Social Impact Insights from Chicago State of Innovation

Social Impact Insights from Chicago State of Innovation

Recently, I found myself invited to last week’s Chicago State of Innovation, a half-day conference put on by Chicago Inno. Although primarily focused on the technology and startup sector, I was interested – after all, I couldn’t let press credentials go to waste. (You can find highlights from the conference here and here). But one particular Chicago State of Innovation panel had specific interest for me: A Fireside Chat with Elizabeth Coston of Impact Engine and Michael Slaby of Timshel.

One of the great aspects about social change in Chicago is a growing trend towards social entrepreneurship, or businesses integrating a greater social purpose into their business models. For some, social enterprises are seen as more effective in driving change than non-profits, although this blog has a slightly more inclusive perspective. As part of the Fireside Chat, Michael Slaby noted several trends that contributed to the Chicago scene: how online tools are changing how mission-driven organizations function; new corporate structures (like Benefit Corporations) that help businesses institute values in governance; and how many businesses are adopting corporate social responsibility policies as a way of doing good. (Recent research, however, suggests that corporate social responsibility programs don’t ameliorate past bad deeds).

Chicago’s technology/startup community has a particularly strong social impact vein, or as Michael Slaby put it, an emphasis on social enterprise versus the “culture of the deal.” As more companies are speaking about values and mission, they are building a much stronger social impact community. Rather than adopt an attitude of what-can-we-do, many businesses are taking a proactive stance, applying their tools to solve key social problems. Chicago provides a great environment to create spaces for social entrepreneurs to do important work, and become more oriented around solving problems.F--social-enterprise-cloud-words

(As both Coston and Slaby pointed out, impact is “baked into” a business model, taking the focus away from impact as a result of revenue generation and more focused on making a direct impact).

But what made the session a hidden gem was that social impact was discussed in a serious manner….and spoken as a mandate rather than an option. In a city like Chicago, growth in corporate philanthropy and social enterprise has made what’s been said on this blog very clear – no single type of organization has a monopoly on social change. Every organization, whether nonprofit or for-profit, has a stake in making an impact. 

Although I had to leave the Chicago State of Innovation conference to make another appointment, I was very encouraged by the open, honest conversation about business and social change. As someone who works with various social change agencies, I am very heartened by the fact that Chicago is becoming an epicenter for making a greater social impact.

And I’m eagerly looking forward to attending next year’s Chicago State of Innovation.

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