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Social Entrepreneurship Ecosystem program enables the triple bottom line: people, planet and profit


Entrepreneurs addressing the region’s long-standing social challenges now have customized tools and assistance to create businesses, new jobs and social impact, as well as achieve financial success, with the Social Entrepreneurship Ecosystem (SEE) Appalachia.

Since its May 2017 launch, SEE has assisted more than 90 startups and small enterprises that address the most important social challenges facing Appalachia. Program participants have already created 68 jobs and achieved more than $9 million in resources.

Led by Ohio University’s Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs, SEE is a partnership with Foundation for Appalachian Ohio, Parkersburg Area Community Foundation, Rural Action and experienced local expert consultants. SEE covers 13 counties in Ohio and West Virginia.

“SEE is focused on the overlooked social sector – which is the third largest contributor to the American economy and provides greater than 10 percent of the US jobs. SEE is changing how rural areas approach economic development by helping communities grow local economies from the ground up,” said Faith Knutsen, SEE director.

SEE focuses on social enterprises, which combine social mission with market-driven revenue. SEE provides its clients with no-cost professional advisory services and capital access to syndicated loans or impact investment.

“Ohio University is changing the narrative and improving the strategies for expanding economic development to the social sector in the Appalachian region through the entrepreneurship opportunities fostered by this social enterprise ecosystem,” said Ohio University President M. Duane Nellis. “We are proud of the impact we are seeing within our region, the state of Ohio and the nation related to these partnerships.”

Initially funded as a pilot program by the Appalachian Regional Commission’s POWER initiative, SEE has received two grants totaling $1.05 million.

"This is one of many projects which continue support for the work already underway to create new opportunities for those living in communities hardest hit by changes in the coal industry,” said ARC Federal Co-Chair Tim Thomas. “Investments like these are a commitment to long-term diversification and economic growth in Appalachian Ohio and West Virginia.”

SEE is staffed by Voinovich School professionals, foundation and community grant experts, and a team of Ohio University student researchers.

“Secure, self-assured reentry into the workforce is a key factor for most individuals in recovery – and Serenity Grove’s client services toward this vital social goal wouldn’t have happened without SEE’s enterprise development help,” said Dr. Sheila Williams, president of the board of directors of Women for Recovery and a co-founder of their 2018 startup Serenity Grove, a women’s residential recovery home that helps address the significant regional demand for women’s recovery services.

SEE’s successful model is also attracting the attention of economic developers nationwide. The program’s representatives recently presented at seven regional, national and international conferences, describing their successful application of enterprise development tools to the social sector, the powerful “Social Return on Investment” impact measurement tool, and the region’s collaborative approach to impact investment.

“The real power in SEE’s social impact methodology is that it translates the social value of investing in our Civic Leaders Fellowship initiative in a very tangible and standardized way that investors can understand: ‘for every dollar invested in the program, we achieve $33 of social impact.’ Engaging investors to support this initiative enhances workforce development and regional retention of our next generation,” Judy Sjostedt, director of Parkersburg Area Community Foundation, a SEE collaborating institution, said.

For Rural Action, SEE has provided a partner in regional sustainability. Collaborative work by the Voinovich School and Rural Action staff enabled grant and impact investment funding for a public-private partnership in alternative energy installation that created three jobs and is currently finishing a $1.6 million solar installation on local Federal Hocking High School.

"Rural Action's partnership in the SEE program is a natural fit for us. The emphasis on bottom-up economic development aligns closely with our asset-based approach to development. Our three social enterprises have grown substantially, and benefit by being part of a larger ecosystem focused on social enterprise creation and a just transition for our region," Rural Action CEO Debbie Phillips said. 

In addition to SEE’s strong, ongoing partnership with individual and institutional regional impact investors, the program is strengthening ties to the Appalachian Funder’s Network and the growing Impact Appalachia fund.

“The collaborative relationship between our foundation, Ohio University, and all our community partners has helped strengthen not just the social enterprises served by SEE, but the entirety of our communities in Appalachia. We are grateful for Ohio University’s leadership and innovation in advancing regional prosperity,” Cara Dingus Brook, CEO, Foundation for Appalachian Ohio, said.