The Journal of Message Therapy

Technori Pitch Spotlights Social Enterprises. Or Not.

Logo MontageAccording to Eric Weinheimer—President/CEO at The Cara Program, and April 29 Technori Pitch keynote speaker—Seattle’s Pioneer Industries is a model social enterprise. They employ ex-convicts, recovering addicts and mentally ill individuals to build millions of dollars’ worth of aerospace components every year.

There’s no doubt it’s an amazing organization. But is it a model for the kind of social enterprise championed by Chicago’s Impact Engine accelerator? Not by my reckoning:

  • It’s a non-profit. Are its revenues enough to sustain operations?
  • It was founded by Boeing, who remains its largest client. Could Pioneer survive on its own merits?
  • Its product doesn’t achieve a social benefit. Nothing wrong with airplane parts, but they don’t directly improve any social ills.

As I’ve always understood the concept, a social enterprise creates profit potential with a sustainable business model designed to achieve social benefits, like educating inmates or facilitating food donations. As in my Impact Engine reviews, I rate social enterprises on two criteria:

Awesomeness—the “wow” factor. How cool is the idea? How serious an issue does it address? And, most of all, how much impact can it make?

Sustainability—the bottom line potential. How big is the market? How scalable is the business model? How much money can this concept make?

So how did I rate the Technori teams?

PROJECT SYNCERE

Project SyncereBoosting the science and engineering performance of Chicago Public Schools students with a hands-on, experiment-based curriculum is a great approach, and this organization’s early results are encouraging.

But Project Syncere is not, to my way of thinking, a social enterprise. It’s a non-profit, dependent on donors rather than revenue streams. While Co-Founder George Wilson aspires to package their copyrighted curriculum “in a box, so it can be sent anywhere in the US,” it’s hard to see how they can scale without a more sustainable business model—or partners with much deeper pockets.  Awesomeness 7, Sustainability 4

INFINITEACH

InfiniteachEducation tech is booming, and more than $9 billion is spent on autism each year. With 1 in 68 American kids somewhere along the autism spectrum, the market for autism-directed Ed Tech is primed for an explosion.

Infiniteach is a new player with a promising start—a free, tablet-based platform called Skill Champ that lets parents create autism-friendly lessons in seconds. Growing this modest beginning into revenue-generating iterations will be challenging, and competition promises to be stiff. But if Skill Champ connects, the motherlode awaits. Awesomeness 8, Sustainability 7

SHARED WALLS

Shared-WallsIPaintMyMind Founder/CEO Evan LaRuffa says there are three problems with art—it’s not affordable, it’s not profitable, and it’s not accessible.

His organization started Shared Walls to overcome those hurdles. Shared Walls buys local art, loans it to businesses for temporary installations, and funnels the proceeds into free exhibitions for schools and community centers. All very cool—but also all very non-profit. And even if the business model was profit-seeking, it’s hard to imagine the corporate appetite for temporary art exhibits sustaining it on any large scale. Awesomeness 7, Sustainability 5

YEZZI

YezziMigrant workers send more than a half trillion dollars home to their families every year, paying 9% of their remittances to money transfer companies that haven’t evolved since the telegraph era.

Yezzi is out to change that injustice, with a mobile app that works like a virtual gift card. A worker activates his account at a US retailer, loads it with up to $300, and shares an access code with his family—who can then get cash or a loaded debit card at a nearby retailer. And no transfer will ever cost more than $5.

With their beta about to launch in Texas and Mexico—and 13,000 retail outlets already on board—CEO Aaron Gillum hopes the service will be fully live this summer. The licensing, he admits, is a nightmare. But if it all clicks, millions of people will benefit—and Yezzi will make millions. Awesomeness 9, Sustainability 8

GIVE BACK BOX

GiveBackBoxGive Back Box might be the most jaw-droppingly simple great idea I’ve ever heard, and Founder Monika Wiela the most captivating pitchperson you’ll ever see.

First, the idea. You buy some stuff online. Instead of throwing away the box, you pack it with stuff you don’t need anymore, stick a Give Back Box label on it, and UPS ships it free to Goodwill. One less box in the landfill, one less trip to Goodwill, one more valuable donation. Are you face-palming yet because you didn’t think of it?

Next, Wiela. With her vavoom looks and fetching Polish accent, she plays the dippy blonde to the hilt—only this dippy blonde came up with a brilliant idea, got Goodwill and UPS on board, and is deep in talks with Amazon. The Chase Center was eating out of her hand.

She was a little vague on who pays the postage and how the company makes any money, but with ten million boxes shipped every day in the US, I think she’ll find a way. Awesomeness 10, Sustainability 7

Agree? Disagree? Think I’m full of crap? Leave a comment! 

2 Comments

Got something to say? Feel free, I want to hear from you! Leave a Comment

  1. Steve Rosen says:

    I’m writing to let people know about the all-day event at SSA/University of Chicago on May 9th – The Social Innovations Conference: Adapting to Challenges and Opportunities in the Nonprofit Sector (http://www.socialinnovate.org/index).

    Panelists will include 30+successful innovators and change agents from nonprofits and social enterprises, and thought leaders from academia, philanthropy, consulting and technology sectors. There will be presentations and discussions about innovative strategies, social impacts and ideas related to hunger, healthcare, housing, job training, education, and community development.

    Again, for more information and to register, visit http://www.socialinnovate.org/index.

  2. Carol Keene says:

    Your savvy wisdom has evolved into the Consumer Reports, the Siskel and Ebert of Startups, with a fresh take on each business and what appears to be a well-thought-out rating system. I hope the right people are paying attention! As our friend Jim would say, “Write on, write on.”

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