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Planting A New Type of Seed

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SEED20 SVP CharlotteThe Charlotte Observer
March 8, 2014
By Katya Lezin

“As an upstart, you need money and exposure,” says Sandy Marshall, 42, the founder of Project Scientist, a nonprofit that caters to and advocates for girls with an aptitude for science, technology, engineering and math.

Marshall is among many local innovators vying for both through the third annual SEED20 competition sponsored by Social Venture Partners, a cooperative of local philanthropists who donate money and expertise to produce positive social change in the community. SEED stands for Social Entrepreneurs EmpowereD and the competition, says Debbie Darden, SEED20 lead partner, “helps to discover, spotlight, support and help fund 20 of the most innovative ideas for building social value in our region.”

Each year, existing nonprofits or entrepreneurs with a new idea for social change apply for selection as one of the top 20 contenders, all of whom receive coaching and guidance from volunteers in the community throughout the seven weeks of training.

Julie Jones, a teacher at Cotswold Elementary whose idea for using grubs to help eliminate the waste engendered by uneaten school lunches was the grand prize ($15,000) and Coaches’ Choice ($5,000) winner at SEED20’s inaugural event in 2012. She served as a judge last year and is coaching this year.

“The biggest takeaway for me was that it was so much more than a competition,” she says. “It was a way to connect with other nonprofits and celebrate what’s happening in Charlotte.”

Many of this year’s participants agree that the connections they are able to make with each other are as valuable as the advice they are given about their ideas. Even though the participants are competing against each other for the cash prizes, the atmosphere is collegial and supportive.

“So many of us work in our own little silos,” says Sandra Guynes, 37, who runs Pearls for Creative Healing, an organization that helps victims of domestic violence heal through art expression. “It’s great to be able to connect with other nonprofits and build bridges.”

Dick Sesler, 65, started Camp Blue Skies Foundation, a nonprofit that provides overnight camp opportunities to adults with disabilities, when his son, who has Williams syndrome, aged out of the school system.

“A highlight is hearing everyone’s stories,” he says. “There’s comfort in knowing that you’re not alone.”

The growth and development that stems from this type of collaboration and coaching extends to all of the participating nonprofits, despite the fact that only ten will make it to the finals and only a subset of those will win the prizes awarded by the judges and coaches.

“You’ve won after your first coaching session,” Sesler says.

Mara Campolungo, who runs The Sandbox, said the program helped her take a fresh look at her charity, which she founded to serve the families of children with cancer of other life-threatening illnesses.

“I have been able to change my pitch, and I share whatever advice I get with all of my volunteers,” she says.

Guynes, agrees. “Your organization is very personal to you. Being able to see it from afar is so helpful. I don’t have to reinvent the wheel, I just have to add more core value.”

“This is the private sector at its best,” Sesler says. “It’s about keeping the bureaucracy out and letting individuals shine.”

The 10 finalists will get a chance to shine on March 11, when the SEED20 program culminates in SEED20 OnStage! at the Urban Garden in the Bank of America Center. Each finalist will make a three-minute pitch (a large part of the ongoing coaching is devoted to helping participants learn how to powerfully and succinctly tell their stories). They’ll speak before a panel of judges and an audience of business and nonprofit leaders, foundation executives and other community members. Social Venture Partners also hosts a showcase reception following the formal program at which the audience can interact and network with the entire SEED20 Class of 2014.

Barry Francois, 30, whose nonprofit Queen City Mobile Market builds food equity through mobile farmers markets, is not among this year’s finalists, but he feels that anyone who has gone through the SEED20 process is a winner.

“It’s like the MVP at an all-star game,” he says. “We’re all all-stars.”

DeAndra Newman, 23, whose idea to increase the use of renewable energy among low-income families also did not make the final cut, puts it best.

“No matter who wins,” she says, “the community is the big winner.”

Read the article on the Charlotte Observer here.