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Social Innovation Reigns at This New York City Incubator

Social Innovation Reigns at This New York City Incubator

At a sprawling 24,000 square feet, the Center for Social Innovation in New York City is an oasis for socially-conscious entrepreneurs. Though less than a year old, the niche co-working space houses 130 nonprofit and for-profit startups ranging from Toilet Hackers, a startup focused on providing sanitation around the world, to 100cameras, which teaches photography to marginalized children.

"It's a community that truly works," says CSI's events coordinator Andrew Karp. "From washing dishes together to collaborating across sectors, the community animation and shared pursuit of innovation is inspiring."

The Center for Social Innovation is dotted with couches and private alcoves for phone calls or meetings, amid rows of shared desks. The space blares the communal message in quotes like "Embrace chaos" and "Be bold" painted onto pillars scattered throughout. One wall features a floor-to-ceiling chalk-drawn mural, detailing the faces of the 130 founders. Green and blue plastic chairs sit around a long table near the common room, lit by two ornate chandeliers. In need of a stress-reliever? Take a ride on the scooters parked in a corner, or make yourself a cup of tea in the well-stocked kitchen.

To get access to these amenities, you will have to pay a one-time $125 set-up fee and each month pony up $125 for a desk or $1,200 for a private office.  

Related: Social Entrepreneurship Tips from Annie's, Patagonia and Fund Good Jobs

We caught up with three entrepreneurs from the Center for Social Innovation to see what it was like starting a socially-conscious business. Here are their edited responses:

Social Innovation Reigns at This New York City Incubator

Joan Palmeri
Founder, New American Nurse Project (NANP)
The New American Nurse Project helps immigrant nurses and healthcare workers gain employment in the US through workshops and training sessions. Palmeri, who has experience in the nonprofit, education and health sectors, has worked on behalf of the criminal justice population in New York City and helped develop English as a Second Language courses for immigrant communities. Along with a team of five instructors, she now works to educate 165 nurses through NANP's Facebook page -- its primary teaching method.

Q: What drew you to this industry?
A: I was an English teacher who was hired to work in a program for international nurses at Philips Beth Israel School of Nursing. When it ended, I was just getting phone calls and tutoring people one-to-one. So I knew there was a need.

Q: What resources have helped you the most in starting up?
A: Online learning management systems. I said, we're going to meet virtually. The nurses are already on Facebook, so it was just like, alright, start a group.

Related: Wannabe Social Entrepreneur? How to Navigate the Growing World of Impact Accelerators

Q: What has been your biggest startup challenge?
A: The population we're serving doesn't seem to have the time and money. We're at the point now where we need to expand, and unless we get some capital, we can't hire anybody. We're becoming an eligible training provider and creating a loan fund [which has helped]. We're solving the time situation by doing virtual training.

Social Innovation Reigns at This New York City Incubator

Sang Lee
Founder, Return on Change
Return on Change is an online-funding platform that connects socially-innovative startups with potential investors. It was implemented so founders can focus on their ideas instead of getting bogged down raising capital. It relies on crowd-investing, allowing founders access to a group of investors instead of just one. Startups create a profile on the website, which other users can view.

What makes Return on Change different is its voting process. If users like what they see, they can vote to move the startup to the funding stage. The company then connects the group-approved startups to the pool of accredited investors, helping raise the needed capital.

Q: What drew you to this industry?
A: I was an investment banker in power-energy banking. I was involved in a lot of clean-energy investments, albeit for the wrong reasons probably. I actually wanted to use my skills to help businesses raise money. Now I teach classes [on] the financial points you need to think about and storytelling -- how do you relate impact to investors? There needs to be a comprehensive story behind it.

Q: What resources have helped you the most in starting up?
A: I was lucky to come from the banking sector. It's helpful to have friends who are angels, or if they're not, you can force them to become angels.

Q: Best advice for fellow entrepreneurs looking to get started in this industry?
A: They have to have a clear value of their mission. What was the reason you created this startup? Who did you want to help, or what problem did you want to fix? I think a lot of people lose grasp of that.

Social Innovation Reigns at This New York City Incubator

Ben Drucker
Founder, Valet.io
Twenty-year-old Ben Drucker decided to leave the prestigious Columbia University to build his startup Valet.io, a mobile app that helps nonprofits, schools and politicians raise money. During benefit events, guests can pledge money directly from their phones (instead of worrying about sign-up forms). The company raised $5,000 in 60 seconds for then-Newark Mayor Cory Booker's U.S. Senate campaign -- a turning point for Valet.io. "Conversations moved on from that," said Drucker. "You need your champion." Valet.io is currently working with half a dozen clients per month.

Related: For Social Entrepreneurs, What Comes First: Business or Mission?

Q: What drew you to this industry?
A: I've done web development for a while, and I've done volunteer work with a couple of nonprofits, I saw how heavily they had been taken advantage of. We'd watch them get pitched software for hundreds, thousands of dollars, [programs] I knew I could have built overnight.

Q: What resources have helped you the most in starting up?
A: We spent some time through personal connections with recognizable names. Once that was out of the way [we could answer] the questions, "Who did you work with? How did this work for them?"

Q: Best advice for fellow entrepreneurs looking to get started in this industry?
A:
Find somebody with a problem and build something for them. Better to have somebody doubt whether the scale or the market is big enough and have a customer base of one, than have in theory a billion-dollar idea with no customers.

Sophie Kleeman and Sherina Motwani are seniors at New York University where they study journalism at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. Both are focusing on print journalism, with a specific interest in feature writing. Follow them on Twitter @sophie_kleeman and @sherina_motwani

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