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AweSummit Boston: You don’t know what you don’t know

Posted by Chad O'Connor  August 9, 2012 11:00 AM

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Photo courtesy

The Awesome Foundation

The Awesome Summit occurred for the very first time at the end of last month. Aside from a great name, the AweSummit is the culmination of years of work by the Awesome Foundation, which gives $1,000 micro-grants to awesome ideas once a month in each of its many chapters. Seriously awesome. Not knowing what to expect when I arrived at the MIT Media Lab, I went with some mild expectations for the talks around micro-giving, crowdsourced funding and investing, philanthropy, social entrepreneurship, collaboration, branding and more. I got significantly more than I bargained for.

As someone who spends an inordinate amount of time on the Internet I can safely say I still only know a tiny fraction of the epic ideas and programs being organized online. I thought I’d share some of the ideas and companies that others may too be unaware of and interested in.

Start Garden: AweSummit wasn’t just about Boston – I’d argue that more people at the event were from out of town than from our greater metro region. Start Garden is one example, based in Grand Rapids, MI of how a local area can band its resources together to move ideas forward through its collective social and intellectual capital. That’s not to say the actual capital is unimportant – StartGarden has a $15M fund from which to invest in ideas - the ideas abound. As the group explains on their own site, “cultural shifts may look like giant leaps in retrospect, but they're really just thousands of small steps.” Start Garden invests $5,000 in two ideas each week in order to enable some of those early steps. The organization picks one, and the community picks the other through online endorsements. After two months, each idea must evidence doing something awesome (i.e. moving their idea forward) in order to receive another $20,000 and become a full-fledged project. After that, the sky seems to be fairly limitless with regards to the investment growing as a project grows into a small business and potentially even a big business over time. The goal is to create scalable businesses that have a clear exit strategy and the ideas don’t necessarily need to originate in Grand Rapids but the city is there to support the ideas with its resources, connections and investment.

Smallknot: I, for one, can’t wait for Smallknot to come to Boston. As founder and CEO, Jay Lee pointed out on his panel, “The Slow Funds Movement,” it’s easy to move money around the world today but it’s remarkably difficult to move it just down your street. It really is true when you think about it. Your favorite coffee shop needs a new ice machine, you love iced coffee, you would happily give them a small amount of capital to ensure your future iced coffee deliciousness but there’s no platform focused on hyper-local micro-investing. Enter Smallknot. Currently operating in NYC and South Carolina, Smallknot allows you to invest in small businesses near you – and it’s very clearly not a donation – you receive something of greater value in exchange for your investment. Small capital infusions can be hard to come by in this day and age but community-driven investments can make a huge impact for your neighborhood and your happiness.

The Harry Potter Alliance: The most entertaining speaker of the day, and one of the most insightful was Andrew Slack, founder and creator of The Harry Potter Alliance. He had some great advice for organizations based on his experience founding a nonprofit that “takes an outside-of-the-box approach to civic engagement by using parallels from the Harry Potter books to educate and mobilize young people across the world toward issues of literacy, equality and human rights.” If it was obvious through the founding principle of his organization, he is a firm believer in playfulness. On the panel he stated that, “if playfulness isn’t baked into your organization then it’s time to re-bake it.” That resonated with me as someone who works with a few non-profits, particularly around engaging young members. The more fun you’re having the more people are likely to join and actually support a cause or movement.

Karma Currency: Some of the companies I learned about weren’t even formally represented at the event. As the information sharing went on, however, people were eager to discuss other great ideas they’ve seen work around the world. Karma Currency was brought to the fore by Michael Norton of Harvard Business School – he teaches in the marketing unit there so it’s no surprise that he was the only person today who, in my view, clearly discussed the implications of essentially paying it forward as it relates back to sales team performance. It’s not a clear line connecting the two, which is why his points stuck out to me. Karma Currency creates an environment where a company provides employees with “Charity Gift Vouchers” that are then paid forward by those individuals to non-profits of their choosing. Employees feel good about giving a donation and they get the social credit for it even though it’s their company’s dollars. They also enjoy seeing their collective contributions and see each other in a new, arguably more considerate light. This, Michael explained, extends to team building as well. Give team members money to spend on themselves (a bonus, for example) and they’ll feel somewhat better but it won’t dramatically impact their performance, however, give them money to spend on one another and watch as they gel together, becoming more reliable and better performers. He has the research to back this up time and again.

Wefunder: Bringing it back to the Boston area, Wefunder’s co-founder Mike Norman presented today as well and his is an area to watch as the JOBS Act comes to fruition in the next six months enabling crowd investing. In January, startups will be able to sell small bits of themselves to investors who don’t meet the historic accreditation standards. Wefunder is built for that future and promises to bring quality ideas to investors as an intermediary a la Kickstarter. What’s also awesome is that their startup of the month right now is another local company, Gotham Bicycle Defense Industries, which has built the first theft-proof bike light. Their video is worth a look - I particularly love their waterproof testing facilities.

There were countless lessons from the panelists and attendees on leadership, community organizing, the future of jobs and work, and more. Hopefully I’ll be able to boil some of those down as well coming up!

Kate Pokorny is Director at Version 2.0 Communications and a BWP Connector.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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