There was a time, not so long ago, when even the idea of mission-based for-profit companies was completely foreign. Social change was reserved for nonprofits and government work. In 1994, John Elkington coined the term “triple bottom line,” and the result was as if we began to give ourselves permission, on a wider scale, to cross the line between profit and the greater good.
Academics studying the rise and impact of social enterprises – especially on a local level – talk about their ability to move us closer to a theoretical “social equilibrium.” Fresno Pacific University’s Center for Community Transformation has given the faith-based community a venue for social entrepreneurs to pitch their ideas. The program is called CCT Spark Tank, and many business models will employ people with barriers to employment (persons with disabilities, formerly incarcerated, etc) or offer services that teach life skills or healing through art for veterans. CCT’s Spark Tank has catalyzed 32 social enterprises in Fresno over the last 5 years.
Fresno’s largest and most talked about social enterprise was the brain-child of a woman with a fire in her belly and an idea that she could build a tech hub in Fresno. Co-founder of Bitwise Industries, Irma Olguin, knows the power of vision – and how it can be all-consuming until it is realized.
Democracies flourish when large numbers of citizens acquire the capacity to shape civic and economic life. Social entrepreneurship is a process that enables citizens to do that.
Azadeh Tajdar, Social Entrepreneur
Irma’s inspiring story of growing up in a rural farming community, where she thought higher education was out of her reach, makes her passion understandable. Doors opened, and Irma graduated from the University of Ohio at Toledo with a degree in Computer Engineering…and so her fate was sealed. Years later, after a few successful ventures, Irma took her crazy idea and convinced a young attorney, Jake Soberal, to embark on this adventure with her.
Balancing the business with a shared workspace, Shift3 (a software development company) and Geekwise (the education arm) has been a successful mix of offerings. With 40 startups housed in the Bitwise building downtown, they had a combined revenue of $100 million in the last year. With Geekwise, led by Bethany Mily (formerly Dean of Curriculum and Instruction at CART) as CEO, the team has targeted rural communities and people with employment barriers – believing they could give those who may not have opportunities elsewhere to learn marketable skills that can land them livable wage jobs. Currently, Beth and the team are building curricula specifically targeting the “Gap Year” – the year many take between high school and college. Getting those kids in a short program increases chances they won’t become part of another demographic some are calling “opportunity youth” – those 18-24 who aren’t attending school or working.
The synergy of having the education space co-located with Shift3 and 40 other tech-based businesses creates an atmosphere where students can see what their futures could look like and ask those with years of experience for advice with projects. Many have even gone on to work for some of the Bitwise-housed businesses.
What seemed idealistic is not only becoming reality and creating opportunity for individuals they may have never thought possible, it is also actually opening opportunities for diversifying our local economy – something experts have been telling us was necessary for ages.