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Minnesota social entrepreneurs combine business, philanthropy and personal involvement

Nearly 400 social entrepreneurs and social investors from around Minnesota gathered in Minneapolis to spend the day networking, brainstorming, inspiring and being inspired.

“I think it was a home run,” beamed Brad Brown, executive director of Social Venture Partners-Minnesota, summing up a day-long gathering of nearly 400 social entrepreneurs and social investors from around Minnesota.

Attendees at the group’s third annual meeting June 17 in downtown Minneapolis had spent an entire day networking, brainstorming, trading ideas, inspiring and being inspired. The topic of the day was how they and their organizations could build an environmentally sustainable economy.

But Brown’s goal, and the goal of the network of Social Venture Partners affiliates around the country, is to promote what they call engaged philanthropy where  funders or ‘investors’ are directly and personally involved with the organizations and causes they support. “The core [idea is that individuals] not just give dollars but their skills,” Brown explained.

It was also a busy day of awards and recognition for Minnesota’s social entrepreneurs.

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Former Medtronic Chairman and CEO Winston Wallins was recognized as the inaugural recipient of Minnesota’s “Engaged Philanthropist” award for his long involvement in the community, including the Wallin Education Partners that provides scholarships, advising and personal support to help deserving Minnesota high school students navigate through college and graduate. As testimony to the programs’ impact, in making the award it was pointed out that one of Wallin’s former students, Nestor Amarilla, who moved from his native Paraguay to attend Fridley High School and Metropolitan State, has been nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature.

The keynote speaker at the forum was Majora Carter, founder of Sustainable South Bronx, an organization that provides “green collar” job training and placement with the goal of “greening the ghetto,” who urged the audience to make a difference in their own communities.

Springboard for the Arts, a St. Paul-based non-profit that helps artists in Minnesota “make a living and a life,” received top honors in the Social Entrepreneurs’ Cup and a $20,000 grant. The organization was recognized for the launch of its Artists’ Access to Healthcare initiative to help uninsured and underinsured artists receive medical care.

Springboard Executive Director Laura Zabel said they originally set out to provide health insurance to self-employed artists, but told the audience in a repeated refrain that they realized “it’s not about health insurance, it’s about health care.”

The runner up for the Entrepreneurs’ Cup, receiving $5,000, was Patrick Delaney, co-founder of Bright New Ideas, which designs, manufactures and distributes affordable solar-powered LED lamp systems for people without access to electricity.

Receiving $1,500 each for honorable mention were Matthew Sanford, founder of MindBody Solutions, which provides adaptive yoga for people with disabilities, and Erin Binder, co-founder of Acara Institute, which brings college students and industry experts together to tackle problems of access to water and energy in developing countries.

Brown summed up the day:  “Great engagement, great energy, great participation!  I’m very, very pleased,” he beamed before hurrying off to meet with guests and attendees.

Social Venture Partners International is a network of 25 local chapters whose members come together to make grants and provide their time and skills to non-profits they support.

The phenomenon of social entrepreneurship has gotten attention over the past few years as individuals use their organizational and business skills to tackle seemingly intractable social problems. Perhaps the best-know example is Grameen Bank. The bank provides credit to the poorest of the poor in rural Bangladesh. Started by economics professor Muhammad Yunis,  and for which he was awarded the Noble Peace Prize in 2006, the bank has more than 8 million borrowers, 97 percent of whom are women.