The Power of Social Enterprise to Fix Our Broken Food System

poverty in dc

Food equity and racial equity are very connected in the communities located east of the Anacostia River in Washington, DC. Julie Kirkwood, Founder of non-profit organization DC UrbanGreens, is working to change that. Founded in 2012, DC UrbanGreens focuses on creation of neighborhood farms on small pieces of under-utilized, urban land to create access to healthy, nutritious foods. The program initially piloted this approach in Southeast DC. This place, where 98% of the population is African American and over 40% of the children are living in poverty, is also designated as by the USDA as a Food Desert—an area where healthy food is not readily available or sold to its residents. For DC residents, this inequity is not just wrong, it is life threatening and is a major contributor to the region’s rates of obesity. Obesity in DC has been strongly linked to racial disparities: 8% of white D.C. residents are obese compared to 31% of African-Americans. This issue is particularly acute for the District’s youth—the youth obesity rate in DC is the highest in the country.

Community gardens are a growing movement in urban areas, but poor communities deserve to walk into a store and purchase healthy food just as easily as their more affluent counterparts east of the River. Nearly a quarter of the District’s residents live in Southeast DC, but 85% of the City’s food retailers are located outside of this region. In 2012, Anacostia’s only supermarket was sold and closed. To reach a grocery store selling healthy foods, residents travel on busses with carts of groceries and children in tow.

In 2013, we helped DC UrbanGreens break ground in Ward 7 to create a unique hyper-local farm. They are now selling food year round exclusively to communities that need it, stocking corner markets east of the Anacostia River with fresh, healthy food, and have doubled the size of farming operations. Julie’s vision is to use community-based farms to fix broken elements of the urban food system and recognize the role that purchasing power can play in transforming poor communities. Her goal is to establish micro-enterprises that can efficiently grow, distribute, and sell healthy food within the poorest communities to poor communities. Every sale she makes is an act of social justice.

We are thrilled to have been part of Julie’s success story to date. Please share our infographic to celebrate the seeds of success we have been able to sow with your support.


Giving Fully

AFeseha Headshot

Abi Feseha, DC Social Innovation Project Community Investor and Associate Board Member

“We make a living by what we get.  We make a life by what we give”

– Winston S. Churchill

My name is Abi Feseha. As a young professional who has been exposed to the social and economic need of developing nations, I want to shape my life and career in ways that make a difference. I work as a business analyst in the healthcare industry and am in my first year of an MBA program at University of Maryland RH Smith School of Business. I am also an active volunteer consultant and an Associate Board member of DC Social Innovation Project (DCSIP). People always ask me how I manage to do so much, and to be honest, though I love my professional and educational career, I know I’m making a life worth living by what I give to DCSIP. It keeps me going when times get tough and has helped me experience the value of service that runs deep in my family. This is my story about why I choose to give fully and why I hope that today, on Giving Tuesday, you’ll step up to join me and give differently.

I Give With My Heart: Connecting with DCSIP’s mission and grantees allows me to make real connections with real people who are trying to solve some of the stickiest problems in DC. From entrepreneurs of new business incubators to leaders of mentoring programs that connect essential health care services to communities in need, my DCSIP pro-bono experiences have introduced me to powerful champions who are transforming communities from the inside out. They have helped me connect with the broader DC community and my heart in ways I never expected.

I Give With My Head: By channeling the expertise that I have built up in my professional life, my volunteer pro-bono consulting improves the success rate of new social ventures in an environment when so many new businesses fail. For new ventures that are bootstrapped at the offset, my pro-bono contribution provides an amazing amount of capacity to organizations operating on a dime. At DCSIP, our unique value is that we give grants and we provide pro-bono expertise valued at seven times our grant amount. That’s a huge amount of intellectual capital that wouldn’t be possible without our pro-bono model and my volunteer service.

 I Give With My Pocket: I practice philanthropy every month by making, celebrating, and encouraging others to give a financial gift.  You don’t have to be rich to join DCSIP’s giving circle – for only 3 coffees a month you can be part of a movement to empower DC’s communities with creativity, courage, and ideas.  Our Community Investor Circle has enabled me to support DCSIP in all its work to give even more support to start-ups and promising programs. Giving financially means that we can spread this model across the District of Columbia where there is so much need and even farther.

In a world where we are told that the Millennial generation is self-absorbed and entitled, practicing philanthropy so deeply is one of the most satisfying experiences I have to give and live a purpose-driven life. Please join with me on Giving Tuesday to become a Community Investor.



Calling A Social Innovators: A note from our new Executive Director

What a thrill and an honor it is for me to be selected to lead DC Social Innovation Project (DCSIP) as Executive Director. Throughout this selection process, I have felt the excitement building as I think about the potential of this small organization to become a major catalyst for innovation in the District of Columbia. No getting around it: I am ridiculously psyched.

I’m excited precisely because the significant challenges we face in the District are stacked against the dizzying abundance in our region. Consider that we are one of the wealthiest regions in the country yet in some wards, one out of every three children lives below the poverty line and more than 40 percent of the population is classified as “low-income.” We lead the nation in bike access lanes, yet also claim the prize for HIV/AIDS infection at epidemic levels, obesity rates, and infant mortality rates. Our city has more residents with graduate and professional degrees than any other given our size, but also abysmal high school graduation rates.

