entrepreneurs, people of color and the hard lessons of hearing “no,”they gave a face to social innovation.
Moderated by Impact Hub Baltimore Executive Director Michelle Geiss, the panelists emphasized that in order to make your impact matter, it has to serve and resonate with the community you are operating in. In Baltimore, that means impacting challenges like education, housing, health, and wellness. Some highlights from each of the panelists:
Atiya Wells founded Backyard Basecamp, an organization that connects people of color with nature wherever they are. Along with leading family-friendly nature walks, Backyard Basecamp turned a vacant lot in Wells’ Northeast Baltimore neighborhood of Frankford into an urban farm and recently purchased an adjacent vacant home after raising $60,000 on GoFundMe.
Working at the neighborhood level can build to a bigger conversation with wider scope. “I don’t think Baltimore City is ready to address the topic of community wealth in the Black Butterfly,” she said. From her perspective, before citywide conversations can happen, there’s a need for neighborhood-level conversations about how communities can invest in themselves first.
But where conversations on community wealth are still emerging, an issue Baltimore is primed to address is affordable housing. Prior to launching her venture focused on affordable housing development and home ownership Parity Homes in Baltimore, Bree Jones attempted to make it work in Brooklyn. The market there was not open to acknowledging out loud that the Black and Brown people living in developing neighborhoods can’t afford to own their own homes. After what was supposed to be a weekend trip to Baltimore, she’s never left.
Though the model may change, the reasons that ground a venture remain the same. The desire to spread emotional intelligence into the world was the vision that led Ashley Williams to start Infinite Focus Schools, a mindfulness and socio-emotional learning platform used in classrooms.
“A vision statement is the destination and the mission is the path you take to get there,” she said. That vision has remained the same, even if goals shift over time.
At MissionFit, Executive Director Joshua Day said fitness is a way to spread a culture that will extend to both youth and trainers — and extend beyond the current staff.
“We want to create a culture of health,” he said.
This panel was a microcosm for all the themes that spread across the day — who has the data, who gets the funding, and what neighborhoods and citizens are included.
Just as a startup needs to determine their product-market fit with urgency, social entrepreneurs and innovators need to understand what their community is ready to address. They need to define how their impact mission fits the community market they are operating in and serves the community customers they are trying to impact.
— Margaret Roth (@margaret_h_r) October 11, 2019
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