Seattle opens a town square for social enterprise community

Seattle creates a new physical space for the social enterprise movement.

Hub Seattle members, from left, Jacob Colker, Lindsey Engh, Kimo Jordan, Brian Howe

Three of the area’s leading organizations at the forefront of this movement — Hub Seattle, Social Venture Partners and the Bainbridge Graduate Institute — on Friday celebrated the grand opening of their new conjoined and co-working space known as the Center for Impact and Innovation.

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn and other notables were there to mark this milestone, tour the facility, party and eat ‘sustainable appetizers’ – all of it aimed at fostering this phenomenon dubbed social enterprise.

“Yeah, nobody really knows exactly what that means,” chuckled Brian Howe, CEO and co-founder of Hub Seattle.

Social enterprise, that is. Not the sustainable appetizers.

I first met and wrote a post about Howe and his colleagues more than a year ago when the idea for this place was still taking shape. The physical manifestation of that idea is today a renovated timber-brick-and-steel 27,000-square-foot reality in the old Masins Furniture Building – a historic Pioneer Square building shaped somehat like the triangular prow of a ship.

It’s a beautiful space.

But exactly what the new Center for Impact and Innovation is intended to provide a home for — social enterprise — appears to be still an emerging, somewhat vague concept. Which is why proponents say they need a place.

“That’s one of the reasons for Hub Seattle, to have a dialogue and figure out what it is,” said Shaula Massena, one of Howe’s colleagues. “This is already happening, the idea of getting business back to including non-financial goals. But it’s still nascent. We need to come together as a community.”

“The primary idea is to foster entrepreneurship that is about delivering values rather than just creating some product to drive profits,” Jacob Colker, COO of Hub Seattle and a co-founder with Howe.

The old distinction of non-profit versus for-profit is no longer sufficient, Colker said, noting that some organizations that are for-profit serve social missions just as some non-profit corporations (think health care) are sometimes more interested in their bottom line than in making the world a better place.

“I’d say we’re in a third phase, in which we’re coming up with new business structures primarily aimed at serving a social mission,” Howe said.

The concept of social enterprise isn’t really that new, Howe noted, but it first grew out of the non-profit charitable world as lingo for how to be a better non-profit.

Some of these folks trying to accomplish social, environmental or otherwise humanitarian goals eventualluy recognized a for-profit approach might be more effective so they just went into business. Now, he said, the goal is to come up with a new approach that avoids the non-profit / for-profit dichotomy and just focuses on the mission.

“It’s confusing and not totally clear,” Howe said, but also kind of exciting.

Leif Utne, member of Hub Seattle's new Center for Impact and Innovation

One of the new members of Hub Seattle is Leif Utne, a software developer at Warecorp and, most exciting for me, son of Eric Utne — the founder of Utne Reader, a magazine launched in the early 1980s that in many ways helped define and propel the growth of alternative media. Hub Seattle and the Center for Impact and Innovation, Leif Utne says, represents the growth of both social enterprise and a related phenomenon known as the co-worker movement.

“What both have in common is a desire for positive social change,” Utne said. “It was started in San Francisco by a group of working mothers and is, like social enterprise, becoming its own sector or industry.”

The lack of a clear definition for either of these movements is simply evidence of how potentially transformational they are, he said. Lack of definition, he added, certainly hasn’t slowed down the momentum for creating new kinds of collaborative working environments aimed at finding socially responsible, sustainable business solutions.

“In fact, I think that’s what makes them so interesting. The term I like is that this is all about ‘accelerated serendity’ – bringing together people who want to make the world a better place,” Utne said.

And it’s not as random or as unstructured as it may sound to the newly initiated. Hub Seattle is part of a global network, headquarted in Germany, known simple as The Hub. Hub Seattle had to apply to become part of this organization which, on its website, states its mission as supporting:

People taking collaborative action for a better world. We see a world where people collaborate across nations, organizations and cultures to create a more sustainable future. We believe we can make this shift by working together, locally and globally, to create the best world we can collectively imagine.

Kimo Jordan

Okay, but how does just throwing a bunch of do-gooders together into a renovated work space actually foster collaboration?

That’s where folks like Hub Seattle’s Kimo Jordan comes in. Jordan’s job is to get to know everyone in the space, identify their skills and needs to find common interests and points of collaboration.

“That’s what I do,” said Jordan, who had little time to talk while moving furniture around in preparation for tonight’s event. “It takes place naturally anyway, but the idea is to get conversations started that allow great things to happen.”

At the leading edge of Seattle's social enterprise movement

 

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org, follow him on Twitter @tompaulson and/or send a comment below.