Brown-hosted summit spotlights social enterprise

IN BLOOM: Participants at the SEEED Summit at Brown University in 2013 share best practices and information on trends in social enterprise. / COURTESY PAINTED FOOT PHOTOGRAPHY/CAT LAINE
IN BLOOM: Participants at the SEEED Summit at Brown University in 2013 share best practices and information on trends in social enterprise. / COURTESY PAINTED FOOT PHOTOGRAPHY/CAT LAINE

Packaging 2.0 President Michael Brown was running a social enterprise before he even identified with the term – generally, a nonprofit or for-profit venture with dual goals of being successful in business and generating positive social impact.
“Our revenue grew 30 percent last year and it’s up 60 percent in the first quarter of 2014,” said Brown. “Our major customer is Whole Foods in the Northeast and we recently began shipping to 50 Whole Foods stores in Southern California.”
Packaging 2.0 was founded in 2002 to design, market and deliver packaging made primarily from recycled plastics. The social mission of the Providence-based company includes rounding up plastics and debris in the ocean.
“My mission is about addressing the problem my company creates,” said Brown. “We’re going to deliver high-quality packaging made from recycled plastics and we’re also going to endeavor to clean up ocean debris. It’s the new business model. I’ve passed on plastics projects that I don’t feel are favorable to the environment.”
Packaging 2.0 is one example of Rhode Island’s growing and maturing social-enterprise ecosystem, a network that will be on display at the third annual Social Enterprise Ecosystem Economic Development Summit in Providence April 25-26 at Brown University. The summit is a collaboration that includes the Providence-based Social Enterprise Greenhouse, Brown’s Social Innovation Initiative and its SEEED student group and Worldways Social Marketing. Summit planners expect the event to attract 500 people from social enterprises, academia, business and the investment community.
“I’ve found Packaging 2.0 attracts certain kinds of customers, employees and investors,” said Brown. “I’m in a growing group of companies that are very conscious about balancing capitalism and social benefits.”
A legal step that put Packaging 2.0 more solidly into that socially conscious business group is that in August 2013 the company became Rhode Island’s first Benefit Corporation, or B Corp., a new state designation approved by the General Assembly in 2013. “It’s the same as a C Corp – there are no tax benefits and there’s no direct financial gain,” said Brown. “You have a split fiduciary duty between building shareholder value and benefiting society. What’s interesting is that you create value and you create profit.”
Rhode Island’s strong college community, the increasing focus on innovation and the state’s stubbornly high unemployment rate, at 9 percent in February, may be a combination that creates fertile territory for social enterprise.
“I find that people coming out of school now want to make a difference, not just make a ton of money,” said Brown.
“The social-enterprise sector is growing rapidly in Rhode Island. We’re becoming a national leader in this sector,” said Social Enterprise Greenhouse CEO Kelly Ramirez. “We’ve been working for more than four years incubating and accelerating ventures in the sector. We’ve accelerated 42 ventures and 33 are in existence.”
Social Enterprise Greenhouse is headquartered in Providence and works with a network of about 148 companies that are involved in and support the ecosystem in a variety of ways, she said.
“One of the challenges is that very few people know about the field. A lot of people think it’s just about nonprofits, but it includes small and some larger for-profits,” said Ramirez. “It spans industries and includes education, environment and health and wellness.”
The SEEED Summit is intended to kick awareness of social enterprise up a notch in Rhode Island and in the national network.
Speakers represent a wide range of local, national and international business and social enterprise leaders. They include Goodwill Industries International CEO Jim Gibbons, co-founder of Seventh Generation Jeffrey Hollender and socially responsible investment pioneer Terry Mollner, founder and chair of the first common-good asset-management firm StakeHolders Capital Inc.
Also on the summit’s speaking agenda are Natasha Lamb, director of equity research and shareholder engagement at Arjuna Capital, Common Good Ventures President Drew Watt and Rob Kaplan, co-chair of the global venture philanthropy firm Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation. Speaker Sang Lee is the CEO and founder of Return on Change, a crowd-funding investment platform connecting startups and investors in the so-called “clean” tech, education tech, life science and social-enterprise industries.
Other speakers are Brown graduates, including 2010 grad Erik Ornitz, a senior associate on the New York Portfolio team of Acumen, a nonprofit global investment firm.
The summit includes a Buy with Heart marketplace with products and information from social enterprises.
This is the third year the SEEED Summit has been held at Brown. An earlier version of a Rhode Island social-enterprise summit was held at Bryant University in 2009 and 2010.
One person who went to the summit two years ago and has since solidified his involvement in the social-enterprise ecosystem is Chris Ackley, stewardship program manager at Olneyville Housing Corp.
Ackley oversees the organization’s One Olneyville program, a social-enterprise venture that currently provides part-time employment for three 18-to-24 year-olds from Providence who provide landscaping services in the Providence area.
With One Olneyville in its third season, Ackley said the dual mission provides job training for youths, as well as the business aspect of landscaping.
“Part of the struggle with social enterprise is to balance market with mission,” said Ackley. “I want to make sure the young people we work with are benefiting in terms of making their way into the world of work. In addition to the landscaping, they work with a professional career counselor who helps them with a personal plan to achieve their goals.
“When they leave the program we want them to have a strong idea of what they want to achieve and how to get there,” said Ackley. “Even better, we’d like them to leave the program with a job waiting for them.” •

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