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[Innovation Series] An Interview with Charles Thomas (Queen City Forward)

Charles Thomas, Executive Director, Queen City Forward

charles-thomas-blogAn artist-photographer, educator and entrepreneur, Charles Thomas has been leading Queen City Forward (QCF), a hub for social entrepreneurs, since it launched in February 2012.  With a mission to “unleash the potential of high-growth, high impact social entrepreneurs in Charlotte to create sustained economic and social impact,” Queen City Forward has quickly become a leading convener for creative thinkers looking at new ways to solve social issues.  As QCF celebrates its one year anniversary this February, a growing membership base, increased awareness and new programs promise an exciting year ahead.

I imagine you have some sort of ‘elevator speech’ for Queen City Forward – an organization you’ve been leading in Charlotte since it launched in early 2012. I wonder if you would be willing to give me the 90-second version.

<Laughing> No problem. Queen City Forward’s mission is to increase the number of social entrepreneurs and social ventures in Charlotte.  We do that by connecting social entrepreneurs to the resources and relationships they need to grow their businesses.  Some of those resources include office space – we are based in uptown Charlotte at Packard Place and we offer affordable office space to start-up businesses and social entrepreneurs. We also aspire to connect entrepreneurs to talent in the form of interns from local universities, and mentors with experience growing their own businesses or else operate support business like CPAs and attorneys. We also create pathways to capital by preparing for-profit or non-profit social entrepreneurs to pitch their ideas to funders and investors. We also advocate to make Charlotte business leaders, policy leaders and the broader media aware of the concept of social entrepreneurship.

So, what is social entrepreneurship?

Social entrepreneurship is based on the idea that our society is challenged by a number social issues, and through the use of entrepreneurial energy and innovation, we can solve these problems in a way that can lead to systemic change that also creates positive economic development.  Social entrepreneurship provides a new way of doing business where for-profit companies are more conscious of creating shared values – for the community and shareholders alike – and nonprofits are dedicated to not only having strong social focuses but also sustainable business models that will allow them to continue impacting the community for years to come.

Honestly, I wasn’t familiar with the term until recently. How new of an idea is it?

It is relatively new.  The phrase itself was coined in the 1960’s but become more familiar in the 80’s and 90’s with the promotion of the term by Bill Drayton with Ashoka (Innovators for the Public). It’s certainly a new term for Charlotte but if you go to other states on the West Coast or look at NGOs operating in the developing world, there has been a tremendous focus on social enterprises existing to spur economic development and solve challenges those communities face.

Consider the developing world, where for-profit companies are typically not incented to engage in meeting needs, and local governments don’t have the funding to attract that investment. What social entrepreneurs do is problem-solve, and they do it in a way that uses business principles and models that create change that is sustainable over time.

So while the term is still filtering into Charlotte, Queen City Forward exists to educate the public and the community, and inspire individuals to be entrepreneurial and make a positive difference. We think we’re here at the right time, as Charlotte is looking to diversify its profile in the wake of the downturn.  While Charlotte’s recent history was focused on attracting and growing corporations, we feel job growth going forward will be boosted by entrepreneurship.

That certainly gets at the question of “why now?” The world has changed over the last few years – how does social entrepreneurship inform the economy, or vice versa?

Our economy is at a really interesting transition point. Charlotte finds itself in need of creating additional jobs.  Charlotte leaders are increasingly recognizing the need for more entrepreneurs, and are beginning to ask good questions: Why would they come here? What attracts those types of people?  Are they beginning here and then leaving? We are seeking to be intentional about developing our own pipeline through public-private partnerships and for-profit/non-profit collaborations. We can either just hope that entrepreneurs will come here and stay here, or we can be intentional.  We choose intentional.

Civic engagement seems to a big part of the leadership team that brought Queen City Forward to bear.  How did it happen? 

