The entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well, even in communities that have been hit hard by financial recessions and divestment. Our innate drive to fight and remain entrepreneurial doesn’t ever go away. But, finding access to community resources and early-stage funding is not always equally or readily available for every entrepreneur with a dream of success.
Take a city like Atlanta, as an example, which by all media accounts is thriving economically and is often touted as the next city for economic growth. Its skyline is graced with a number of Fortune-500 companies. However, Atlanta consistently has one of the highest income inequality gaps in the United States. Upward mobility in Atlanta is 4 percent, meaning there’s a 96-percent chance if you’re born poor in Atlanta, you’ll die poor in Atlanta.
This is a dichotomy that has to change―not only in Atlanta but across the globe.
This week in In Process (Trusted Counsel’s bi-weekly podcast show), Rohit Malhotra, founder and executive director of the Center for Civic Innovation, discusses how the Center is focusing on social entrepreneurship to bring community organizations together to solve civic solutions in order to transform business in Atlanta―and how this approach can serve as a model for other U.S. cities and even worldwide.
“Whether you’re suited and booted at a Fortune 500 company on the 50th floor or you’re on the ground working a farm each and every day, the joint thing we have in common is a love for our city,” said Rohit. “Atlanta’s history is built on businesses and communities, both the public and the private sector, coming together to fight for what’s morally right. To drive what business will look like, rather than business driving our morality.”
During the course of the podcast “Investment’s New ROI: Empowering Entrepreneurship for Social Change,” investors as well as community and business leaders will learn:
- The definition of social entrepreneurship
- The Center for Civic Innovation’s mission, goals and future plans
- Challenges and opportunities for social entrepreneurship in Atlanta as well as other metropolitan areas
- How to shift the conversation in terms of distributing capital and investing in true “economic value” that produces social change
- Real-world social entrepreneur success stories
Stream the conversation with Rohit in the player below to learn how you, your company or any association you belong to can invest in Atlanta and/or contribute to social entrepreneurship in your city. You can also subscribe to In Process on iTunes to receive this episode as well as future updates from the show on your smartphone.
Investment’s New ROI: Empowering Entrepreneurship for Social Change
(c) Trusted Counsel (Ashley) LLC. All Rights Reserved.
John: Hello and welcome to In Process: Conversations about Business in the 21st Century. Presented by Trusted Counsel, a corporate and intellectual property law firm. I’m John Monahon.
Evelyn: And I’m Evelyn Ashley.
John: And we are partners in Trusted Counsel.
Evelyn: So John, social entrepreneurship.
Evelyn: You know we’ve done a podcast in the past on this. I think we find it very interesting. Just based on the fact that we represent more traditional for profit businesses and investors that look for a giant return on their investments. But I think we both understand how important this is actual is for social change. And looking at The Center for Civic Innovation, I think it’s inspiring to think that we can basically use them as a lab, if you will, to see if their learning and what they’re doing can actually be moved into other communities in the US, and really, around the world.
John: Yeah social entrepreneurship is always really interesting. And fortunately we have Rohit Malhotra from The Center of Civic Innovation, as you mentioned. I thought one of the interesting things about him, and what makes this an interesting conversation, is he was interested in actually hitting the systemic problems and addressing the direct problems in the social issues through these businesses. Rather than, let’s say, some other organizations that might have social bent, but may not be addressing the actual issues.
Evelyn: Yes. Basically feed money into foundations and other groups, or you know. And I think that’s something that we should actually have a chat about. Kind of the difference that what they are trying to do.
John: We’ll definitely learn more about that. Let me introduce him real quick. We have Rohit Malhotra. He is the founder and Executive Director for The Center for Civic Innovation, in Atlanta, Georgia, his hometown city. Yay! The Center for Civic Innovation is a non-profit community driven space with a mission to inform, engage, connect, and empower people to shape the future of our city. Over the past two years, The Center has helped facilitate over 100,000 early stage investments to social entrepreneurs in the Atlanta region. Rohit’s background is in social entrepreneurship, digital communications, open data, and community organizing. In 2015, he was appointed to The Board of Directors of The Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce. Also, he has been named one of Atlanta Business Chronicle’s 30 under 30. Rohit earned his B.A. from Emory University and in his Masters in Public Policy from Harvard. Rohit, welcome to the show.
Rohit: Thank you for having me.
