Philly Geeks: The Scene That Gives Back

Forget Silicon Valley. Philly can carve its own niche as the socially-minded startup city

In February, venture capitalists, entrepreneurs and non-profit employees gathered at a coworking space in New York’s Tribecca neighborhood to chat “Social Entrepreneurship:” businesses that focus as much on social good as the bottom line.

Halfway through the event, organized by Philadelphia’s Good Company Ventures, an audience member asked what city should serve as the center of this social entrepreneurship movement. A surprising number people immediately responded, “Philadelphia.”

It’s no secret that most large America cities are vying to be “The next Silicon Valley.” This typically means a focus on early stage technology and Internet startups, some of which—hopefully—become large employers drawing lots of young, highly educated taxpayers.

While Philly has no shortage of people clamoring for an effort to remake the city into a “Philicon Valley,” recent trends indicate that the city’s entrepreneurial community is busy carving out a different niche in the nation’s technology environment: startups focused on social good, not just the bottom line.

This isn’t an uphill battle, the city is home to some of the leaders in the field of Social Entrepreneurship. Here are some of the local players working to use technology and business to make Philadelphia—and the world—a better place:

Good Company Ventures – The Center City-based incubator nurtures business that focus social good in addition to profits. In its second year, previous grads include BlackGold Biofuels a Philly-based startup that converts sewer waste into usable biodiesel. Good Company is also spreading the idea of Philly as the center for this social business movement holding launch events in New York.

Murex Investments – Working closely with Good Company (partner Jacob Gray is on GCV’s board), Murex is raising a $50 million fund focused exclusively on companies that fall within the “social good” category.

Geeks Who Give – Not a startup, but a group of local techies headed by Kara LaFleur working to organize events like food drives and video game nights to collect school supplies. Last year the group worked to provide mentors for Philadelphia Futures and took advantage of social media and local watering holes to organize successful fundraising events.

B Corporation – Based in Berwyn, B Corp. is providing a way for companies to embed social good into the legal structure of the business. So far the city has created a tax break for sustainable business and a handful of states have passed “B corp. legislation” providing tax incentives for business that meet certain requirements, such as serving low-income individuals or promoting “the advancement of knowledge.”

DunkTank – The recently launched side project of Chap Ambrose and Blake Jennelle offers a new way to fun raise via embarrassing dares (see our detailed coverage here). So far so good: Jennelle alone has raised over $1,000 in less than two weeks. Jennelle has also been a big believer in socially conscience business, founding Missioneurs.

Code for America -The non-partisan organization founded by Web 2.0 movers and shakers selected five cities to participate in the the countrywide effort to use software to improve society. While not Philly specific, being chosen as one of the five participating cities speaks volumes about the city’s technology community while giving it another chance to improve the city so bogged down by technology problems.

In an interview with Technically Philly local venture capitalist and entrepreneur Josh Kopelman urged against trying to closely copy any other city.

“New York has a great Chinatown, Philly has a strong Chinatown,” he said, “and they’re good Chinatowns. But stop trying to compete with China.”

Kopelman has a point. It will take Philly years to build the infrastructure of the West Coast, but when it comes to socially-minded entrepreneurs the infrastructure is already in place.