April 25, 2012; Source: MLive

A recent panel on social entrepreneurship at the Detroit Business Conference emphasized the familiar fact that nonprofits are now not the only entities in the business of helping people. “Just because you’re going to be helping people doesn’t mean you should be structured as a nonprofit,” Christine Coady Narayanan, CEO of the nonprofit Opportunity Resource Fund, reportedly told a gathering of current and aspiring entrepreneurs. The growth of low-profit limited liability corporations (L3Cs) designed to promote charitable purposes and generate limited profits is a reflection of this new level of sector overlap. Panelists at the session emphasized, however, that in Detroit, a city hit particularly hard by the recession, it is especially important for entrepreneurs to come equipped with both a business sense and a cause.

Providing perspective on the continued need for job creation in the city, Narayanan shared some of her organization’s priorities as a nonprofit lender. “We’re not looking to fund businesses that will start right up and pay less than a living wage, because what’s that doing?” she rhetorically asked. “It’s perpetuating the cycle of poverty.” Based on her work founding and leading Central Detroit Christian, an employment training organization that now includes local soul food restaurant Cafe Sonshine and produce market Peaches & Greens, Lisa Johnson served as a voice of experience in working with local communities. “Can a low income community support a restaurant?” she asked. “Can a low income community support a produce market?” The answer to both, she said, is, “Not really.” Still, she noted that her success over the past 17 years has resulted from her knowledge of the community along with creative marketing and careful business planning. Another success story from the panel came from Detroit’s Cass Community Social Services, which launched a program that recycled 20,000 tires last year and turned them into rubber for doormats.

A recent and interesting story in Education Week on the growing field of social entrepreneurship notes that higher education institutions, including Harvard Business School, are increasingly adding classes with the purpose of equipping students with the skills necessary to start their own social ventures. Examples of entrepreneurship success such as those mentioned above will undoubtedly provide lasting and useful examples for these new programs. –Anne Eigeman