Kickstarter And The Social Enterprise

I was recently asked to be a speaker for the monthly Envision Hawaii Social Enterprise meeting. These types of talks always feel a bit like self-aggrandizing when I'm the one with the microphone, but for the most part I'm humbled and flattered at the idea that someone thinks of me as a social entrepreneur. The term itself holds a lot of weight to me personally, and I hold the lofty ambitions of businesses such as Sambazon and Ben and Jerry's in high regard.

Honestly, I feel that I'm a bit of a fraud, speaking about social entrepreneurship when I've never had a truly social endeavor. I think of social entrepreneurship as a business that recognizes a social issue or problem and uses their business acumen to help solve it. Ben and Jerry's is well-known for this type of problem solving; using only organic dairy which helped to develop organic dairy farmers in Vermont. They also used a bank that was dedicated to financing median income housing developments, and sourced some of their ingredients from the Amazon rainforest which helps to value the rainforest as an asset that is worth preserving on a fiscal level. I've been a huge fan of these types of endeavors, and I feel that I'd be misrepresenting social entrepreneurs if I were to say that I was among them. I've dipped my toes into social entrepreneurship and consider myself a supporter, but to count myself amongst the ranks of what others have done may be considered reaching.

A project near to my heart (and the likely reason why I'm approached to provide my humble opinion on social matters) is the graphic novel that I co-created with my friend Jon Lewis. Jon and I created a graphic novel (which is still in development) about a brilliant mind like Tony Stark's or Bruce Wayne's, but it belongs to a 13 year old girl named Aria Monfort who's a sex slave in an alternate America that's a third world nation. Our main objective was to bring perspective to human trafficking, but in the process learned a lot more than we were ever able to evangelize through our graphic platform.

We used Kickstarter to help launch the project. Kickstarter is a great tool for any entrepreneur that has a product-based business because it forces you into thinking through a lean methodology of launching your business. It also forces you to not be a non-profit or contribute your pledges to charity. This is important, and especially useful to the social enterprise. I feel that true social enterprise forces businesses to find market viability for creating social good. In our case, we ended up marketing and advertising for human trafficking survivor advocates such as the Pacific Alliance to Stop slavery and the Somaly Mam Foundation. We could still spread our message, but ultimately Kickstarter forced us to prioritize creativity, market viability, and produce a good product before anything else. In my opinion, this is probably how most social enterprises should work, but also muddies the definition of what a social enterprise could be. Is Tesla Motors a social enterprise, attempting to move the auto industry away from fossil fuels? Is Lyft, as a more efficient ride-sharing model, ultimately saving on a riders carbon impact? How about one of the 200 photovoltaic installation businesses operating in Hawaii?

Developing our product involved research, and we were fortunate to meet with advocates of human trafficking survivors, some of whom were human trafficking survivors themselves. We were able to hear first-hand accounts, and receive valuable feedback to our story. We wanted to make sure that what we were putting to paper was not only in the realm of accuracy (our work is fiction after all), but supportive to the community. Both the Somaly Mam Foundation and the Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery embraced our position and gave us strong endorsements. We helped to coordinate our kickstarter campaign with a petition to end demand for human trafficking in Hawaii, garnering 4,496 signatures and passing SB192 and SB194 through the Hawaii state legislature, providing services for minors that are arrested for prostitution and harsher penalties for solicitors as a class C felony.

We gained many insights through our Kickstarter campaign, which lead to our involvement in the Somaly Mam Foundation and our development of a social media strategy for one of their fundraisers. We were able to tap into our newly formed network to help raise over $30,000 to aid human trafficking survivors in Cambodia.

Admittedly, we were a small part of both of these campaigns and the leadership of individuals like Kathy Xian, Izzy Katz, and Somaly Mam deserve the majority of the credit. I'd like to think that our product has a symbiotic relationship in helping to build awareness for these issues without necessarily being a non-profit ourselves. We are in the end, a messaging campaign, and if anything tangential to addressing social issues. does a much better job, having social issues at it's heart while remaining a creative and market driven endeavor; one that could easily meet Kickstarter guidelines.

If I could distill a message out of my toe-dipping into the social enterprise space, it'd be to have a good product or service above anything else. You can give one free widget away for every widget you sell, but if your widget sucks, you're not providing much good for either side. And don't be afraid to dip your toes.