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Startup Ethos Infuses Atlanta Social Enterprises

“Atlanta’s social entrepreneurship eco-system is growing as our hometown becomes more of a magnet for innovation and startup talent,” said Ayesha Khanna, president of the Points of Light Civic Accelerator. “It is a good time to start a business or a social enterprise in Atlanta.”

Given Atlanta’s history as a hub of progressivism and civic responsibility, this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. The popularity of events like Good Frenzy, Code for Atlanta and a variety of civic hackathons this year is further evidence that entrepreneurs are hungry for opportunities to build businesses that are not only profitable but also socially impactful.

No Shortage of Ideas

The emergence of civic hackathons like Goodie Hack, which completed its second event in June, is perhaps the most compelling evidence of this sentiment. At Goodie Hack, teams were given 10 hours to design, build and present solutions to problems posed by nonprofit organizations including Atlanta Food & Farm, the Atlanta HBCU Alliance and Love Beyond Walls.

Event organizer Joey Womack says he’s been amazed by the growth and connectedness of Atlanta’s social enterprise community over the past year, but adds that it could benefit from more local awareness.

“Atlanta is a really important node in the national and international social good ecosystem, but one of the challenges is that our own residents don’t realize this,” he said. “Much like how the South, influenced heavily by Atlanta, took over hip hop and helped drive global expansion, the same can be done for social good.”

The success of new initiatives like the Data Science for Social Good (DSSG) internship certainly supports Womack’s notion. Pioneered at the University of Chicago and imported to Georgia Tech, the DSSG-Atlanta program paired 16 data science students with community partners including the City of Atlanta and Atlanta Police Department to research, design and build practical solutions to problems faced by their host organizations.

The inaugural program – which held a demo day at the Atlanta Tech Village in July – was deemed a success. More than 80 students applied for seats in the inaugural DSSG-Atlanta program, and plans are already in place to organize another internship next year.

Civic entrepreneurs will have another chance to explore challenges in local government at the upcoming Govathon on Nov. 14. This year’s event will focus on issues in economic and workforce development.

Clearing the Runway for New Civic Ventures

For some would-be entrepreneurs, the rush of surviving a hackathon is hard to walk away from. Many have been able to use the momentum generated from these events to parlay their ideas into new ventures that have gone on to become successful businesses in their own right. SocialVest, a startup that linked customers to retailers and nonprofits before being acquired by PlanG Holdings earlier this year, is but one example.

Civic accelerator programs, like the Points of Light Civic Accelerator (CivicX), are another way for these startups to get a boost. Launched in 2012, CivicX’s 61 portfolio ventures have generated more than $8 million in revenue and engaged over 5.9 million people around the country to solve social problems.

“While the Points of Light CivicX is a national program, we are excited to help build and connect these emerging resources to transform Atlanta as we continue to learn, refine and grow our program and impact,” Khanna said.

Atlanta is well-represented in CivicX: 14 startups have gone through the accelerator, including Village Defense (featured in our June newsletter), the Center for Civic Innovation, SEMADevelopment (now part of TechBridge) and WorkReadyGradCommunity Farmers Markets, SparkMarket and STE(A)M Truck (featured as this month’s Spark) have been selected to join the Fall 2014 class.

Fueled by Community Support

Though their focus isn’t entirely driven by a quest for profits, startups in social enterprise are still businesses at heart and have to contend with the same forces encountered by those in other industries. Naturally, funding remains a key factor in a city that has traditionally focused its venture capital resources on B2B markets.

Fortunately, Atlanta is also home to a number of community organizations like TechBridge, which provides IT consulting, outsourcing services and web development services to nonprofits, that support these startups and their efforts. And, groups like Plywood People provide a forum for civic entrepreneurs to showcase their projects, network with fellow founders and share ideas.

Still, the availability of accelerator programs in the city and the visibility that can be brought about by hackathons gives social entrepreneurs like Womack plenty of reasons to remain optimistic about the future of social enterprise in Atlanta:

“Moving forward, I envision more efficiency, and thus value, being generated as more micro-communities and segments of the larger community work closer together,” he said.

Photo Credit: Miquel via Flickr

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