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MI Social Entrepreneurship Challenge Offers Prizes, Pitch Opportunities

Michigan Corps, a non-profit organization supporting social innovation, and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation yesterday kicked off the 2014 Michigan Social Entrepreneurship Challenge, a statewide business competition with $60,000 in prizes—and more—on the line.
It’s the competition’s second year, and Michigan Corps’ executive director Elizabeth Garlow says this time around, there are “tons” of new sponsors and an emphasis on helping social entrepreneurs get their startups investment-ready. Garlow also says the contest is doubling down on Detroit and Flint, with special prize tracks and events dedicated to each city. “In Detroit and Flint, the challenges are pretty well known,” Garlow explains, adding that competition organizers are especially interested in entrepreneurs working on solutions to chronic unemployment. “With problems of this scale, people are coming to the understanding that government can’t solve them alone, and the private sector can’t solve them alone. The best ideas come from people who are actually working in the community.”

The Michigan Social Entrepreneurship Challenge calls for applicants from brand-new or existing startups that are working to find sustainable solutions to complex, clearly defined social issues. Once teams and individuals apply, they’re eligible to attend online classes and statewide networking events to help develop their ideas until the May 30 deadline. A social entrepreneurship summit announcing the winners will take place in June, with the date and place to be announced.

This year, competition finalists will be admitted to Michigan Corps’ Impact Investment Fellowship, a four-month training program that readies startups for investments of over $50,000. Held over the summer, participating startups will receive mentoring and other in-kind services to prepare them for investment, as well as the opportunity to pitch their startup ideas to local and out-of-state investors. “I’ve had conversations with a number of individual investors in Michigan, and they increasingly want to invest in entrepreneurs with a positive effect on the community,” Garlow says. “Our goal is to try to create deal flow for them and help connect the dots.”

Garlow says Michigan’s approach, where government, non-profit organizations, and private sector businesses work together to foster social entrepreneurship, is gaining traction in other states. Orange County, CA, recently announced its own social entrepreneurship competition that is modeled after Michigan’s. “I think Michigan is exporting this model and importing investment,” Garlow says. “It’s unique to see organizations outside of academia working together to solve longstanding social challenges. There’s a complete blurring of what we know to be public-sector and private-sector problems, and it’s really fertile ground where entrepreneurs can flourish.”

Last year, 150 of the 300 registered applicants submitted fully fleshed-out ideas, drawing more than $1 million in new financial commitments from investors. Garlow expects to see an uptick this year, with the competition now offering training webinars online to help guide applicants through the process. “We’re doing more this year to use a small amount of money to catalyze greater investment,” Garlow says.

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