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Social entrepreneurs building a common space, Hub Seattle

Hub Seattle's Brian Howe explains the concept

Wei-Chi, aka Crisi-tunity

It is often said that the Chinese word for “crisis” is composed of two characters which mean “danger” and “opportunity.”

I guess that’s not quite right. But then neither is the word “irregardless” (which, technically, means the opposite of how people use it).

So, irregardless of the true meaning of the Chinese word for crisis, I propose to apply the popular understanding of “wei-chi” to Seattle’s burgeoning scene of humanitarians and social entrepreneurs.

Clearly, the explosion of do-gooders here represents a great opportunity — an opportunity to do more good, to maybe even “do well by doing good” or at least find a job in one of the few sectors of the economy lately that appears to have some growth potential.

Global health, for example, is often referred to these days as an industry as much as it is a cause.

But our region’s emerging humanitarian “sector” also poses some dangers, or risks — of a plethora of good (and maybe not-so-good) causes competing for funding, of redundancy, lack of clarity as to what really constitutes a “social enterprise,” lack of criteria for measuring success (or failure) and, overall, of not making the most of this opportunity due to lack of collaboration, of community.

Hub Seattle's Brian Howe explains the concept

That’s where Hub Seattle (when it is finally launched) hopes to play a role.

“We want to create a hosted work space where unreasonable people can get things done,” said Brian Howe, who with colleagues Jon White, Jay Standish and others intend to launch here a branch of a global initiative (started first in Britain and Europe) known as The Hub.

There are so far only three U.S. branches of The Hub, two of them in San Francisco and one in Atlanta. Here’s a good story about SF’s Hub by Fast Company. Other cities are looking to connect.

“In Seattle, we are already the Silicon Valley of sustainable, social and innovative development,” said Howe, who then immediately apologized for using these buzzwords (“I’m trying to stop doing that,” he said). “But we are still very fragmented, many of us working inefficiently in isolation.”

This is the third in a series of recent stories I’ve done examining how, and why, local do-gooders are trying to create more of a community. As Howe says, what we have today is more of a hodgepodge despite many leading efforts aimed at collaboration.

One way to further community is to give it a place. As The Hub says on its minimalist website:

We believe that there is no absence of good ideas in the world.  The problem is a crisis of access, scale, resources and impact. So it felt vital to create places around the world for accessing space, resources, connections, knowledge, experience and investment.

The Hub, in short, is a physical space for those working to make the world a better place. (Here’s HubSeattle’s even more minimalist website — for getting on their e-mail list.)

“Small groups like ours could really benefit from the shared space, resources as well as the community,” said Sammie Rayner, who founded a small microfinance organization called Lumana. “I think it will be especially valuable to young people and small groups working in this arena.”

(NOTE: There are lots of such young people, as described in my earlier series on the Millennials).

The nascent Hub Seattle community met recently at The Fremont Abbey Arts Center, its third ‘community building’ meeting. The first one was about purpose, the second about people and this one was about story-telling (i.e., articulating what you and your organization are about).

Participants at nascent Hub Seattle meeting, Fremont Abbey Arts Center

I get the basic idea here, of creating a physical space for people to share phones, computers, desks and also to share expertise and bond as a community of do-gooders. But one of my questions, put to Howe’s co-managing partner for the project Jon White, is how do they decide who to let in? Or, not let in?

Not everyone, let’s be honest here, wants to do good. And some who claim to be doing good are, well, just trying to do good for themselves cloaked in humanitarianism.

“It’s kind of a self-defining group,” said White. “The organization has to have some kind of social or environmental impact, but the idea is partly to let the community define itself.”

Howe agreed, adding that at this point Hub Seattle is still in an exploratory phase and these meetings are aimed at defining what they would like to see in this proposed new physical space but also, in part, at helping the community define itself. Howe emphasized that Seattle has to apply to join The Hub so it’s still really just an idea.

But the idea of Hub Seattle seems to be catching on and already has garnered some powerful supporters. Paul Shoemaker, executive director of Social Venture Partners, and David Brewster, publisher of Crosscut and founder of Seattle Town Hall (among other things), are among those working with the Hubsters.

Brewster said there’s no question that humanitarianism, social enterprise or whatever you want to call it has taken Seattle and the region by storm.

“The question is can you institutionalize this phenomenon, bottle the lightning?” he said. Our community is bursting with young social entrepreneurs, or those wanting to be, Brewster said, but they need a gathering place — to share resources, to hold events and take shape. He said he and others are already looking at launching Hub Seattle somewhere in Pioneer Square.

“It has some great spaces and could use more of what I call ‘intelligent’ adult entertainment,” Brewster said.

Clearly, as evidenced by the gathering in Fremont, one of the goals of Hub Seattle will be to have fun. That’s another thing I’ve noted about many young social entrepreneurs: They expect to enjoy doing good. None of that sour, angry change-the-world stuff.

But it is, ultimately, about changing the world, for the better. One hub at a time.


About Author

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] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.