I was recently invited to give a talk in Nashville, TN and visit a few social enterprises there. Little did I know that Nashville is a social innovation capital! Students from Vanderbilt, Belmont, and other local universities have driven the demand for social entrepreneurship centers and majors at their academic institutions. Retired executives have launched incubators and accelerators. And most importantly, social entrepreneurs with inspirations from all over the world have launched their own ventures. This got me thinking – what does it take to create a local social innovation ecosystem?
My host, upon picking me up from the airport, proceeded to tell me about all the unique factors that Nashville has to offer. First, he pointed to the diversity. Now that was one I didn’t see coming! Apparently, close to 100,000 refugees have settled in middle TN since the 1990's, from Iraq and other countries. In fact, said my host, that’s how he met his wife – when they were both tutoring and mentoring a refugee family, through their church. Second, a wealth of non-profit organizations sprung out of local community-based initiatives over the years, often tied to churches. With time, these non-profits began launching local social businesses, tied to their social missions and also with the goals of sustaining their work financially and maintaining a competitive edge.
A third factor my host pointed to was the connectivity. “Two thirds of America can be reached within a day’s drive from here!” he exclaimed, as we pulled out onto the busy freeway. This has led to the proliferation of retail businesses and the prevalence of serial entrepreneurs, a fourth factor I noticed as I observed the relationship between social start-ups and established business leaders. The local business community has been a huge catalyst in fostering local innovation. With a historical legacy in health entrepreneurship, key ingredients such as financing and mentorship have enabled successful spin-offs out of hospitals and universities. Retail partnerships have also folded in to the story. A favorite story in the social entrepreneurship community is Spring Back, a mattress recycling enterprise started by a group of students from the Enactus network.
Why mattresses? “Well, we drove out into the landfills to see what we could find. Wasted materials lay around in piles, including wood panels, roof shingles, and heaps of mattresses,” explains one of the founders. Mattress retailers often provide the service of picking up old mattresses when they deliver new ones. They then truck these old mattresses over thirty miles outside of town, to dispose of them in landfills. The Spring Back group approached mattress retailers and managed to convince them that paying a per-mattress recycling fee instead makes more business sense. “When a customer is paying hundreds of dollars per mattress, the extra five or six dollars won’t influence their decision negatively. Instead, we’ve seen it’s been a positive influence because the socially conscious consumer will go with the retailer that recycles their old mattress on any given day,” says the Spring Back team.
Stories like this make me wonder what other hidden ecosystems there are in places we don’t often hear or read about. All it takes is a willingness to challenge the status quo, look for hidden opportunities, and connect the different pieces of the puzzle. What attributes does your community have, and how do you think you can create an innovation ecosystem of your own?