PSU Impact Entrepreneurs host Elevating Impact Summit

The PSU Impact Entrepreneurs club held their first-ever Elevating Impact Summit in the Gerding Theater last Friday, bringing together more than 300 young entrepreneurs and students for a day of networking and panel discussions, and a shot at a $1,000 startup fund.

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The PSU Impact Entrepreneurs club held their first-ever Elevating Impact Summit in the Gerding Theater last Friday, bringing together more than 300 young entrepreneurs and students for a day of networking and panel discussions, and a shot at a $1,000 startup fund.

The event, which featured a keynote address from Oregon Secretary of State Kate Brown, echoed the mission statement of the PSU School of Business Administration’s Impact Entrepreneurs—to enact social change through business practices, inspire entrepreneurial action through networking with forward-thinking companies, and encourage community-based business practices throughout economies of various sizes.

“What we see, both here in the Northwest and in the rest of the world, is a real need for access to capital,” said Scott Onder, senior manager of lending at Mercy Corps Northwest, explaining a main theme of the conference.

“Look at impact investment. These entrepreneurs are creative and resourceful people that have a vision and are willing to take a risk to bring sustainable, scalable work to help solve the world’s problems.”

Impact investment, Onder explained, often finds investors giving money to businesses or organizations with an expectation of social gain, as opposed to financial returns alone. But unlike philanthropy, investments are still expected to net a benefit for both investors and investees.

This approach has been used in countries like India, where investors deploy small-scale financing to individuals and women bankers in an effort to foster financial independence for vulnerable groups who would otherwise be crippled by debt. The goal is to both produce gains for businesses through new production and help alleviate the social conditions that enable inequality and poverty in developing economies.

But while many of the world’s leading impact investors look to developing economies for their investment, the practice can also be found throughout the United States; it was on display during the summit’s first panel, which served as a social-innovation pitch-fest.

During the event, five young entrepreneurs each gave three-minute pitch presentations to a board of investors. The board included Onder and Portland State’s Angela Jackson, who oversees the PSU Business Accelerator and directs the Portland Seed Fund, an investment company that seeks to fund startup, “seed-stage” companies throughout Oregon. After the presentations, audience members used their cellphones to vote for their favorite project, with the winner receiving a $1,000 grant and legal and startup counsel.

The pitches came from a wide array of organizations. Sarah Deluca’s ReWear seeks to recycle fabrics and materials from discarded and outgrown clothes into new outfits affordable for underprivileged families (a practice known as “upcycling”). Flagto!, another company at the summit, helps businesses in developing economies by incorporating them into a GPS-enabled white pages-type directory on the Internet.

After each pitch presentation, the entrepreneurs were questioned by the panel of investors. Some questions emphasized the need for a business plan, while others directly addressed the practices of the presenters.

One of these exchanges was with Andy Kim of Pacific Green Development, a startup that looks to offset the carbon footprint of the construction industry by using “hempcrete,” a carbon-negative concrete alternative.

“It all sounds great to me,” Onder said to Kim, “but I want to know why you are sourcing your material from Canada and not the U.S.?” Kim described the difficulty of obtaining the material in the U.S. and its fledgling status as a feasible building product.

The winner of the pitch-fest was, a medical-industry crowd funding organization set up by Molly Lindquist after she survived breast cancer and realized her two daughters would go through life with a one-in-three chance of getting the disease.

The summit continued with a series of overlapping panels that featured local entrepreneurs as well as faces from the SBA such as Jeanne Enders, the SBA’s associate dean for undergraduate programs, and Christina Williams, the communications director for PSU’s Institute for Sustainable Solutions.

One panel focused on PSU Provost Sona Andrews’ “ReThink PSU” program, which sought open entries from students and staff that address problems and create innovative ideas around higher education and the growth of the university. The entries were diverse, and included everything from mobile learning resources to an open textbook-publishing program at PSU to help reduce rising textbook costs for students.

“Clearly we have a vested interest in creating an entrepreneurial environment within academia,” Andrews said. “But we also can’t forget to actually be entrepreneurial in what we do in higher education,” she added. The sentiment found plenty of agreement that day.

“Younger and older people are the answer, not the problem,” said Mark Holloway, the executive director of Social Venture Partners Portland, as he looked over the eager-faced, all-ages crowd. “And we have that on display today. Who better has the insight and experience into organizing and leading change? And who else has the passion and energy to enact it?”