Queen City Forward is based on a successful model in Durham called Bull City Forward.  In 2010, Christopher Gergen, the founder of Bull City Forward, spoke at a Charlotte Chamber Retreat about Durham embracing its entrepreneurial roots and wanting to be seen as a hub of innovation.  Charlotte city leaders like Mayor Anthony Foxx, Charlotte Chamber CEO Bob Morgan and Ronnie Bryant decided that they wanted to bring a similar concept to Charlotte. In February 2011, Michael Whitehead at the Center for Intentional Leadership led a roundtable workshop, and from that a leadership team was developed to give QCF the momentum it needed to get started. I came on-board in October of 2011 and we officially launch in February of 2012.

The idea of launching in Charlotte based on a model developed in Durham is, in and of itself, a demonstration of entrepreneurism – can you talk a bit about how that collaboration works? 

We are an affiliate of Bull City Forward, and it has allowed us to build off of their successful model and best practices.  There are also areas where we can work together to improve the business model.  That said, while BCF has been a great template, Charlotte has a different culture than Durham, so we have been excelling at evolving the concept.

It gets at the heart of what we’re about, which is collaboration and building a statewide network of social entrepreneurs, to really make this a movement.  In the future, there could be affiliates in other North Carolina cities such as Greensboro, Asheville and Wilmington, and expansion outside of the state as well.

Your website talks about bold idea and creative solutions. So, a big philosophical question here: how do you define innovation?

There are two ways to look at it – sometimes it’s about creating something brand new. But sometimes it’s about taking a model and turning it on its head, creating a paradigm shift and finding a unique way to solve that problem.  It’s usually building off of something that is already in place and creating a new efficiency.

A good example is the Grameen Bank, which was begun in Bangladesh by an economist named Muhammed Yunus as a bank for the poor. Typically, a bank qualifies someone for a loan based upon a credit score and collateral. But in the developing world, there are many people who can’t qualify as they lack any credit history or collateral. So the innovation comes with solving the problem of providing access to capital for these individuals, and further, how to do so in a way that is sustainable as a business model.

So Muhammed Yunus worked with his graduate students to test and pilot a bank for the poor, and he developed a new way of doing it that leveraged social pressure that was culturally unique.  Clients are mainly women, and small loans are made to cohorts of 8-10 individuals.  If any of the individuals defaults on the loan, or don’t attend mandatory financial literacy classes, it injures the credit rating of the entire group. So, it was a culturally appropriate solution that worked, taking the traditional banking model and re-imagining it for a new segment of the population.

The best sorts of innovations also lead to systemic change.  The Grameen Bank has served as a model of micro lending in the developing world that has been replicated and now traditional banks are looking at it as a potential growth business.

How important is profit motive in social entrepreneurship? Is there something the nonprofit community can learn from how the profit motive can drive innovation?

Ultimately, what separates the for-profit and nonprofit social entrepreneur is profit.  Developing revenues is extremely important for any start-up, and nonprofit social entrepreneurs have to be very comfortable with developing revenue sources.  It’s something I coach Queen City Forward’s nonprofit members.  Fundraising and donations are one way to do that, but even better is to build in a degree of self-sufficiency through earned revenue streams.  It’s particularly important for the nonprofits to demonstrate that, to show creativity and commitment to social change inherent in the business model.  I think it’s an important component of “living the mission.”

Do you feel creative problem solving for revenue development should be a core way of thinking for nonprofit leaders?

Absolutely. It’s time to start thinking about our nonprofits as businesses. It seems like nonprofits get sectioned out from the rest of the business community, but they are just differently structured corporations. We should look at what drives those businesses, how are they motivated to solve problems and generate the revenues to fuel that enterprise.

Programmatically, what does the next year hold for Queen City Forward?

We see growth in our programming… Since our launch in February 2012, Queen City Forward has grown its membership to over 30 social entrepreneurs working to create sustainable solutions to some of Charlotte’s greatest challenges in areas such as Health & Wellness, Education, Workforce Development and Green Energy Solutions. To build on this work, we are launching the Social Innovation Fellowship Program to provide an exceptional professional development experience for high-growth, high-impact social entrepreneurs that will accelerate their entrepreneurial growth, enhance their professional and personal networks, and contribute to our region’s innovative economy.

In addition, we plan on doubling our monthly programming such as our Lunch & Learns, Feedback Sessions and networking events.