Soundbites: Enabling Artist Social Entrepreneurs

Toni Johnson talks with Laura Callanan, founding partner of Upstart Co-Lab, on the topic of social entrepreneurship and its unexpected heroes.


This is Toni Johnson from Soundbites. I’m here today with Laura Callanan, the founder of Upstart Co-Lab. We’re here to discuss art and what impact investing's got to do with it. Hi Laura. 

Hey Toni, how are you? 

Very good. So Laura, let’s start by you just giving us the general overview of what Upstart Co-Lab is, how it got started, and why this is such an exciting project for you?

Well, Upstart Co-Lab is a new national collaboration connecting artists, impact investors, and social entrepreneurs to create opportunities for artist-innovators to deliver social impact at scale. 

We were talking a bit earlier about art and this idea that we have that artists are nice but [not] economically viable. Can you talk a little bit about what being a social entrepreneur means from the artist context?

Absolutely. There are artists who are working on all the same topics and issues that other social entrepreneurs are working on:

Robert Karimi, the People’s Cook, connects theater and cooking to promote health and well-being in communities of color.

Aurora Robson is a visual artist who takes plastic and recycles trash into beautiful installations that look like spun glass.

Theaster Gates is a name people know in the community development field. He’s in Chicago, where he’s been transforming empty abandoned buildings in the south side into arts-oriented community centers.

So there are examples of artists working all across the country on all types of themes, the same topics that other social entrepreneurs focus on. Gregory Sale in Arizona identifies himself as a criminal justice activist. His installation, It's Not Just Black and White, was fabricated with the help of inmates from the local jail. And the installation in the museum became an opportunity for community conversations that connected judges, parole officers, public defenders, victims' families [and] formerly incarcerated people to talk about the status of the criminal justice system, and how it can be improved. So artists are working on all the same things that other social entrepreneurs care about. 

Artists are also innovators and they have been innovating in the commercial sphere, we just don’t always recognize it. Perry Chen, one the founders of Kickstarter, is a musician and a visual artist. Two of the founders of Airbnb graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design. Just even here at the Heron Foundation, Clara Miller started as a visual artist at the University of New Hampshire and went on to innovate in the field of community finance by creating Nonprofit Finance Fund and now here at Heron, really changing the role of foundations in terms of blending grantmaking and investing in a way that has never really been done before. Rodney Christopher also here, has a background in dance and theater, has been a screen writer, and again here he is innovating in community development finance. 

And me! I have a background in theater. That’s all really interesting and my understanding from talking to you earlier is that that one of the things as you list all of these people doing all this forward-looking community level work is the need for finance and capital, the same way other social entrepreneurs do. Can you talk a little bit about how this is sort of unfolding as you go forward with this project?

Absolutely. Any social entrepreneur needs capital, skills, networks [and] access to markets, and artist social entrepreneurs are no different. What we’re finding is that there are not today mission-related investment opportunities for funders and investors who want to support art and creativity through their investment portfolio. And if we can close that gap it will allow funders who want to support creativity to have a place to put their resources and it will enable artist social entrepreneurs to really scale up what they do.

At Upstart one of our goals is to unleash more capital for creativity, and we’re approaching it in three ways:

We’re trying to take existing products that are already there in the impact investing space, and tweak them and adapt them for art and creativity. So as one example, we’ve been in conversations with the Calvert Foundation about their community investment note product and what it would look like if we opened a new theme focused on creative place-making. Creative place-making is community development that’s catalyzed by artists and arts organizations.

Another approach that we’re taking is to plug arts and creativity into the existing system for impact investing. We’ve been talking with B-Lab about what it would look like to integrate the concepts around creative intelligence, competencies of creative intelligence, into the standards for B corporations.

And we’re also looking to sort of shift the connection between concepts like creativity and sustainability. So working with Oberlin College and Arizona State University, we’re about to launch a series of conversations between academics and practitioners from the fields of creativity and sustainability to understand how creativity can move forward, fill gaps and overcome challenges. 

So how to do we sort of flip around this bad rap that art seems to have in the American psyche about its useful and utility in the economy writ large? And I know we don’t necessarily want to get into education too much, but can you talk a little bit more about how we can think about fostering creativity as part of our education process instead of having it be off to the side?

I think one of the really positive things that’s happened in the last couple of years is CEOs are recognizing the importance of creativity, and recognizing that they want a creative workforce. So The Conference Board working with Americans for the Arts did a survey of CEOs a few years back and found that creativity was one of the top five characteristics that CEOs know they need to have in their employee base. Forrester recently did a similar type of survey with global CEOs and again, came back recognizing that creativity was one of the top characteristics that's going to be important for business going forward.

Particularly in a place like the United States where we’re not an agrarian economy anymore, we’re not a manufacturing economy, we’re an ideas economy, so where do the ideas come from? You see examples where John Maeda, who had been the president of the Rhode Island School of Design, was the first venture partner with Kleiner Perkins, one of the big venture capital funds, the first venture partner who was a designer. And now there are 12, 15 designers who are in lead roles with venture capital firms all up and down Sand Hill Road.

So I think that if we look at the demand for creative intelligence and design thinking, if we recognize the examples of what artists are already doing, and what designers are already doing, the companies they’re starting. There are B corporations like Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams started by Jeni Britton Bauer. Jeni trained as a visual artist as well, and has found that ice cream, that food, is really the vehicle through which she’s expressing her creativity. I think if we look at those examples and we have sort of that set of stories and data, that that’s going to disabuse this assumption that artists are doing something nice but not necessary. I think increasingly, people are recognizing that bringing artists into important conversations, including conversations around topics like climate change, is very important to having an optimistic outlook about how we can overcome some of the challenges that we’re facing today. 

I like this idea of nice but necessary and I love that you brought up climate change because I really do think that it’s a problem that will require all of our creativity and imagination to survive. Is there anything else you have top of my mind that you’d like to say to our listeners? Any lessons learned or passing thoughts? 

I don’t think you can put artists in a box. There’s an artist named Matt Moore, he’s a fourth generation family farmer. He’s one of the folks leading his family farm, but he’s also a filmmaker, a visual artist, and I’ve just followed his path over the last five years. So he has museum exhibitions but he also now is looking to address the questions around sustainable food through an affordable, $20 dollar a plate farm to table restaurant in the Phoenix area. The idea that sustainable food, organic food is not just for people who can afford to go to some of the ritzy restaurants in the Bay Area, but it should be something people can do once a week as a matter of course for the entire family. So here’s someone who self-identifies as an artist, has been using his art to address questions and issues that he sees as a farmer, and is now becoming an entrepreneur to find another way to work on these same issues. And obviously the way the restaurant is being designed and the way the project is being conceived is a little bit different because he’s bringing his artist mindset to it. 

Wonderful, well thank you so much Laura. 

Thanks Toni. 

For this is Toni Johnson. 

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