In that dichotomy there is hope. Our wealth of talent, ideas, and resources across the region is the platform for change at the heart of DCSIP’s innovative social change model. We can and have tapped into that abundance to launch new social enterprises that are focused on addressing the root causes of poverty. Our model is simple: identify the most brilliant and innovative ideas of change and provide true working capital—in the form of money, expertise, and courage—to help new social enterprise leaders tackle the challenges in their communities. We purposefully select gutsy, high-risk ideas and then build a team of volunteer expertise to turn those ideas into action and monitor their success.

In the year ahead, you will see us more fully own our role as experimenters and innovators in helping community-led social enterprises spread across the District of Columbia. Through transparency in what works and what doesn’t, we will tell more stories about what we are learning and share them widely within our community. We will experiment with new ways to transfer core expertise to community leaders to create deeper and long lasting social impact. Through a stronger network of partnerships with philanthropists and community innovators, we will build new opportunities for generating community wealth and develop a movement for social enterprise in the District.

I look forward to working with all of you to make this happen. From the idea generators to the next generation of powerhouse philanthropists that DCSIP has helped to bring together, I know that we can do this. Our strength lies in our networks and in channeling the creativity, passion, and energy in each of you.

Here’s to the beginning of a beautiful partnership and all the fun to come!







Melissa Ann Ehrenreich, Executive Director

Reframing Social Entrepreneurship

Panelist, Adam Motiwala (Street Sense Digital Marketing Program) and DCSIP Board Member, Natalie Schafer Foley speak with an audience member

Panelist, Adam Motiwala (Street Sense Digital Marketing Program) and DCSIP Board Member, Natalie Schafer Foley, speak with an audience member

The DC Social Innovation Project hosted a panel at Google’s DC headquarters this July on the intersection of technology, digital learning and employment. With many eager budding social entrepreneurs in the audience, we took the opportunity to ask the panelists one simple question: What is the single piece of advice you would give someone in the social entrepreneurship space?

Adam Motiwala of the Street Sense Digital Marketing Program and who is a fan of the Lean Startup methodology responded with: “The goal of an enterprise is to learn as opposed to just be successful. You’re actually just learning and that actually adds value and having value creates opportunity.” Indeed this is one of the principles of the methodology that seeks to help entrepreneurs in general (not just those in the social space) to create sustainable businesses.

Being open to framing the startup process as a learning endeavor was the theme of the panelists’  advice and so both Eleanor Grewal, Director of Programs at Byte Back and Paul Gleger of General Assembly spoke to the importance of learning and understanding those who social entrepreneurs seek to support. Suggests Gleger, “Know who you’re serving. Really understand what their motivations are, what their struggles are, and then make sure that your product really delivers on that.”

Many entrepreneurs go in with a set with of assumptions of who their customer is, the problem that they have, and that their product is the solution to that problem. Part of the Lean Startup methodology is that one must do the active research necessary to really test their hypothesis and be open to changing the solution or product based on what is learned.  In the social entrepreneurial space Grewal suggests not only knowing the community you are trying to serve, but becoming part of it for “ it’s great to have a good idea, but if it’s not what people need then it’s not as social entrepreneurial as it could be.” Gleger adds that “ the guiding voice at the end of the day should be who are your users, what are they really looking for  and what is going to make a difference for them.”

So take some pointers from our panelists and embark on a learning process keeping this tidbit of knowledge from the The Lean Startup in mind: “Success is not delivering a feature; success is learning how to solve the customer’s problems.”


An Ecosystem of Collaboration

Social Entrepreneur Adam Motiwala (R) cited the need for better partnerships throughout the city to further social progress.

Social Entrepreneur Adam Motiwala (R) cited the need for better partnerships throughout the city to further social progress.

It is basically a rite of passage to be the hungry (multiple meanings intended) entrepreneur who is struggling to take their idea, business, or product to the next level, tolling until they get their big break or fail. For social entrepreneurs, even after the big break, the struggle does not necessarily end. With many social organizations choosing to be classified as nonprofits they often marry into a formidable funding cycle where they are dependent on monetary donations and grants in order  to be able to  continue providing their services.  In addition, they are reliant on volunteers donating their time and other in-kind services to supplement their budget. At DC Social Innovation’s panel on how social projects are working to give new skills and certifications to the unemployed/underemployed, one of the main challenges the nonprofit organizations cited was the need for resources.

From the need to provide clients with internet access outside of their programs to simply the need for space for volunteers and mentors to meet, the sentiments were that through better collaboration amongst DC stakeholders much more social good could be achieved.

So what can the major stakeholders due to foster or initiate collaboration?

