HARTFORD, CT — Three Connecticut entrepreneurs received grants this week from the reSET Venture Showcase, which rewards viable, socially conscious business ideas with seed money to bring products and services into the economy.
The top prize — a $10,000 grant — went to Raise Green, a platform designed to provide smaller investors with an opportunity to purchase equity in renewable energy projects in their communities.
A $6,000 grant went to Engagement Solutions, a mobile platform to connect state residents with social service programs, and a $4,000 grant went to Kiyomi Beauty Box, a subscription box service that brings Korean beauty products to the local market.
Seven pitches made Tuesday night at the Connecticut Science Center represented a class of 14 businesses participating in reSET’s entrepreneurial program, essentially a four-month boot camp for business leaders with a mission. Three judges selected the winners, and the audience of 200 in its own poll also selected Raise Green as the top social business idea.
Since 2013, the reSET Impact Accelerator program has trained 112 companies to bring their business ideas to the market. The non-profit works with entrepreneurs of all kinds, but specializes in mentoring startups with social impacts.
“They have a really deep Connecticut network and it’s been really valuable to us to get an idea of what capacity and talent exists in Connecticut,” said Matt Moroney, one of the Raise Green founders.
His business partner Franz Hochstrasser said the youngest generation of business leaders seems to be increasingly focused on social impact rather than solely accumulating wealth.
“It’s about a broader community and it’s about social and environmental good,” he said. “In large part that’s baked into the Raise Green business model and what we try to champion and enable, the idea that there are small actions that individuals can take to have an impact on large problems like climate change, air pollution, and income equality.”
Pitches were also made Tuesday for businesses to create new health products, bring artwork from skilled Haitian artisans to the U.S., train bystanders in basic first aid procedures, and produce high-quality, attractive play mats for children.
“You saw different ways of addressing the bad things, the broken things in our economy, and people coming at it with all these different great ideas and entrepreneurial spirit to solve big, broken issues,” said Andrea Stalf, one of reSET’s business mentors who has worked with Raise Green on marketing.
The judges were Steven Taylor, a vice president and Hartford branch manager at United Bank, Susan Coleman, a University of Hartford finance professor, and Kevin Bouley, president and CEO of Nerac, Inc.
“These are all just really interesting and a very diverse mix of companies in terms of the industries and the problems they’re trying to solve with their businesses,” said Sarah Bodley, managing director of reSET. “The connections are a huge part of the value of doing a program like this. Beyond the exposure and the access to capital, which is so essential, a huge part of this is just making those connections.”
Bodley said reSET makes a conscious choice not to mentor any particular industry. Other entrepreneurial programs might focus specifically on financial technology or manufacturing, but reSET is able to occupy a unique role by helping socially motivated business owners.
“I think without reSET, mission-driven businesses like so many of us here wouldn’t get so many of these opportunities,” said Shay Cantner, one of the founders of Engagement Solutions.
“It encourages us because we see all of the resources that are available for entrepreneurs here in the state of Connecticut that we didn’t realize were here,” Cantner said.
Kate Emery, the founder of reSET, said that when she started the organization in 2007 there were only a few incubators around, but now there is a “critical mass” that allows some to focus on a niche.
“It’s a process of building an ecosystem. Entrepreneurs do not launch, grow or thrive in a vacuum,” Emery said. “It takes a lot of resources. We need to be thinking about what we need as a society and building businesses that take us there.”
She said there is wider agreement now than in 2007 that despite Connecticut’s long history of social innovation, incubators are a critical part of creating an environment for new business ideas to be heard.
“People looked at me like ‘why do we need businesses focused on impact?’ After the financial fall people realized maybe things weren’t as good as they thought they were,” Emery said. “In the beginning it seemed radical, and I guess now I almost feel like it’s not radical enough.”