John: So tell us a little bit about your background. How did you get interested in social entrepreneurship? What led you to this?
Rohit: So, I grew up right outside of Atlanta and I’m the son of two immigrant parents that broke out of poverty through entrepreneurship. They didn’t call it entrepreneurship, the best entrepreneurs don’t, but they used every tool at their disposal to give a better life to their kids. And to give their kids the ultimate privilege, which is to grow up poor without knowing you’re poor. And I grew up in a household of two people who were hustling to do whatever they needed to do to achieve an end. And that they would do nothing else but that. And that’s the entrepreneurial spirit that we see in cities everywhere. Particularly in communities that have been hard by financial recessions, and divestment. I mean if you look at that, what you start to see is that one thing remains consistent, is people still fight and people are still entrepreneurial. That doesn’t go away. There’s no disaster or financial recession, that can take that away. So I think that I’m looking at problem solving through the lens of entrepreneurship, because I think it’s an approach that we can take to make sure that solutions are actually affective and outcome driven.
Evelyn: But it’s really interesting that you would actual decide social entrepreneurship. Rather than-
Rohit: I think-
Evelyn: … capital, you know your traditional capitalism.
Rohit: Yeah I think all entrepreneurship should be social entrepreneurship. I hope there’s a day where I don’t have to use the word social in front of entrepreneurship. And the reason for that is that it is an indicator that we have separated the things that happen in our communities, and the things that happen in our cities. We’ve separated those social issues as that’s just something else, right? We don’t really … Maybe I’ll give back to that. Maybe I’ll start a charitable effort towards solving that problem, as opposed to realizing that those issues affect you no matter who you are. No matter what type of business you’re running. So social entrepreneurship, for me, is about creating value for the impact driven work that needs to happen. And also to change the value that we have for things like education, food access, etc.
Evelyn: Okay, so then you’re very young, Rohit. How did you actually convince … Because I’m gonna assume that this is kind of a private public partnership as it started, and so how did you convince the powers that be? And who were those powers to actually help you to form The Center?
Rohit: You know we took a risk starting this. This was a group of people from across industries, whether you were in the industry of entertainment, or working at a retail shop, or you were working in public policy. This is a group of people who got together and said we give a damn about our city. I mean there’s a movement towards people saying look, we gotta go local again. Everything we experience, everything we talk about, is local. And so you had a group of people who got together and said, how can a city like Atlanta, which if you read any headline, we are thriving economically. You can read every magazine article about us. Atlanta’s economy is booming. We’re the next city for economic growth. Look at our skyline, Fortune 500 companies. But Atlanta consistently has one of the highest income inequality gaps in The United States. Upward mobility in Atlanta is 4%, meaning 96% chance if you’re born poor in Atlanta, you die poor in Atlanta. So why do we get fired up about this? Because this is home. And truth is, for a lot of people, whether you’re suited and booted at a Fortune 500 company on the 50th floor, or you’re on the ground working a farm each and every day, the joint thing we have in common is a love for our city. And that we can all agree that that is completely unacceptable for a city to have a dichotomy like that. And Atlanta’s history is built on businesses and communities, both the public and the private sector, coming together to fight for what’s morally right. To drive what business will look like, rather than business driving our morality.
Evelyn: That’s really profound, actually. I think it’s really interesting because I think part of this is, as a transplant, and John is a transplant also, but I’ve been here for a very long time. I think, perhaps, we can kind of see the more, what I will call, endemic issues. The dichotomy, if you will, between that which is kind of the poor, if you will, of Atlanta, and the transplants and those that have traditionally succeeded at a very high level. And that perhaps things like, if you were born poor here you have a 4% chance of getting yourself out if it, I don’t think those are things that we ever hear about.
Rohit: Yeah, ’cause you don’t have to see it. And the truth is that Atlanta is structured like that. We built a train system not so people who needed to get to work could get to work, it’s so you could go from the airport to the Olympics. That was we didn’t want you to see the endemic poverty we have. Our public transportation system, which is something that the city is starting to address, the state is starting to look at, is a civil rights issue. And until we address it as such, not just it would be nice if other people had access to it as well, it is gonna consistently ruin us as a city. And I think that the optimistic piece is that people get it. We are seeing that that is ultimately unfair. That the rules have been disproportionately written against some people based upon their identity. It is harder based upon … Your zip code in Atlanta determines your access to resources. Your access to capital. Your access to transportation. All of the things that we take for granted, that’s start-up capital for us. And so there’s no question that it’s gonna be harder to be an entrepreneur if you’re poor.
