(Photo by Lucius Kwok used via a Flickr Creative Commons license)
Brandon Stokes talks about the merits of social enterprise with the assuredness of someone who’s been a mission-minded business owner for decades.
Someday he’d like to be that person, but right now, he’s just a 28-year-old liberal arts student at Community College of Philadelphia with a passion for finding solutions to social ills.
Social services are often inefficient and a drain on taxpayers, and nonprofits’ model of relying on donations and grants for their survival isn’t sustainable, believes Stokes, who has experienced homelessness and received assistance from many such programs himself. He sees social enterprise as a sustainable alternative to these offerings.
“Social enterprises provide a much better financial climate and also have the capacity within their budgeting to allocate their services” as they wish, he said. “It’s future-proofing ourselves.”
Philadelphia is already on its way to becoming a frontrunner in the national social enterprise scene. That’s why it doesn’t make sense to Stokes and his mentor, Dr. Jeffrey Carroll, a professor at Chestnut Hill College and co-founder of government relations firm Urbicus, that we don’t have a local chapter of the Social Enterprise Alliance.
Social Enterprise Alliance seeks to create a local network of mission-minded entrepreneurs.
SEA is a national nonprofit that connects social entrepreneurs to each other via local chapters, creating a network of mission-minded entrepreneurs. The Nashville-headquartered nonprofit has 16 local chapters across the country. The biggest ones, such as Nashville’s, have 70 to 90 members, according to Joe Tropeano, the operations and community manager for the national SEA. The smaller ones have 10 to 20.
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“Each chapter takes on the flavor of the local area” and is self-regulating, Tropeano said. Kentucky’s, for instance, is newer and focuses on advocating for benefit corporation legislation. Some focus on hosting meetups or giving out awards.
“It puts members in touch and helps develop the social enterprise ecosystem in their area,” he said.
Members might be social entrepreneurs themselves, aspiring entrepreneurs or just those interested in social enterprise. Individual memberships cost $100 per year, with varying costs for organizations and institutions.
Chapters often partner with local educational institutions, Tropeano said. The schools can benefit by being considered “thought leaders” in social enterprise and by offering discounted memberships to its students, and the chapters can benefit by expanding their resource reach and using the universities’ space for events.
Wharton Social Impact Initiative may be interested in supporting a Philadelphia chapter if one is started, Associate Director of Community Strategy Stephanie Kim said.
“We are happy to lend support just as we lend support to the many other organizations on the ground here in Philadelphia — providing advice, spreading the word, making sure we’re communicating with each other if we’re working in the same space, etc.” she wrote in an email.
The national organization makes an effort to bring members together virtually by offering a jobs board, an events portal and affinity groups to encourage community. It also hosts an annual conference. Tropeano recommends new chapters connect with established ones to gain insight on what was successful.
Stokes is used to making such connections. He and Carroll met about seven years ago when Stokes was a guest in Carroll’s local government glass while Carroll was a grad student at Temple. The two chatted after class and hit it off, then began meeting regularly to discuss political processes and community advocacy.
Carroll was struck by the young man’s intrepidity.
Both Stokes and Carroll believe there is a lot lacking in the city's social services and nonprofit offerings.
“He was so enthusiastic about solving issues such as homelessness and recidivism in a [new] way,” Carroll said. They both recognized “there’s a lot lacking there,” and Stokes in particular “became very interested in the local startup scene and what they were doing for social causes.”
Stokes questioned why there was no network for social entrepreneurs, but at the time, Carroll didn’t believe that Philadelphia could sustain one.
“I had been indoctrinated into this thinking that young folks were not staying in Philadelphia,” he said. However, “that was starting to change drastically.”
“The infrastructure is absolutely there now, and the energy, and it is absolutely logical to set up a chapter,” Carroll said.
Stokes has two ideas for businesses of his own: One would help homeless youth find employment and create a proof of concept that others working with disadvantaged youth could use. The other would focus on alleviating the “asset gap” in the region for those trying to get steadier financial footing, similar to what Grameen Bank is doing for the poor in rural Bangladesh, he said. For him, it’s personal.
“It’s become my mission because I’ll meet kids, now adults, who I grew up with, and [their lives] are totally different from my life, maybe because of different opportunities,” Stokes said. “Kids [are] spit out by the current system. Meanwhile, people are constantly complaining that we don’t have the resources. Others are going out and finding the solutions.”
Others — like him.
Anyone interested in starting a local SEA chapter can email Brandon Stokes at email@example.com.-30-
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