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Social enterprise plans under way in Asheville

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9/11/2012 - Social enterprise plans under way in Asheville
by Dale Neal - Asheville Citizen Times

 ASHEVILLE -- Social entrepreneurs are the business types who don't worry what can go wrong with their business plans, but ask "why not?"

 That's how Michael Wilkerson, a Stanford University graduate and Rhodes Scholar, explained how he started his own for-profit business in Uganda, making loans to motorcycle taxi drivers to pay for their own cycles and make more money for their families.

What's happening in Uganda is happening as well in Asheville, Wilkerson said Monday at the Masonic Temple in downtown Asheville. About 170 local entrepreneurs, investors and others attended VentureAsheville's first networking event aimed at businesses that focus on social benefits as well as profits.

VentureAsheville is the Asheville Chamber of Commerce's initiative to support entrepreneurs of all sorts, but Pam Lewis, the chamber's director of entrepreneurship, said social enterprise is a natural fit for Asheville.

Those entrepreneurs who ask "why not" are paving a middle path between nonprofits that perform social good -- but rely on subsidies or charitable donations -- and for-profit businesses that must provide returns to investors -- sometimes at the expense of the environment, workers or communities.

"Social enterprises and Asheville make a unique combination. There's an incredible amount of creativity and heart here. We want to do good, and we want to do well," said Matthew Abrams.

Abrams plans to open the Mycelliam School next spring, a hands-on experience for entrepreneurs ages 18-35 who are interested in solving social problems through for-profit businesses.

Many of Abrams' students ideas could wind up at Sara Day Evans' Gritty Works, a social benefits accelerator that plans to help new companies find capital investment. Gritty Works, due to launch in the summer of 2013, could take on up to 20 entrepreneurs from Western North Carolina in areas such as farming, food, forestry and fiber products.

Funding remains a problem for entrepreneurs such as Beth Hohensee of Studio Flora Diva, who finally found financing with Self-Help Credit Union.

"Creatives need funding, too. I had lots of slammed doors in my face because I was doing something other than make widgets," Hohensee said.

There is patient capital out there for such ventures, said Jane Hatley of Self-Help Credit Union, which focuses on loans in areas such as child care and green businesses that are creating jobs at a faster clip during a slow recovery.

The largest and oldest network of angel investors interested in "impact businesses" is based in Durham. Justin Desrosiers, the director of strategy and operations at Investors' Circle, said the return on investment is measured not just in money but in real good.

Investors' Circle has invested more than $152 million and leveraged $4 billion of follow-on investment into 250 enterprises and funds dedicated to enterprises that improve education, health, energy and community.

"We really look at the business model and how the impact on the community is completely intertwined," said Desrosiers, who suggested Asheville may be ripe for a chapter of angel investors connected to the network.

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