John: What took you from a place … You’re obviously very passionate about this, but a lot of people are very passionate. But you actually did something about it, which is probably the unusual part. Most people would be glad to have a conversation, but they don’t take action. What tipped you over the edge of not only am I passionate, but I gotta address this?
Rohit: Yeah. I come from both a public policy background and a community organizing background. And when you look at public policy, policy is just basically the rules that we create to determine what is right and what is wrong. And what you find is that a lot of the rules that we’ve created at city levels, are unfair, and they’re antiquated and they don’t make sense. And they don’t have to be that way. And what we can also see is that we’re investing a ton of money into social problem solving, but we’re not solving the problem. So we’re not becoming outcome driven. You can believe both things, that there is moral issue and an economic issue at play. What you have to do is to figure out how do you utilize the resources you already have at your disposal, and invest in a way that actually creates outcomes. But also make sure that you’re not just treating people like data points. There is a human and a financial element to this work, and I think we already have the resources to solve the problems. It’s just a matter of seeing it and saying let’s do something about it. And I think there are a lot of people who are doing something about it. We just don’t talk about them as much. And I think that that’s part of our role at CCI, is to identify and shed light on unsung heroes.
John: But tell us actually about The Center itself. Give us a history of when you started, the goals, the mission, you know, an overview.
Rohit: Sure. So The Center for Civic Innovation is actually located in South Downtown, we’re located in the old Rich’s Department Store. A department store that has a deep history both for this city, but also for this country. Whether it’s The Civil Rights Movement, or The Great Depression, there’s a lot of amazing stories that come out of that building itself. And we chose to be there because it is right next to Five Points MARTA station. So anyone from the city, for the most part, not everyone, but a lot of the city, can get to that place ’cause it’s where all the train systems actually connect. And in addition to that, we’re just a stone throw away from every government institution that is there. Our focus in charge is very simple. We want people to be empowered to shape the future of their city. And we do that in two ways. We think the way you can shape is city is ultimately there are two really distinct ways to do that. One is by getting engaged. And community engagement, and civic engagement, is a really important facet of what we do. We do everything from researching deeply on issue areas and then hosting programs that people can come to, to hear from subject matter experts on those issue areas. Whether that’s affordable housing, or food security, you can hear about what’s going on and then what you can do about it.
In addition to that, we’ve been doing a lot around the local elections. Atlanta has a election this year, in 2017, 13 people are running for mayor and people don’t know that there’s an election. Voter turnout in the last election couldn’t cross 30% and before that it was 17%. So we have a lack of engagement in this city on actually participating in decision making. So that’s the first challenge that we talk about is, anybody and everybody can participate and get involved through programs and the research that we put out. We have a website, voteatl.org, where people can actually learn about those issue areas.
The second part of it is, okay in addition to learning and getting a sense of what’s actually happening in the city, and hearing from leadership on what they’re trying to do about it. There are some people on the ground who are already taking an entrepreneurial approach to shadow the system. That could be a … Inside of neighborhoods, that could be a barbershop that is working with kids to address mental health and suicide related issues, because the rate of suicide among young, black men has gone up exponentially over the course of the past 10, 20 years. It could be a shared kitchen space that makes sure that if you need the training to stay alive in an environment, and a geography that is changing, as a small business owner that sells food, that you should have shared kitchen space where you can go and learn about those things and get the certification that you need. We have businesses that teach media skills to young kids to make sure that newsrooms like this start to look like the world. That if you are a person of color, or if you are a woman that wants to be the CEO of a news corporation, or a media company, that should be a very clear pathway to get there.
And so it’s about … Our investments in these entrepreneurs, who wouldn’t call themselves that, but they are, is about looking at two things. One is the potential for them to grow their entrepreneurial solution in the market. And sometimes that means they have a market based thing, like a food product, that they can sell more of in a better way. In other cases if it’s an educational organization, it’s about valuation. Because you can teach all you want, but the market is gonna continue telling you that education is not valuable because we don’t have a dollar number to it. But if you can actually show what a good education results in, in the long run, you can put a dollar number to that. We save millions of dollars by making sure kids can hear a certain number of words before they’re three years old. We can save millions of dollars in the long run, so why not invest on the front end, instead of paying for it on the back end.
And we’re locking kids up for issues that we can solve with less capital than putting them behind bars for non-violent offenses. Instead, we can invest in programs that make sure that they’re not stuck in poverty. Because people aren’t addicted to crime, they’re stuck in poverty. And that is, at the core, if we can see the economic value of these types of things, if our cities could do that, we can all come to the conclusion that this is an investible opportunity. And I think that that’s what people are waking up to, is giving back is not just about charity, it’s about investing in outcomes that have the ability to create ripple effects across generations. And that’s what’s happening right now all across the country, and it’s what we’re trying to do. When we first wrote this paragraph about how much we invested, at first we got $100,00 of capital that we did. We did fee for service work. Went out there did consultative work, and then took that money, and reinvested it back in community because we wanted to show that this could work. ‘Cause if you went to somebody and said, “Invest in these types of businesses.” They’d be like, “Absolutely not. It is so risky. Look at their balance sheet. What’s their credit score? I don’t understand. This is not a business, this is a charitable thing. Take it from my Fidelity check.”
But what we did is we said, “Look, when this person, who just has a criminal reform program, has actually shown the potential for economic savings in the long run. You actually can see the line saving item that was created because of it.” And so now we’ve actually invested close to half a million dollars in organizations, because people are starting to see the value in it. They’re saying, “Oh. I don’t need to earn a return immediately. But if I’m patient, and I actually see the economic value in this work, I’ll earn a return in a way that we just haven’t done before.”
Evelyn: So, a lot of this though, and clearly thinking about what you’re saying. And I mean I think the reality is that most people would understand that if you provide a good education at the level of very poor, you know, provide them with access, that that can actually change lives, and it actually change the system. It sounds a lot like this is how do we reframe the discussion. Because so many people that actually have the capital, and the access, that can actually help others that do not, are the ones that are only focused on the dollars.
Rohit: Yeah, ’cause the moral argument isn’t working. If it was working, we wouldn’t be here in the first place. And I think that’s a shame. I wish that’s actually how the world would work is we say, “Education is a right. Healthcare is a right.” Like these are things we should make sure everyone has access to as human being. That it is harder to be a certain identity, whether it’s black or whether it’s a woman, or whether it is a minority, or an immigrant, or a refugee, that it is harder, disproportionately, to access capital in that case. But because the moral argument is not working, let me show you the economic argument. Because the economic argument will sway you. Then at a certain point, if the moral argument didn’t sway you, and the economic argument didn’t sway you, then we got a deeper issue. And I think we do have that deeper issue.
Evelyn: I think we do too.
Rohit: And I think that what we’re doing is we’re starting to filter out the individuals who that have that deeper resentment. And are making decisions in a way that is from the gut, and not from the brain and the heart. We’re separating that out. And what I think we’ll find is that the majority of the people get it. There’s a very small group of people who actually are in control of capital right now that are dictating the rules around how we invest. But let’s just think differently. If your goal truly is to problem solve, let’s ask the question, is what we’re investing in solving the problem? If the answer is no, then let’s fix it.
Evelyn: Let’s change it.
Rohit: Let’s fix it. That doesn’t mean just cut, cut, cut, cut. What it means is look at the data to actually inform us on what’s working, what’s not. What can we be doing better. What do we need to innovate on. Innovation isn’t about just finding the next parking space. Innovation is about finding new ways to make resources better and more democratically distributable to people. That’s not socialism, it’s fairness. That’s all.
Evelyn: Well, and absolutely. If we live in the greatest country in the world, question mark, maybe. If we do, then why can’t we actually focus on our own social problems and make change for our own citizens?
Rohit: It’s because we separate out, social problem from capitalism. The most common thing someone will say is, “I am socially liberal and I am fiscally conservative.” But truth is social issues cost us money day in, day out, because our economy’s based on capital. So if that’s true, then what we need to figure out is how to make sure that social problem solving is an element of how we evaluate economic success. If we look at GDP, and if you can be an economy that is booming, yet leaving half of the people behind, then we have a problem in how we are evaluating what success actually means.
John: Rohit, you gave a pretty broad overview of some of the companies and their purposes and how they were approaching some of these systemic problems that The Center for Civic Innovation is involved with. But can you give us, I guess, a little bit more detailed view of a couple of, I guess, the partnerships and companies that you’ve worked with and how that’s turned out?
Rohit: Sure. So I’ll break down two partnerships where we have invested in entrepreneurs that have a cohort based models. So the first partnership is one that we have with the Food Well Alliance, a newly formed organization that’s investing in really moving the food movement in Atlanta forward. And investing in people on the ground that are either food producers, food entrepreneurs, you know, working at farmer’s markets. And we worked with them to support a cohort of eight to ten really incredible food entrepreneurs on the ground. And what you find is that farmers are amazing. They are the most stubborn, and annoying, and amazing individuals that you will ever come across. But everyday they’re spending growing food. And I remember the first time I was working on an Excel spreadsheet with a farmer, and at a certain point he just slammed the computer down and he was like, “I grow tomatoes man. I don’t do this. This is not what I do.” And it’s so funny, because then we had a group of business leaders that were in the room and I was talking to them about farmers, and the social entrepreneurship element to what they’re doing. And at a certain point one of ’em said, “I don’t do this farming thing, man. I just do Excel spreadsheets.” And it was beautiful, ’cause what we realized is that these two people need to be in the same room together.
And what we found is that farmers and food producers, and food entrepreneurs, are really good at what they do. They’re perfect at what they do. What we need to do is two things. One, help them run more efficient businesses. A lot of times it’s harder for them to run an efficient business. So people say, “How can I give back?” It’s not just money. Sometimes it’s skill based volunteering, where somebody who has the talent can pair up with a food based entrepreneur and help them be better at what they do. We even have an entrepreneur that is in her late 70s. We have an entrepreneurs that is in his early 20s. And they are all after the same thing, which is the food security and nutritional benefits for their communities. And they can do it.
The second thing that’s important in addition to improving their business models, is cities have to value urban farmers better. And we’re learning this, because even the most efficient farm doesn’t make a livable wage for the people who work on it. And it’s because they don’t have subsidize, they don’t have the same benefits. But if you look if a tech company want to grow in a city, look at the benefits we grow at a tech company. We’re gonna wave this. We’re gonna do this. We’re gonna do that for you. So let’s start treating farmers as our million dollar start-ups, because they make our communities better and they are investible. And we’ve been able to work with Food Well Alliance and helping the city have an Office of Urban Agriculture. It’s been really amazing.
A second case study that we have is a partnership that we have with Sara Blakely, who’s the world’s youngest female billionaire. She’s amazing. And the reason she’s amazing is because she understands that at the core, people are entrepreneurial, and creative, and we just have to find it. And we partnered with her to invest in ten incredible female entrepreneurs in the city of Atlanta that are leading the charge in their respective industries, and are changing, and tackling a very systemic social challenge that the city is facing. Whether that’s art and culture, or whether that is criminal justice. And what we did was … What we realized is that about 75% of the social sector is female. But less than 30% of that sector’s leadership is female. So you have 75% of the sector is female, but almost 75% of the sector’s leadership is male. So that doesn’t make sense. That means that we are not valuing female leadership. And sometimes we need to stop telling people to just lean in, and realize that in leaning them in, we toppled them over. And there is a huge problem with that. And males need to understand that we are in a female dominated sector, and the valuation and talent that females bring to the sector, is something we have to build a better pipeline for, so that those leadership positions are reserved for the people doing the work. Not just the people who can talk about the work.
I hope that one day when I’m no longer the top of, you know, leading The Center for Civic Innovation, I hope that a female takes my spot. I think that’s important. That we’re creating pathways for that. And so I think that through that program we found organizations like Living Walls, which creates incredible street art and murals as a way to have, and incite, community conversation. We have another organization called, We love Buford Highway, which is run by a woman named Marian Liou, who is bringing dignity, respect, and honor to the stories of people who go to Buford Highway and start their businesses, and families, and life there. On the most dangerous street in the entire state.
We have an organization called Gangstas to Growers, that actually helps former gang members learn how to make hot sauce and then sell that hot sauce into farmer’s markets. And the sales of those hot sauce actually goes back toward paying for the program. We have a woman who is traveling the country and just gave a TED Talk on her father, but who is activating abandoned spaces and making them places for economic development. These are incredible people. We have a woman who was homeless when she was, she experienced homelessness when she was a child, and now because she would escape by going to the basement of a church, and would hear people sing, she realized the value of the arts is what really drove her. And she now brings art space programming to homeless shelters across the entire city. These are unsung amazing people who are not considered to be investible to the traditional market. But we can all agree that these are things that should keep growing. These are businesses that should never struggle. And if they’re struggling, there’s something that’s a problem with the system, not a problem with them. We can’t go tell somebody bringing art space services to homeless shelters, just go sell tee shirts and go find out what your capitalist driven approach is going to be. Instead, maybe we should ask ourselves, are we valuing services that are actually put into the homeless shelters in our cities. Are we valuing it?
