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The Business of Activism

How one San Francisco company is uniting social responsibility and capitalism

This story appears in the September 2009 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Brent Schulkin's transformation from activist to entrepreneur happened last spring: He was struck by the idea of organizing groups of consumers to patronize a merchant en masse, as long as the merchant agreed to put a percentage of the profits toward green projects.

He called the first group Carrotmob, and within months, he was teaming up with Steve Newcomb--a fellow activist with a resume full of successful Silicon Valley startups--to start Virgance, an incubator for more efforts like Carrotmob. Although the pair are still looking for a way to monetize the Carrotmob model, they've started other sales-generating projects--which they call campaigns--designed to help activists achieve change by working with businesses rather than against them. Schulkin and Newcomb are dubbing the approach Activism 2.0.

The two consider their work, and their approach of backing and executing targeted projects that promote change, critical to the creation of a sustainable society.

"Everything about the way people live their lives has to change," Newcomb says. "To do that, we don't need one Manhattan Project-sized project. We need 500 of them."

Virgance has already launched a handful of campaigns in addition to Carrotmob, including One Block Off the Grid (1BOG), which organizes homeowners in the market for solar panels and negotiates with solar installers on their behalf for discounts. (Virgance earns a commission from the merchants.) Another project in the works, Lend Me Some Sugar, will connect businesses with Facebook users who will vote on how the businesses should spend their annual philanthropy budgets. The companies will pay Virgance management fees for the service.

"We operate in the places where activism and capitalism intersect," says Newcomb. "We are pro-business, pro-government and pro-people."

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