Thinking in Opposites for Social Innovation

Photo used with permission

Photo used with permission

Thinking in opposites for social innovation was the theme of this year’s Elevating Impact Summit 2018 presented by Impact Entrepreneurs, an initiative of Portland State University’s School of Business.  Now an annual event, the conference highlights new approaches to solving social, environmental and economic issues  across sectors.  The 2018 Summit challenged participants to:

  • Think creatively, explore new ideas and approaches to partnerships and funding.
  • Break through assumptions about problems themselves.
  • Focus on deeply understanding our customers, clients and world to the benefit of all.

From a “fire side” chat with inventor and green chemist John Warner, maker of hair dye from bug shells, to a pitch fest featuring impact entrepreneurs in health care, technical education and a winery, the ideas presented were fresh and inspiring.  Proud Pour, the winery whose cause is helping bees and oysters was the winner of the pitch fest.  Milling about The Portland Armory with tasty appetizers, drinking kombucha, waiting suspense “fully” for the announcement; we had a chance to check in with more of the very interesting and inspiring vendors; fully, beneficial state bank, PSU’s Institute for Sustainable Solutions, Providence…

What is a social or impact entrepreneur you ask?  They are people who apply existing or bring new business models to bear on social and environmental issues once seen as the sole territory of non-profits.  The possible pathways for this potent mix of business tools and dedication to a cause to unfold are unlimited, wildly creative and not always predictable.

Amidst out-of-the-box ideas and discussion with expert and diverse panelists and presenters, came familiar and sage business directives for anyone contemplating a start-up with our collective social and environmental good in mind.

  • Find the absolute smallest way to begin.
  • Diligently define your mission; what’s your story?
  • Make a product or service superlative in performance and cost to facilitate a speedy entry into the market place.
  • Think through your business model. How will you make it?
  • Know your customers! Do you really know your customers?
  • Consider carefully how you will grow/scale your business.

Human centered design was a buzz phrase that caught my attention as panelists pushed us to not judge or guess about our customers and clients.  To take actual behavior into account, not what we want to see, but what we do see, and prepare to be surprised.

A great example of not pre-judging customers and continuing to study them as business develops came from Tyrone Poole, founder and CEO of OneApp Oregon.  A one-time resident of a homeless shelter, as a result of an injury and job loss, he saw the high cost of rental applications and the uncertainty of applying.  So he created a way for a person to submit a single application and find a list of available rentals for which they were qualified.  As business developed he realized his customers weren’t responding to his marketing, but his price.  Tyrone changed his approach to marketing and put the focus back on addressing his customers’ needs, which led to offering a service to clean up their credit.

Do you have an unlikely solution for a product or service that addresses a social, environmental or economic issue in a new way?  Consider your idea a side job for a while and see what you can learn about its feasibility.  Is there an unusual partner or funder who could help get you started?  Take more time to develop these relationships.  Consider what you might need to keep you going on this journey of research, discovery and surprise.  Following passions provides plenty of fuel but there are inevitable disappointments and so much to learn.

Create structure, support and resources to help keep you on track.  Find out more about the PSU Impact Entrepreneurs at  All programs are open to students and community members.  The Dave’s Killer Bread Foundation is an example of an organization created via participation in the online Social Innovation Certificate, which enables people to work on their ideas for a new social venture.

Check out all that is available at the PSU Business Outreach Program, offering support to minority and women-owned businesses, but not nonprofits, through The School of Business to start or grow your amazing contribution to us all at


Originally posted on Career Transition: The Inside Job