Because when a city thrives because an artist takes a wall on an abandoned building and makes it something beautiful, and then the entire street becomes an economic driver, who’s the one person that doesn’t benefit from that relationship? It’s the artist. Because we don’t value these people that we build things on the backs of. And that’s so important for us to change in this sector and the way we think about social problem solving. When we do that, then we will actually start getting to the core of solving the problem?
Evelyn: So I think this is really interesting. And I’m gonna come back again, just like earlier when we talked a little bit about reframing the conversation. Because if you voice the reality that these are unsung heroes, and are not investible from a traditional method. Very much what you talk about Rohit has to do with, let’s switch the conversation around so people understand how this actually does become a benefit and of high value to the community. So does The Civic Innovation Center focus on actually doing benchmarking and preparing any kind of analytical data, so studies, I guess, and reports. ‘Cause you’re very, very passionate and I could totally engage with this. How you actually move it beyond you, because clearly it has to.
Rohit: Absolutely. Absolutely. This is not about … It’s twofold. It’s not just us valuing these organizations, it’s about getting these organizations to value themselves. And we beat these organizations down so hard. And when you think about investors in the social sector, whether that’s philanthropy, foundations, they actually are the drivers of the benchmarks right now. The difference is, is that the benchmarks that they are driving are outputs, not outcomes. So I care how many schools did you go to. How many classes did you teach. And how many black kids were in there, so that I can check the boxes I needed to check for the donor that gave me the money to distribute out that capital.
Rohit: Rather than the outcome, which is how many people have broken themselves out of the cycle of poverty because of your work. These entrepreneurs start with that mentality of, “I am going to break people out of the cycle of poverty.” But the way the sector is structured, and the way that capital actually flows to these types of businesses, sets them up for benchmarks that are guaranteed to make them fail-
Rohit: … in the long run. And so, yes it’s about creating a new set of benchmarks, and I think that, that’s something in the long run that I’d like to do. But it’s also about changing the conversation about how we’re investing in this type of work. It is not that it is not valuable, it is that we are not valuing it. And that’s also not that all social good things are working. There are plenty of people who come and say, “I know this thing isn’t working. But this spiritual journey it says that I have to do this. And I know it’s working in my heart of hearts.” And so we also have a war against data. Where we have to figure out, if it’s not working, what do we do to make it better. And that is something that we have 7,500 non-profits in the metro area. But our challenges are continuing to increase. I don’t have enough room on my hand anymore for cause related wristbands, right?
Rohit: Like we gotta start solving some problems.
Evelyn: Some problems.
Rohit: We have to.
Evelyn: Rather than-
Rohit: We can’t just feel good about it anymore.
Evelyn: Well, and the other thing that happens there is everything becomes so decentralized that it’s harder to actually make the right impact.
Rohit: That’s right. That’s right. And it becomes like, it doesn’t matter if I do it. It’s just like voting where people are like, “Ah, my vote doesn’t matter. Politicians are gonna do what politicians are gonna do.” This mayor was elected in an election decided by 714 votes. That’s smaller than most Indian weddings. So it is very, very, very important that we realize that every single person’s voice matters.
Evelyn: Make a difference.
Rohit: And if things become people driven, then the solutions will start to look people driven. If people don’t participate, then we cannot be surprised when decisions are made without us. And those things built for us, without us, are not for us.
John: Rohit, can you tell us a little bit about when someone like Sara Blakely, and her organization, puts money into a company by grant, or otherwise, what the guidelines for the company that’s receiving that money. What guidelines do they have to follow?
Rohit: So I think Sara represents a wave of a new way of doing things. I would say her and the company MailChimp and even Google Fiber, all of them have leadership that decided, “Look, we want to do this a little bit differently and actually look at the outcomes. And invest in a way that is risky and outcome driven.” But traditionally a foundation, if you’re getting capital from them, they have a donor base to report to. Most foundations are donor advised. So that donor will say, “I’m really interested in hearing a story about one, two, three, four.” They’ll set a certain guideline and metrics. They’ll give you a grant agreement. You sign that grant agreement and then you’re responsible for reporting back on a series of outputs that were identified by the foundation themselves.
