On April 16th, five social entrepreneurs will stand onstage at Gilley’s Dallas, sweating, no doubt, under the glare of bright lights. Nearby, a panel of judges and an audience filled with some of the city’s most notable dignitaries will be watching their every move, holding their breaths in anticipation. It goes without saying United Way’s third annual social innovation competition is not for the faint of heart. The stakes are high—participants are vying for up to $225,000 in funding—and winning could change the future of every organization involved. For all of those on stage, this night will be the culmination of nearly a year’s worth of hard work.
Launched in 2013, United Way ‘s Social Innovation Accelerator helps encourage the creation of bold new solutions for age-old community problems.
Many established non-profits can’t feasibly change course or divert resources to explore new offerings, explained Jennifer Sampson, McDermott Templeton President and CEO of United Way of Metropolitan Dallas. “So we created the Social Innovation Accelerator to help bring new ideas to life. “
The program invests in local initiatives that address issues of Education, Income and Health—what Sampson calls “the building blocks of opportunity”—and provides the critical resources needed for these ventures to grow and succeed.
But the process is not a simple one. This is no “submit an application, get a check” kind of deal. Participants must complete an intense boot camp curriculum specifically designed to set up the organizations for future success.
Over months of serious prep work, participants refine their business plans, set milestone goals and receive one-on-one mentoring from experienced professionals strategically paired based on expertise and need.
Seed funding is tied the completion of program activities and the achievement of milestone goals. And those who excel are selected to participate in the annual social innovation competition.
“The Social Innovation Accelerator has been instrumental in a number of ways,” said Michael Thomas, Executive Director of My Possibilities. “Between the mentors, our peers and the content provided, it took an idea 7 or 8 months ago and escalated it very quickly to a reality inside its first year.”
“It’s been a great experience,” said Aidee Granados, Founder and CEO of Rosa es Rojo. “We’ve changed many things and today we have real clarity on what we need to work on to grow and touch more lives.”
Tech start-up Student Success Agency sees a real difference in the program compared to other accelerators that merely focus on growth and scale.
“I think there’s something really powerful that there’s a heart piece to it,” said EJ Carrion, Co-founder and CEO. “If you’re doing something meaningful and fighting a mission, there’s an accelerator out there that focuses on making an impact and not just how big a business you can grow.”
Competing to Make a Difference
One of the things that makes United Way’s social innovation competition so compelling is the way it gets the public rooting for these organizations to succeed.
By its very nature, the competitive event has excitement built-in—it feels like the pursuit of venture capital funding except it plays out on stage and the winner gets a huge, oversized check. But part of the intrigue also stems from the fact that the first $75,000 is awarded by an online vote.
Participants make social videos to tell their organization’s stories and for one week before the live event, viewers get to cast a vote for their favorites. The personal stories often inspire devoted followings and the ability for the individual to affect how the money is awarded gets many emotionally invested.
In addition to competing for prize money, the live event gives participants the opportunity to showcase the good their organization is doing in the community. Last year, over 1,000 people attended, and afterward, many told Sampson they’d like to get more involved in the efforts.
“It absolutely drives more interest,” Sampson said. “We’re giving these social entrepreneurs a platform to tell their story in front of a completely new audience. In many cases, people in the audience, their heartstrings are pulled … and they want to get involved.”
On the night of the event, competitors will have their work cut out for them. Each will give a five minute pitch in an effort to convince the judges and audience to award them the prize money and the title of Social Innovator of the Year.
Judges and Audience Decide Who Wins
The judging panel will include many notable business and community leaders: emcee Anne Chow, President, National Business of AT&T, Jack D. Furst, Founder and CEO of Oak Stream Investors, Ken Hersh, President and CEO of the George W Bush Presidential Center, Sandra Phillips Rogers, Group Vice President, Chief Legal Officer, General Counsel & Corporate Secretary of Toyota Motor North America, Mary Templeton, Co-Chair of United Way’s Annual Campaign, Henry Timms, President and CEO of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, and Steven Williams, Senior VP and Chief Commercial Officer of Frito-Lay.
“It’s a lot of pressure, “ said Norma Nelson, Executive Director of Readers 2 Leaders. “But we’ve been working on our presentation for months. We’ll be ready.”
For Jennifer Tinker, Co-founder and Co-CEO of POETIC, the large audience and notable judges are just one more reason to step up her game. “The issue of sex trafficking is leading national headlines, so it’s a privilege to share POETIC’s solution on this stage.”
United Way’s social innovation competition takes place Tuesday, April 16th at Gilley’s Dallas. Online voting begins April 8th. Tickets begin at $35 and can be purchased at UnitedWayDallas.org/Innovation.
Participants in this year’s Social Innovation Competition
My Possibilities | Michael Thomas, Executive Director
My Possibilities provides adults with intellectual or developmental disabilities with a path to inclusion through continued education and community employment. Key to that success is work-experience and a new for-profit, on-site retail training center that will support people with disabilities seeking competitive employment in the community.
POETIC | Jennifer Tinker, Co-founder and Co-CEO
POETIC ends the cycle of re-victimization for juvenile justice-involved girls with a history of commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking. POETIC builds a pipeline out of the juvenile justice system and into intensive aftercare programming for girls who have experienced commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking through an intensive aftercare model that includes an on-site school, 24/7 access to their therapist and caseworker, art therapy, and paid internships.
Readers 2 Leaders | Norma Nelson, Executive Director
Readers 2 Leaders has packaged its highly successful literacy program to equip out-of-school time providers with the tools they need to integrate reading into their programs. With a model that is proven to grow and develop the reading skills of elementary school aged children, Readers 2 Leaders can now reach exponentially more kids where they are – in after-school care, soccer practice and summer camp.
Rosa es Rojo | Aidee Granados, Founder and CEO
Rosa Es Rojo makes wellness and cancer prevention accessible for the Latino women in America, starting in North Texas. The program promotes nutrition, physical activity, emotional health and positive thinking through an educational model, “The Rojo Way”, shared 100% in Spanish that enables women to apply their learning and share it with others in their community.
Student Success Agency | EJ Carrion, Co-founder and CEO
Student Success Agency is an interactive digital mentoring platform that allows students to receive on-demand access to an array of student support services traditionally offered only by school counselors during school hours. The program connects high school students with near-peer mentors via their mobile devices, providing access to quality mentoring, tutoring and college advising without the restrictions of time or place.
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