  • DC Local Government- What resource does DC local government not have access to? From space via schools and recreation centers to having an award winning technology agency, by simply providing access to these resources it turns into a win-win situation for DC Government as nonprofits do the laser-focused community development and support work that sometimes larger agencies struggle to do.
  • Grantors- It is not unusual to see nonprofits steering clear from organizations with similar missions, because at the end of the day they are competing for the same resources such as grants and volunteers. Grantors can entice organizations to work together by providing grant and funding opportunities that value collaboration amongst like-minded organizations.
  • Nonprofit Community-Be open to new models. Who says that donations and grants are the only way to support your organization. What about a sponsorship model? Perhaps consider providing a service to another nonprofit in exchange for one of theirs.
  • Startup Community- Expand your definition of innovation. Over the past few years, DC has certainly established itself as a hub of technology innovation, but for the realm of social services, innovation comes in many different forms such as teaching tech skills or piloting innovative social programs. What about incubators and accelerators for other forms of innovation?

With all of the existing resources and opportunities in DC there is no reason that DC can not serve as the model ecosystem of not just social innovation, but social collaboration.

The four questions that can radically change your program


This is a guest post by Jess Dugan of Peer Insight

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to work with the female masterminds behind two of DCSIP’s newest grantees, DC UrbanGreens and Suited for Change. It was both inspiring and humbling to hear about the hard work these passionate entrepreneurs have put into achieving their dreams.

My colleague Natalie Foley and I met up with the grantees to help them stretch their thinking around the customers they serve. At our firm, Peer Insight, we practice a human-centered approach called design thinking, which helps both entrepreneurs, and established business managers, put customer needs first when designing, or improving upon, a business idea.

To help shift our perspective as entrepreneurs, the design thinking process asks four key questions: What is?, What If?, What Wows?, and What Works?. These four questions can be explored in the context of an established business or even an early-stage non-profit.

  • What Is? This question explores the current reality of your customers. What is it that they think, feel, need, and experience in connection with your opportunity area? If we can uncover what they customer really needs, not just what they say they need, then we can design a better product, service or business to solve that issue.
  • What If? Now that you have identified some potential issues, or pain points, in your customers’ lives, this question pushes you to explore possible new solutions, or tweaks to your existing business solution, to best meet these needs. Our exploration during the “What Is?” stage helps ensure that these solutions are firmly grounded in your customers’ reality, not just on your own whim or perception.
  • What Wows? Not, all ideas are good ideas and it’s risky to invest in a new idea without knowing if it’s desired by customers. In the “What Wows?” stage, we engage and co-create with customers to understand if our ideas can hold water. Using simple low-fidelity prototypes, we quickly and cheaply test our solutions with customers, listening to their feedback and iterating on our solution as we learn something new.
  • What Works? Once we’re confident that our solution is something that customer’s will value, we need to understand if it’s viable to stand up as a business. We explore “What Works?” by testing our solution, along with a potential business model, over an extended period of time. This quick and dirty “Alpha” test helps validate or invalidate questions we have around our solution.

During our session with the grantees, we focused exclusively on “What Is?”; digging into the latent needs of the organizations’ customers and understanding how their current solutions were meeting those needs. Our new book, The Designing for Growth Field Book, features a variety of tools and template to help entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs alike navigate the four questions of design thinking.

Have you had experience using one or more of the four questions? I’d love to hear! Message me: @jess_dugan.

Who applies to DCSIP for support? A few insights


Last month we closed our most recent application round where community members and organizations applied to us for up to $25,000 in funding and pro bono services to help launch or grow an innovative community program. We received many great applications and are now in the process of selecting the two winners. As we’ve been going through the applications and our anonymous surveys of applicants, we’ve discovered some interesting insights about the applicants and their backgrounds.

We’re sharing these insights now to give you a better picture of the programs we aim to support and the people leading those programs. This information was captured from the applications and from separate anonymous surveys of the applicants.

Program Leadership

In order to get a sense of how well the people applying for our support knew their community and what skills they were bringing to the table, we asked some questions about their background. Here’s what we found:

  • The leaders of the programs that applied for our support have lived in the DC area for an average of 22 years. The most years reported was 50 years and the least was 2 years. Further, 50% of applicants have lived in the DC area for more that 25 years.
  • The leaders of the programs that applied for our support have an average of 17 years of professional work experience. The most years reported was 30 years and the least was 4 years. Notably, 83% of applicants have 10 or more years of professional work experience.
  • More than half have previously started a business or non-profit.
  • More than half have a full-time or part-time job other than the program they applied to receive support for. 8% of applicants are currently students.
  • All applicants are college or community college graduates. 41% have masters degrees or higher.

The Programs

In order to get a sense of the focus and current status of the programs seeking our support, we asked some questions about their activities. Here’s what we found:

  • 17% of the applicants were motivated to create their program after seeing the support we offer.
  • 91% reported that it has been difficult to find funding sources that support early stage, community-driven programs like theirs.
  • For 83%, DC Social Innovation Project would be their first institutional funder.
  • 74% of programs that applied to us focus on improving the lives of youth. Other programs focused on food access or providing jobs to low-income women or veterans.

As you can see, these insights paint a vivid picture of our applicants and really illuminate the need for organizations like DC Social Innovation Project to support this kind work. We’ll be sharing more about our application review and the two new grantees in the coming weeks.