Sometimes those, depending on who the program officer is, those could be pretty progressive outputs. In other cases it could be regressive and actually not allow you to do the core focus of your work. But because philanthropy is the main source of a non-profit’s revenue, which I think is a problem and I think it is changing, because of that case a lot of non-profits get stuck around just achieving and responding to those metrics. Rather than doing the work that they originally intended to do in the first place. And I think it’s a constant dilemma, because that’s where you’re getting your capital to function, to do the work. And you end up evolving into an organization that the founder may not even recognize by the end of it. And I think it’s a dilemma that the sector has to address over the course of the next few years.
Evelyn: But if I receive these funds, I just concentrate on my core mission? I continue to just concentrate on that mission? Do I have to provide feedback in order to kind of maintain the money? What level of support do I get? Do I get leadership skills? Do I get any kind of training? Anything that goes along with-
Rohit: You’re saying when a foundation invests in you?
Evelyn: Yes, exactly.
Rohit: It’s depends on the foundation. I think foundations are realizing that a beautiful way to do risk mitigation, is to actually couple their grant dollars with leadership training and business support. This is something that The Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta we work on them with. We work with the United Way through a program called SPARK Prize. And what we realize is that you can’t just give capital away, and then expect it to be beautiful, because there’s a lack of mentorship and support in this sector in the first place. So the likelihood of them achieving even the metrics that you set out, even if they’re fair, is gonna be hard.
Rohit: Yeah. It’s tough. I think that foundations are moving in the right direction, for sure, but it is a mammoth sector that has to change the way that it thinks. But the way that it actually distributes dollars is sometimes challenging, because the donors don’t necessarily look like the people on the ground that they’re looking to support. So sometimes it’s a lot of education for donors and thankfully a lot of donor’s kids are majoring in social entrepreneurship now. It makes my job a little bit easier. So I have a lot of parents that come up to us and say, “I want to relate more to my kids. So I’d love to hear more about this social entrepreneurship stuff.” But truth is, it’s just a new wave and I think it’s going in a positive direction, for sure.
Evelyn: Interesting. Interesting. Okay, so we want to take a little bit of a switch. This is still an element that’s supported by The Center for Innovation, but I know from looking at your bio that you’re really into hip-hop.
Evelyn: And so a few years ago you actually started a program that focuses on the arts and music. And how that can actually equate into social change.
Rohit: Totally. Yeah, a nerd in that sense and was just bullied by my cousins to learn lyrics, and it worked. So this is an initiative that you’re talking about called A3C Action. It was actually founded through the A3C Hip-Hop Festival & Conference. This is a group of people who have been putting on an event for a number of years where they bring together people in the creative economy, and the creative sector. Whether they’re an artist, or a producer, or whatever, that would come together and not only listen to music, but they realized that they built a community. And within that community, they realized that you can’t just separate that community out from a number of the social challenges and issues that face dominantly black communities, who are the creators of hip-hop.
Hip-hop was created out of communities that were experiencing trauma and pain. I mean if you think about the L.A. Riots, you know Ice Cube called hip-hop the Black CNN, because it was an opportunity to actually get people to pay attention to what was happening in their communities. And while hip-hop has changed quite a bit since then, and deviated in some ways, you can utilize this tool of art, music and culture, to start conversations in a way that is so beautiful. Toni Morrison said after The Great Depression, “This is precisely the time when artists go to work.” And I think that we are living in that exact time where we need artists more than we’ve ever known.
And I think that what A3C has done is they said they want to use their platform to identify amazing people from around the country that are utilizing this same art of music, and hip-hop, and culture, and invest in them. They take proceeds from their own revenue and reinvest it into these organizations to help them do the work that they’re doing. Organizations like the woman I was talking about before, Malika Whitley, who started ChopArt, bringing art to homeless based shelters. Her first investment came from A3C Action. Organizations like Shooting Without Bullets, a group that actually puts cameras in the hands of young kids inside of neighborhoods in Cleveland, where they take pictures of what’s going on in their communities. And then they put on an art show with police officers and start a conversation. And now the police department is actually investing in those cameras, because of the power of those conversations.
