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New & Next: Think Outside the (Traditional) Denver Startup Box

The 2015 cohort of the Colorado Nonprofit Social Enterprise Exchange.

Caryn Capriccioso of interSector Partners, L3C and the Colorado Nonprofit Social Enterprise Exchange encourages nonprofits to consider social enterprise as an avenue for job creation and sustainable revenue.
As we approach Denver Startup Week, the annual celebration of the city's entrepreneurial spirit, a thriving sub-community has been quietly developing nine new businesses. Its focus isn't on tech or media. It's not women, the outdoors or international work. This vertical is social change. Specifically, combining existing, rock-solid mission-based programs with the power of business to change our community for good.

Take Scholars Unlimited. For 22 years, Scholars has supported low-income, academically struggling young learners. Through tutoring and academic programming it helps students improve in school and get excited about learning. Scholars serves hundreds of students each year, yet the board and staff wanted to do more. They set out to start a business that would earn money for programs, connect to the mission, provide access for Scholars clients and create a scalable model.

With plates already overflowing, Scholars looked to find outside support. Traditional area accelerators and incubators don't align well with the cycles and pace of nonprofits. Individualized consulting is expensive and siloed. A DIY approach was possible, but can be slow and daunting.

Enter the Colorado Nonprofit Social Enterprise Exchange. The Exchange tackles the unique challenges of building a business while running a nonprofit, and gradually introduces business concepts, models and approaches that aren't the norm in the sector. Using a cohort-based model, nonprofits move from looking at their assets and market needs through the business development continuum toward plans and pitches. In many ways, this is a traditional accelerator, but with a specific focus of supporting nonprofit leaders -- the original social entrepreneurs -- as they create their next big thing.

The Denver philanthropic and impact investing community has embraced these ideals and is working together to create a true ecosystem of support for cohort graduates. Between funding The Exchange itself and financing startup and initial operating costs for the new businesses; Denver foundations, individuals and corporations have provided over $1.5 million in grants, program-related investments and individual contributions. Their human resource contributions as partners, advisors and mentors, easily double that investment in time and expertise.

What kinds of businesses are nonprofits creating and what allows these startups to be labeled social ventures? For Scholars, the new business leverages its core competencies in language education by adding new languages through Codespire. Codespire provides computer coding classes to kids in Denver with plans to expand along the Front Range in the coming years. The business model is both profitable -- to support Scholars mission-based programming -- and is one that opens doors for young people into future careers that pay well and create avenues for advancement. The mission and money alignment of this social venture is clear. Next up for Scholars is securing funding to complete its $240,000 capital raise and Codespire can officially open its doors.

Also in the current cohort are:
  • Colorado Cross-Disabilities Coalition's estate planning and guardianship legal services for people with disabilities, protecting their assets and ensuring their long-term economic stability
  • Denver Urban Ministries' urban market providing healthy food, fresh produce,  a community gathering place and new jobs in one of Denver's lower income neighborhoods
  • The GLBT Community Center's consulting firm helping employers meet the needs of their gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender employees while improving their business bottom lines
The first cohort's graduates boast several success stories. Strong, Smart and Bold Beans, the social enterprise of Girls Incorporated of Metro Denver employs eleven high school aged girls in its coffee business. Art Restart, sells bulk greeting cards designed by artists who are The Gathering Place clients and are paid a royalty on each sale. The Safety Store at Children's Hospital South Campus supports child safety and injury prevention programming through the sale of car seats and other child safety devices. And YOR Sessions, a partnership between Youth on Record and Channel 93.3, hires economically disadvantaged youth to work in the studio during recording sessions with local and national artists -- a compilation of which will be sold to benefit mission-based programming.
Social enterprise is not a new concept. These new startups realize they are standing on the shoulders of Denver social enterprise giants like the Women's Bean Project, Bayaud Enterprises and Mile High Youth Corps and are grateful for the open doors and open playbooks these organizations provided. Social enterprise is also not the be-all and end-all to creating jobs and achieving economic sustainability in Denver's nonprofits. But when nonprofits combine their social good savvy with methods and approaches common in the Denver startup scene, they are bound to make an impact.

Caryn Capriccioso is co-founder and principal of interSector Partners, L3C and co-founder of the Colorado Nonprofit Social Enterprise ExchangeIf you know of a nonprofit that would be a good fit for the 2016 Social Enterprise Cohort, click here.
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