Social Entrepreneur – Entrepreneurs in Action

The essence of the entrepreneurial spirit is to take an idea and turn what is a mere concept into a reality. Often the most innovative of those ideas are not intended to disrupt a particular market; rather they target a social need, but like all organizations they struggle with funding. In most cases the stewards of these transformative ideas are big of heart and long on vision, but do not always have the tools or background to develop a plan and assemble a team that can build a sustainable non-profit, or a for-profit-with-a-purpose organization.

“At the Foundation (Central Florida Foundation) we were struggling with how to engage more entrepreneurs into the community and to introduce them to what the Foundation was,” Rob Panepinto, who serves as vice chair of the Foundation, is the board chair of Orlando Inc. and was part of the founding executive team for Connextions, which was acquired by Optum Health, in 2011. “We ended up combining the two initiatives. We realized the best way to help the non-profits was to bring the insight and expertise these seasoned entrepreneurs possessed.”

“The flip side was giving entrepreneurs a way to be involved in the community that went beyond sitting on a board or having to fundraise. This was an opportunity to do what they loved, solving structural and strategic problems, along with a passion for creating new things. All the while they are using their skills in a way that could bring transformation to the community,” Panepinto said. The essence of their vision was to help non-profits become sustainable profit generators on a small scale, much like hospital systems or Goodwill are on a large scale.

A Theory of Change

“At lot of the social problems we are wrestling with in Central Florida are big and complex,” Mark Brewer, president and CEO of the Foundation observed. “We realized that the more non-profits there are in the world, it makes the world a better place. However, the direct donate market isn’t big enough to support all those efforts. Bringing entrepreneurs to the table to help solve those problems is part of the Foundation’s theory of change. If you can drive more entrepreneurial activity, more business strategy, at solving these problems in a sustainable way, whether you are converting non-profits to this model or creating private sector opportunities dedicated to that purpose, that is the future in solving these challenges.”

A great example of this model is Shawn Seipler of Clean the World, who is a part of Entrepreneurs in Action. His organization collects and recycles toiletries that are partially used from hotel rooms. By recycling these products, they provide the simplest solution to the devastating effects of unsanitary conditions in developing countries: soap. While also solving the problem of waste from countless thousands of hotel rooms worldwide.  Robert Newland, president and CEO of Career Partners International added, “We are able to go to entrepreneurs and say, ‘We don’t so much want your money, we want your brains to help this non-profit to become a profit generator for a cause. That is what excited me.”

“I have been involved in the grant making side of the Foundation for 20 years,” Robert Thomson, Foundation board chair and vice president with Commerce National Bank and Trust said. “The first thing we look at when making a grant is sustainability, how the investment can help sustain that non-profit over time. Our challenge here is using the capacities an organization already has, to create a business model that not only addresses their challenges, but helps other organizations through the programs, training tools or even apps they have created to provide an ongoing revenue stream.”

A Meeting of the Minds…and Hearts

Panepinto and Brewer began with seasoned entrepreneurs that were already affiliated with the Foundation like Robert Newland, Wayman Armstrong of Engineering and Computer Simulations, Marty Ruben of Smart City, specialists like Robert Thomson and Russell Goldberg of Withum, Smith and Brown, along with Shawn Seipler a veteran in this arena and John Caron the former president of Olive Garden and now with VenVelo.     

Operating much like a venture pitch, Entrepreneurs in Action announced what they were doing to the non-profit community. They focused first on those non-profits that thought they had a potential revenue model that was sustainable. Organizations made presentations to the team and they picked one which had the greatest potential and then began a process to coach them to success.

Their first “client” was Harbor House which is a shelter for domestic abuse victims. They had a technology that could be used to do workforce training with corporations in recognizing and assisting employees who were domestic violence victims. Also they offered classes that were needed for certain industry certifications, which they had been offering for free.  The result: a sustainable business model.

“Social Entrepreneurship has to be a part of the overall entrepreneurial ecosystem,” John Caron commented and Shawn Seipler added, “There is a new model of non-profit that is the next stage in how these organizations will be developed and how real world problems will be addressed.”

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i4 Business

i4 Business magazine has become one of the most trusted voices for and about the Central Florida business community. Each month through our print and digital platforms, we provide access to meet, to learn from and to learn about some of the incredible entrepreneurs and business leaders who are shaping our region.

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