So I think that what we found is that people are doing beautiful things around the country. Like the world is good. We are still really good. And we’ve seen it in times of distress, but we get wrapped in these national arguments that super polarize us and say, “You’re in this team, or you’re on that team.” But when you’re on the ground, and you see what’s happening locally, people are taking ownership of their own communities. And people are doing it with or without businesses. With or without government. With or without whoever. And that’s not a political statement, that’s a human statement.
Evelyn: That’s human, yeah.
Rohit: And I love it. I love A3C Action. They actually are gonna be pitching on Friday at the Sweet Auburn Library at seven o’clock. You’re gonna see five people from around the country that are gonna pitch their ideas, and get some investment to do the work.
Evelyn: That’s really, really cool. Really amazing.
Rohit: It’s organizations like A3C realized this. ONE Music Fest is another music festival that held a Mayoral Debate with Killer Mike, to bring attention to local politics and elections. People are utilizing their platforms in unique ways to talk about this thing. We’re seeing it in are sports right now. It may be polarizing in … The national conversation is what polarizes it. But if you’re on the ground locally, you understand the pain that people are feeling.
Evelyn: That they suffer. Absolutely.
Rohit: And it’s really, really beautiful what’s happening. The conversation has been at a level of discourse that I haven’t seen in the limited amount of time I’ve been doing this work.
Evelyn: That’s amazing.
Evelyn: Talk to us a little bit about the future. What do you see over the next 12 months? Next two years. What are your hopes and dreams for The Center, for these entrepreneurs?
Rohit: Yeah, well we’re selecting are next class of fellows and entrepreneurs. We had 147 people from across Atlanta say, I’ve got an idea and I want to push forward in my community. We narrowed that down to 44. And we’re gonna bring it down to 14 to have are 2018 Class of Civic Innovation Fellows. So I’m really stoked about that. We have some incredible ideas within there.
Evelyn: That’s great.
Rohit: We’re gonna have a new mayor, a new city council, new school board, next year. And a part of our responsibility is to make sure the public knows who those individuals are. They can learn about that at voteatl.org. But the election is just the moment, but the movement happens between the elections, between those goal posts. And I think what we’re gonna be in charge of, and take charge of, is really strengthening the way people communicate outside of elections. So when the cameras are off, what happens?
So I think we’re gonna be doing a lot more around that. And we want to bring attention to other cities that are doing this similar type of work. We’re not the only city that has this. Atlanta’s are home, and we will continue to double down on Atlanta, and expand are support of entrepreneurs in Atlanta, but we want to tell the stories of what’s happening around the country as well. I think it brings hope in a way that we desperately need right now.
Evelyn: That we need right now.
Evelyn: Absolutely. Here, here.
John: Well this has been fascinating.
Rohit: Oh, thank you.
John: This is a great … Your passion for this comes through. It’s a great movement. I mean I think we all need something … It would be great for Atlanta. I mean I think we can all agree on that.
Evelyn: I think it’s great for everything, because you’re absolutely right. Media is so negative, negative, negative, right now. And I think people are … It actually alienates more. You step away because you think, I just can’t deal with it anymore. And so being able to hear about change at the grassroots, on the ground, human beings, is just exactly what we need.
Rohit: It’s amazing. And when you see things like journalists that are in communities, in neighborhoods, in cities, they’re broke, but they’re still doing the work. And we can’t give up on them. We have to protect the people who are getting to the root of these stories. Not just the people who can afford to get to the root of those stories, but people who’ve dedicated their entire life to do this type of work. To humanize this work. To not treat people just as a headline and then go to the next thing. These are things that really drive us on a day to day basis.
John: If you’d like to learn more about Rohit Malhotra and The Center for Civic Innovation, please visit civicatlanta.org. There you’ll find more information on the organization, their programs, opportunities, and how to get involved. We hope you enjoyed In Process today. If you’d like to download this episode, you can find our show on iTunes as In Process Podcast. If you’d like to be a featured guest on our show, please email us at email@example.com. Rohit thanks for joining us. It’s been great.
Evelyn: Thank you. Amazing.
Rohit: Thank you.
Speaker 1: This has been In Process: Conversations about Business in the 21st Century, with Evelyn Ashley and John Monahon. Presented by Trusted Counsel, a corporate and intellectual property law firm. For more information visit trusted-counsel.com.