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Socialpreneurship: Pitch Competition Showcases Leaders in Nonprofit Innovation

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Community partners co-creating ideas at Lab Session #1 - photos by Julie Keefe for #everyoneIn

You hear a lot of slick and buzzy terms in the startup world these days - “disruptive technologies”, “sharing economy” and “unicorns” among them. But, “African eggplant”? Not so much.

And yet, this humble vegetable helped make the case for a winning presentation by Djimet Dogo and his partners at the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization (IRCO) at last week’s Community Pitch Day competition, the culmination of a months-long effort to nurture novel approaches to solve poverty and social isolation.

The competition is the brainchild of #everyoneIn – a sort of mashup (or “collaboratory” as organizers like to call it) of research, ideas and innovation that brings together a crew of unlikely bedfellows - heavy hitters in the design, technology and social entrepreneur worlds partnering with community nonprofits, all backed by a mix of public and private funding organizations, including United Way of the Columbia-Willamette.

“This is one of the things United Way does best: Connecting the ingenuity and creativity of smart people from across the community. We love this mashup of ideas and organizations to find new solutions to old problems,” said Zeke Smith, United Way’s Chief Impact Officer.

Dogo’s group will receive $12,000 from the PGE Foundation to further develop its idea, a proposal that aims to connect farmers in the refugee community of the Portland metro area with available farmable land using mapping technologies and a web of existing nonprofit resources.

In growing produce that may not be widely available in their new homeland (cue that African eggplant), refugees would be able to use their existing skill set towards a self-sustaining effort that honors their cultural heritage and strengthens community bonds. Beyond the nearly 20 African ethnic groups represented by IRCO, the effort plans to include a veritable United Nations of farmers from the immigrant and refugee community – Slavic, Hmong, Vietnamese and others. “This gives them all a chance to bring their skills to the public,” said Dogo. The filming of a promotional video donated by the Federal Reserve of San Francisco is also a part of the prize package.

Verde, a Cully-based neighborhood nonprofit was the second place winner for its community-led food purchasing concept, Suma. In his pitch, Verde’s Alan Hipolito called for the need to integrate technology into nonprofit work, rather than simply “laying it on top.” In a technologically savvy presentation, Verde prioritized the use of community-owned data in its plan to use group purchasing power of consumers to lower food costs for low-income families.

Participating teams were challenged to think outside of conventional structures and methods usually used to address poverty and social isolation – a chance to link design thinking, technology innovation, and nonprofit wisdom to create social innovation.

“Knowing that many folks would be new to this way of working, it was important to have a strong design framework and process to support them. We leaned on tools we use with for-profit clients,” said Guy Bourgault, experience strategist at Connective DX, a lead mentoring agency in the project.

“Black Parent Initiative is a progressive organization, an innovative organization,” said Kim Porter, who led the pitch for Friends First, a web-based mentor matching platform. “But [mentors] helped us bring an entrepreneurial spirit to it.”

For design experts like those at Ziba Design, such out-of-the box, conceptual reimagining is part and parcel of what they do every day - for products as ubiquitous as vacuum cleaners and as critical as military-grade tourniquets. Applying this approach to solving the deeper and less tangible issues that surround social justice is a unique challenge.

“The ultimate goal,” says Eric Park, Ziba Innovation Fellow, “is a sustainable model to create the time, space and capacity for social innovation… that will access new talent and funding and deliver more value to the communities they serve.”

The Four Collaboratory Projects:

WINNER: Refugee Access and Farming Team - Matching refugee farmers with land, equipment, marketing and other farming support. Pitch led by Djimet Dojo from Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization

RUNNER UP: Suma - A community led, collective food purchasing concept. Pitch led by Alan Hipolito from Verde.

Friends First - A fresh take on making better mentor matches through cultural exchange and other community strengthening partnerships. Pitch led by Kimberly Porter from Black Parent Initiative.  

Pro$per: - A digital toolkit to support development of financial knowledge, resources, and relationships, empowering people to build and share personal roadmaps to prosperity. Pitch led by Amanda Hart from Metropolitan Family Service and Rachell Hall from Innovative Changes.