Portland is earning a reputation as a hub for business minds who want to change the world. Several local companies are finding a way to make a profit and actually do a little good for the world at the same time.
The concept is called social entrepreneurship, and the idea is to find a business model that can solve a social or environmental problem while also being profitable and self-sustainable. The term was coined in the 1980s, but in recent years it has gained more attention and is finding success in the Portland area.
In February we reported on the Social Innovation Incubator that was launched by Portland State University to partner start-ups and established businesses and nonprofits with the resources they need to complete their own social venture projects.
One example of the incubator's work involved a large Portland nonprofit and a coffee importer with a long commitment to sustainability.
Adrienne Karecki, the director of business enterprises at Central City Concern (CCC), which helps Portland-area homeless people get back on their feet, was looking for a partner to help establish a business for her organization. At a PSU fundraiser event Karecki was approached by a fellow member of the PSU incubator, Sustainable Harvest, and an idea sparked.
Sustainable Harvest Coffee Importers, which fosters sustainable fair-trade coffee growers, offered a roaster and expertise if CCC could provide the employees, management and a work space. The company was one of two Portland businesses, along with Eleek, a home manufacturing company that re-uses recycled scrap metal, to make the Bloomberg BusinessWeek second-annual list of America's most promising social entrepreneurs this year.
Karecki was thrilled with opportunity to work with Sustainable Harvest, and the PSU incubator.
“It was amazing timing and really the concept has gone back and forth between us, and if the numbers pan out and we can train a large number of people we want an ultimate goal of turning a profit to financially support both our programs,” said Karecki.
Through the incubator the companies are utilizing the PSU staff and students to crunch the numbers and perform a market analysis to determine whether the idea can make financial sense. If so, then PSU will help the companies to set up operations.
“As a non-profit we couldn’t pay the rates to hire the consultants to figure out if we could do this so for us it’s really an amazing resource and something I haven’t seen anywhere else,” said Karecki.
Expect similar stories to follow as the PSU incubator matures and expands its scope. In July PSU added Professor J. Gregory Dees and his impressive resume to the advisory board. Dees is largely regarded as a pioneer in the field of social entrepreneurship and has taught at Stanford, Yale, Harvard and Duke.
“You get the sense around Portland that it’s a progressive climate with a deep level of caring for finding solutions for social problems,” said Dees.
Jessica Hoch is an online reporter for Oregon Business.