by Terry Wagner, Special Contributor | March 19, 2019
In 2018, a group of business, education and civic leaders gathered to seek the answers to some burning questions: How can D-FW accelerate growth of its innovation economy? How do we continue attracting the most forward-thinking talent, companies and investors to the region?
To find those answers, the group, comprised of representatives from Accenture, the Dallas Regional Chamber, Southern Methodist University and United Way of Metropolitan Dallas, conducted the 2018 DFW Regional Innovation Study. Six months later, the study delivered recommendations for corporations, nonprofits, academia, entrepreneurs, investors and government.
But one overarching theme ran throughout: the need to bolster the region’s reputation as a magnet for innovation.
“The Dallas-Fort Worth region is thriving thanks to the diversity of our industries, skilled and growing workforce, a slew of accelerators and co-working spaces, tremendous wealth, robust academic institutions and top-ranked arts and culture scenes,” said Jorge Corral, Dallas Office Managing Director at Accenture. “But we can’t rest on our laurels. We have to continue to boost our innovation economy and let the world know that the D-FW region is a center of innovation excellence.”
Social innovation in the spotlight
To that end, United Way of Metropolitan Dallas is shining a light on social innovation in the region. The organization’s Social Innovation Accelerator helps social entrepreneurs create and launch bold new solutions for age-old community problems.
“Social innovation is critical for sustainable economic growth,” said Jennifer Sampson, McDermott Templeton President and CEO of United Way of Metropolitan Dallas. “It provides the unique opportunity to recognize the interconnectedness of social enterprise, business and philanthropy.”
But more important, she says, is the effect it has on the residents of our community. “We need to nurture this work to better the lives of countless North Texans.”
Launched in 2013, United Way’s Social Innovation Accelerator strategically invests in new initiatives that address issues of education, income and health, what the organization calls “the building blocks of opportunity.” The program leverages the power of unity to bring critical resources to entrepreneurs — funding, mentorship and community connections — to help accelerate the growth and stability of their ventures.
“We realize it’s not always feasible for established non-profits to change course or divert resources to explore new offerings, so we created the Social Innovation Accelerator to help bring new ideas to life,” Sampson said.
A 2017 collaboration with Accenture infused the program with even more resources, expertise and financial support, providing participants the funding, technology and mentorship needed to create lasting change.
“Innovating to solve problems is core to Accenture,” said Corral. “United Way’s Social Innovation Accelerator has been an incredible match that allows our people to mentor and support entrepreneurs and positively impact our D-FW community.”
Pioneering lasting change
With an intensive boot camp curriculum, the program helps promising nonprofits refine their business plans and set milestone goals. Seed funding is linked to the completion of program activities and the achievement of milestones. And since studies show that organizations with mentorship are two times more likely to succeed, the program provides one-on-one mentoring, strategically pairing mentors and participants based on expertise and need.
The preparedness the program provides is invaluable, says Chad Houser, Founder, CEO and Executive Chef of Café Momentum, a restaurant training program for released juvenile offenders that offers culinary, job and life-skills training as well as mentoring and support for successful re-entry into the community.
“We had an idea that people said would never work,” said Houser. “But when United Way gave their stamp of approval and advocated for us, it let the rest of this community know what we’re doing is legitimate.”
Since its founding, United Way’s Social Innovation Accelerator has supported the growth of 35 organizations. Another past participant of the program is the Akola Project, a jewelry brand that creates economic opportunities for women in Uganda and Dallas to help them transform their lives and communities.
“United Way’s Social Innovation Accelerator was such a blessing for Akola Project,” says Brittany Underwood, Founder and CEO of Akola Project. “We’d grown slow and steady for the past ten years but had exponential growth the year we participated in the program, launching in every single Neiman Marcus store nationwide.”
One of the biggest impacts of the program is the networking, says Daron Babcock, Executive Director of Bonton Farms. The urban farming organization transforms impoverished neighborhoods by providing healthy food, nutritional programs and employment opportunities.
“We have so many friends and corporate relationships with people who are part of making Dallas a better city,” said Babcock. “And many of them were introduced to us through United Way.”
Impact of United Way’s Social Innovation Accelerator
- 95 percent of participants complete all key milestones
- $2.5M in seed funding invested
- 3,300 hours of mentoring and coaching
- 35 fellows completed the Accelerator
225,000 reasons to innovate
Those who excel in the Social Innovation Accelerator may be selected for the annual United Way social innovation competition with a chance to win up to $225,000 in additional funding and the title of Social Innovator of the Year, funded by Ashlee and Chris Kleinert. The competition begins with a week of online voting and culminates in a star-studded event in which participants pitch their ideas to a live audience and panel of celebrity judges.
“It’s an amazing experience,” said Dan Hooper, Executive Director of ScholarShot, the 2018 grand prize winner. “To bring this level of social awareness is exhilarating. Just being onstage was a huge boost in regard to awareness and winning is a great reward for our at-risk kids.”
As for winning an oversized check and the title of Social Innovator of the Year? “Yes,” he smiles, “that was pretty great, too.”
This year, five local organizations will compete in the third annual United Way social innovation competition: My Possibilities, Rosa es Rojo, Student Success Agency, Readers 2 Leaders and POETIC. And their success is based in part on public support. Online voting begins April 8 at UnitedWayDallas.org/Innovation, and $75,000 will be awarded.
The Pitch event takes place Tuesday, April 16 at Gilley’s Dallas, with an additional $150,000 in prize money available. Tickets begin at $35 and can be purchased at UnitedWayDallas.org/Innovation.
“This is a unique and exciting opportunity for the community,” said Sampson. “It gives the public a say in how to invest money to address some of the most pressing issues in North Texas.”
To help make Dallas a better place, be a part of the change. Give, advocate, volunteer or learn more at unitedwaydallas.org.