The accidental incubator

At the heart of every social enterprise is the desire to inspire others to make the world a better place. In a global economy where unemployment is up, wages are down and debt is rising, a new wave of successful social entrepreneurship are attempting not just to offer fixes to social ills but also to empower individuals to launch their own solutions, small businesses, creative endeavours, and local projects.

It can be hard to get the resources required to get an idea off the ground, and this is where three innovative companies have stepped in. They’re offering, in varying ways, time, funds, frameworks, and mentorship to motivated social entrepreneurs.

One is a radically new kind of property management company, the London-based Dot Dot Dot, which offers dirt-cheap housing to ‘guardians’ in exchange for extensive volunteer efforts that have real effects on the block and beyond. Another is a groundbreaking cafe and caterer in a much-maligned section of Toronto whose staff receives professional chef training and who offer start-up support for artisanal food producers. And outside Stockholm, the social incubator program Starta Farsta has already helped a number of young people launch new enterprises. It’s a virtuous circle of good works.

Paintbox Bistro

Regent Park is a social housing complex in downtown Toronto that has experienced profound growth over the last several years. “The neighbourhood is changing a great deal,” says Chris Klugman, the owner of Paintbox Catering and Bistro, a café operation, training and career-development track, and food-business incubator program. “Regent Park is really becoming part of the city, whereas formerly it was isolated by virtue of the infrastructure and social ramifications of being subsidized housing.”

Chef Klugman explains that the city of Toronto established a mandate for new businesses to have a social benefit to residents — which fits nicely with Paintbox’s B Corp agenda of hiring and supporting local community members and groups. The restaurant’s staff is primarily recruited from the area; kitchen workers receive professional cooking-school instruction, and the incubator arm of the venture has so far launched a gelato company, handmade pies, dumplings, vegan kimchee, and Ethiopian snacks among others.

“The businesses range from small catering operations to foods for retail sale, and include products provided to Paintbox for our bistro and catering programs,” Klugman says. “I am proud to say that some of my key colleagues in managing the business started as trainees.”

Dot Dot Dot

“I think there’s a lot to be said for approaching property management in a human way rather than a purely economic way,” says Katharine Hibbert, director at Dot Dot Dot. While Hibbert’s organization assists UK real estate companies in finding tenants for empty residential and commercial spaces, Dot Dot Dot’s guardians are required to volunteer at least 16 hours per month in exchange for inexpensive living costs (rents run from £45 to £75 weekly). Cheap housing means more free hours in the day to volunteer time and professional skills; guardians engage in their own charitable efforts, as well as in projects to beautify and secure properties, and create community goodwill.

“The voluntary efforts that guardians make directly in the neighbourhoods where they live make a huge difference,” says Hibbert. “Tidying up gardens or litter-picking, for example, to make the place look nicer, or putting on public events like picnics and even hula-hooping classes.” With volunteering at the core of the company’s mission, Dot Dot Dot aims to inspire everyone to improve their own lives – and those living next door.

Starta Farsta

In 2014, a public-funded pilot program called Vi är Farsta established Starta Farsta, an initiative to support independent projects created by youths from Farsta, a suburb just south of Stockholm. There’s high unemployment in the town, and an newly-arrived population who can feel disenfranchised.

Farsta suffers from something of an “image problem,” says Starta Farsta CEO Martin Vercouter (himself a former Vi är Farsta intern). “Throughout our activities, we have noticed a sense of pride taken by our participants and partners in disproving that image. We are still having an impact mostly on an individual level, but these in turn influence the community around them,” he says.

Starta Farsta’s social incubator program has birthed projects as varied as a clothing line, a web design bureau and fashion publication, acrobatics classes, and kids’ sports coaching. Vercouter has learned that the most imperative ingredient in a project like Starta Farsta is support and community. “Impact can not happen in isolation,” he says. “If you want to make a difference in your community, ally yourself with the people who are going to make that possible. The important thing is to remember that you can’t do it alone.”