Buzzing beneath the surface of Charlotte's traditional, button-down culture is an army of innovators who see the world just a little bit differently.
They're all about action, not talk. They are visionary and passionate, more interested in accomplishing their mission than being well-known. Their purpose is creating solutions, not wealth.
They are the vanguard of a burgeoning movement known as social entrepreneurship, often backed by another relatively new phenomenon, venture philanthropy. They use business strategies to build nonprofits that solve community problems.
They are people like Julie Jones. Jones is a second-grade teacher at Cotswold Elementary. Each day in the school cafeteria, she would see trash can after trash can fill up with the kids' leftover food. She knew this was happening at each of the 200 or so other schools in Mecklenburg County, and it bothered her. Food waste makes up about 75 percent of what goes into local landfills, Jones says.
A naturalist at heart, Jones hatched a plan: Collect food waste from schools and restaurants and feed it to grubs, those voracious little worms. The grubs become big and fat, and filled with protein. That makes them the perfect delicacy for local farms to feed to chicken and fish. We eat the chicken and fish, completing the circle. Besides cutting food waste in landfills, Jones also plans to use her group, called Grub to Grub, to teach kids about reducing food waste, and about social change.
A $20,000 winner
Grub to Grub was a big winner Tuesday night. Jones won $20,000 at an unprecedented event for Charlotte: Ten nonprofit finalists, culled from 82 applicants and 20 semifinalists, competed for prize money. In a cross between American Idol and speed dating, the 10 organization leaders gave dynamic, three-minute presentations about their idea. A five-judge panel critiqued them, and the judges and the audience then picked winners.
The event, called Seed20, was a creation of Social Venture Partners, a group of more than 80 Charlotte area residents hungry to have their philanthropy mean more than just writing a check. SVP takes a venture capital approach to investing in nonprofits. Besides giving money, partners get involved with their grantees, serving on boards, providing strategic direction, helping them make connections.
The energy at Seed20 was palpable. All 10 finalists had concocted intriguing proposals - from keeping female ex-felons out of prison by employing them at coffee carts, to lending tools to nonprofits for community projects - and presented them forcefully. They'll receive ongoing training and other help, and they and their supporters will build a network that over time could transform this community.
Changing the world, one bite at a time
We all wring our hands over the state of political life today and think: Why are our elected bodies incapable of tackling society's problems? Government hasn't solved our biggest challenges. Neither has the free market. The social entrepreneurs at Seed20 are change agents pioneering new ways of approaching old problems.
Are you a liberal do-gooder? This is for you - people doing innovative things to help people in need. Are you a conservative tired of big government and high taxes? This is for you - private individuals using private money to pick up where government can't or won't or shouldn't, and reducing needy people's use of tax dollars.
Many of us feel stymied about solving America's problems because they're so big and complex and, we think, demand such big and complex solutions. The troubles around education, health care, poverty and budget deficits have been building for decades and each have a dozen causes. We feel powerless to do anything.
The truth, though, is that there is no silver bullet. You break off a manageable piece of a problem and take one tiny step at a time. Listen to the Seed20 finalists and you might think: You're building a garden? That's not exactly going to stave off the rise of China. And it won't. But it will do a little bit of good, in a little corner of the world. Multiply that by a dozen, or hundreds or thousands, and you have people making a real difference in real lives. These initiatives shouldn't be dismissed because they're small, but celebrated.
Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx, who's at almost every ribbon-cutting or groundbreaking, told the Seed20 crowd that this movement "is exactly what the doctor ordered for the city of Charlotte. ... Tonight is every bit as important as any economic development announcement we've ever had."
That's because companies rise and fall. But innovative ideas from truly passionate people - that can change the world.