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Public Good X Creativity

Impact Hub San Francisco


Impact Hub San Francisco


After the 2008 financial tsunami exposed the destructive nature of vulture capitalism, a new breed of social entrepreneurs sprang up in Silicon Valley who champion collaboration and networking to make the world a better place.



Impact Hub San Francisco

By Sofia Lee
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 561 )

For the past half century, the San Francisco Bay Area has been a paradise for young startup founders. However, in recent years, the once extremely profit-driven startup community has evolved into a driving force for social and environmental change.

The bust of the early 2000s followed by the financial meltdown on Wall Street in 2008 was a wake-up call for many young entrepreneurs. The crisis prompted them to rethink their priorities – instead of rejoining the race for profits they wanted to pioneer new innovative types of socially engaged enterprises.

C.K. Cheng, cofounder of pan-Pacific venture capital firm Harbinger Venture, who has been active in Silicon Valley for more than two decades, feels the atmospheric shift. "Nowadays young people are not so thirsty for money anymore; talking about money is uncool."

The millennials or Generation Y have a sense of mission. They found startups and work for the public good, becoming the newest trend in the Bay Area.

To "enliven education," "promote small farming," or "protect water resources" are typical mission statements for startups that have joined the Impact Hub in San Francisco, also known as SoMa Hub.

The hub is a co-working space, which was founded to meet the needs of fledgling social entrepreneurs. Its London-based mother company Impact Hub was founded in 2006.

Meanwhile, impact hubs have opened in over 50 cities across five continents. They view themselves as a global collaborative network of more than 7,000 professionals who are devoted to making a difference.

Launched in 2009, three years later than its mother company, Soma Hub has already grown into the largest impact hub, with more than 900 members.

Sharing is important for the social entrepreneurs of the digital age. This sense of community is reflected in the hub's design.

A giant "Welcome" greets visitors from the wall inside the entrance lobby, followed by the hubber credo: "We are a global community taking collaborative action to drive positive social and environmental change."

For a monthly fee of just US$70 (about NT$2,000) community members can use the hub's office space and its amenities, which not only allows them to save on operating expenses but also opens up opportunities for collaboration and mutual support. The hub users are not assigned a fixed workspace. All desks can be moved around when the situation requires, such as spontaneous discussions or brainstorming.

When Katie Hubner first joined the hub three years ago, she attempted to figure out the does and don'ts. "What are the guidelines for using the printer?" she asked. "How many sheets of paper can I use?" Perplexed hub employees would answer, "We are a community!" which made her feel comfortable and truly welcome.

Shared Values Generate Tangible Effects

Hubner's company helps small farmers in Africa improve crop yields and raise living standards. While some 90 percent of her colleagues live across Africa, Hubner chose to work in San Francisco because the Californian city gives her a sense of belonging. "The atmosphere in San Francisco is different from New York. People here help you, they believe in you," Hubner points out.

Leigh Rodwick, director of marketing at Impact Hub San Francisco, explains that new members need to elaborate on the social impact of their enterprises to make sure that experiences and ideas are shared across the community.

When a fashion startup team joined, they were reminded to incorporate the concept of sustainable management and scrutinize working conditions throughout the supply chain. Even fashion, which is not exactly a charitable industry, can drive positive social change.

Social enterprises usually do not have ample resources and capital, but the collaboration and sharing that are typical of the community create synergies.

Hubner, for instance, struggled handling her company's finances because she lacked any financial background. One day, when she chatted with another hubber, she found out that he was a chief financial officer. He immediately offered his advice, helping Hubner to get through this difficult period.

Sharing experiences and fostering cluster effects are not the only benefits of impact hubs. A shared vision and values also makes fundraising much easier.

The curriculum sharing network Uclass has cooperation partners in 35 countries. After moving into the SoMa Hub, the founders used the community network to raise US$1.5 million in funding.

Zak Ringelstein, one of the Uclass co-founders, notes that it is easier to find likeminded investors through the hubber community because they all want to make an impact on society.

The closely knit social enterprise community in Silicon Valley has already become such a force that even Google and the San Francisco city government are taking note.

In July, Google picked 25 social enterprise startup teams and subsidized their move into Impact Hub SoMa to help them grow.

The San Francisco city government has integrated the SoMa hub into its 10-year urban redevelopment plan. The hub has its base in the old San Francisco Chronicle building that had been sitting vacant due to industrial change before the young social entrepreneurs, arts organizations, technology startups and others began to try out new workspaces there. With the arrival of this young creative crowd, the neighborhood got a new lease on life as restaurants and shops began to spring up all around it.

In this community, the public good is not just lip service; it is a shared value. As these young people join hands locally and around the world, pairing creativity with the mission of making the world a better place, change comes true.

Demand for social enterprise talent is growing because these entrepreneurs address social issues that neither government nor traditional businesses regard as their domain, and because they see opportunities to make a difference.

Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz