I believe that technology can be both very profitable and used for social good at the same time. I am a new breed of entrepreneur out to set some significant benchmarks in this area.
I grew up surrounded my nuns who had a very strong sense of justice. They took a vow of poverty without being judgmental, and they did quiet acts of great service. They were my mother’s friends and when I was a child they graciously spent patient time babysitting me. Moved by their simplicity and the visible effects of their actions, I considered being a nun when I was a teenager. My friend, herself a nun, said to me: “you can do good on any path you choose Carmen.” I wanted to be able to have sex and kids and so I took her wise advice.
As a young adult, I studied International Relations and dreamt of being an ambassador or human rights lawyer to help with international relations. One day my professor asked me: “Will you feel comfortable implementing the policies of your country if you disagree morally with some of the policies to be implemented?” That killed that idea.
In the end I thought art did much to speak out about the human condition. I saw the nonprofit sector as an important force in the United States for social good. I studied nonprofit and arts administration in graduate school.
Working in the field, I saw power struggles, over-influential donors, intelligent women gutted by long days, high expectations and little pay. Over the years, deeply entrenched, I came to see the limits of the sector.
Today, I stand here, an odd mixture of all these things: a social entrepreneur. I believe we need to take the best of startup for-profit businesses and empowering individuals and merge that energy with community-minded nonprofits. When I founded the company Social Enterprise Advisors in 2007, the term was not widely used in the US. I didn’t even tell anybody because nobody seemed to get it. In my circle of people I could talk to, only Sam Quigley, the Chief Information Officer at the Art Institute of Chicago at the time, recognized the term. He had been at Harvard previously. In fact, the Harvard University Social Enterprise program web site had the best description on their web site at the time:
“Our approach to social enterprise encompasses the contributions any individual or organization can make toward social improvement, regardless of its legal form (nonprofit, private, or public-sector). This approach challenges the traditional view of nonprofit organizations and corporations as largely dichotomous (or even adversarial), focusing instead on the belief that these organizations individually and collaboratively can generate significant social value. Engagement with communities and the social sector is viewed as crucial and strategically important for businesses in order to realize their private goals and their societal role. Nonprofit organizations, like businesses, are viewed as complex enterprises requiring sophisticated management and superior leadership.”
I was in no position to apply to a program at Harvard or anywhere else for that matter at the time. We had a young son and were still very involved with our family businesses. I felt really frustrated with my work in cultural heritage dissemination: ARTstor’s nonprofit hegemony, Google’s ubiquity and the difficulty transitioning the family business from one generation to the next left me exhausted after 10 years on the front lines. I wished I could come up with better solutions faster at the time. In hindsight I can see I didn’t understand the nature of the problem. I wanted a total change.
I started doing consulting work for my brother’s business in Florida. He is an Internal Medicine doctor and owns 16 medical centers in low income communities and manages about $70 million in risk related to about 70,000 medical encounters. He knew I was good at small business marketing and in fact over time increased his patient base 25% while in that role.
I remember my first conversation with a very poor African American senior sitting on his porch. The man was embarrassed to invite me into his house. I had tried to dress as simply as I could and be as humble as I could. Quietly I sat on his porch listening to him and thinking that my last in-person meeting in my field some months earlier had been on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art sitting with the Chief Librarian discussing digital dissemination and the stewardship of our cultural heritage. The contrast could not have been greater. I felt so much euphoria sitting on that porch feeling there was a material difference I could make in this man’s life just by giving him basic information.
What does “risk” mean in this context? It means the Federal and State governments allocate money for care and hospitalizations of very fragile populations of impoverished seniors and someone needs to make sure they actually get healthcare and aren’t preyed on. The term “risk” means making sure the overall pool of people stays as healthy as possible to reduce catastrophic events that get very costly for the overall healthcare system. You can’t accomplish that mission without recognizing that the budget crisis in Florida led to the state diverting resources to ensuring compliance with the law and closed down many of its service centers. Literally those who were once helping were now reviewing applications against the terms of the laws. 1 million of the 3 million calls that came in to the Department of Children and Families at the time were simply not answered. While in theory the law provided assistance, there was much hardship in even applying. We worked with a nonprofit to help provide persons needing help in understanding the state programs. In some counties, we served more clients than the state itself.
Kurt continues to this day to help my brother by overseeing the development of a an Electronic Medical Records platform that is the technology underlying my brother’s many years of work developing cones of probability to manage risk. I am glad my brother has someone he can trust, as it’s an area ripe for identity theft and he in fact at one point had to engage the Federal Secret Service over an internal attempted theft. Until then, we thought all the Secret Service did was protect the President of the United States! Apparently they care about theft and the poor. [Unfortunately recently I also came to find out they ‘cared’ about Aaron Swartz. Life can really suck. The very same people that helped us did not help him.]
I worked in this capacity as Marketing Director serving low income communities for a few years. I had my second child during that time. Uncle was a supportive, while still demanding, boss. I loved it. Yet something in me longed to be back in what I thought of as my field: the arts. So in 2011, still under the umbrella of Social Enterprise Advisors but in my name to follow the international practices used by galleries, I founded a contemporary art space in Denver, Colorado, to support our local artists in finding ways to reach out to the international community. That is how “Carmen Wiedenhoeft Gallery” was born. There were many days following deep conversations with artists that I wanted to scrape the word “Gallery” off the door; I still don’t know what I would call it.
I find I need to be clear about my approach because when I was working on the gallery and digm in 2013, one of my mentors said to me: “Is this a for-profit business Carmen? Are you seeking to work in the nonprofit space? Are you interested in working with the government?” He was confused. He counseled me to BE CLEAR.
The answer to all of those questions is: YES. Social entrepreneurship involves all of these things. Helping artists in Colorado is a good example. They need the imprimatur of our local museums (nonprofits) so international buyers and curators will also look at them, they need people in Colorado to buy their work so they can survive financially (galleries), they need Visit Denver and the Office of Economic Development (government) to care about them as a sector and promote them financially with policies that help Art Districts thrive and help artists afford to stay in the districts they build up. You can see social entrepreneurship involves leveraging the best practices across these sectors if we are to achieve any meaningful progress. That’s why you’ll also find that sales aren’t the thing that drive me at the gallery. Sometimes I wish I was purely driven by sales; it would be easier. I am driven by my concern for the people I work with.
In 2015, I’ve cleared the path in the gallery for me to work on digm. It’s grown out of the lessons I learned in the gallery these past four years and is my answer to some of the systemic challenges I see artists in our community face. Fortunately, it’s also rooted in 20 years of work and study.