Will Miller’s SEED20 Ignites a Fire

It only takes a spark to get a fire going, and what Will Miller started several years ago with Social Venture Partners was on fire last night at the Bank of America auditorium downtown. In one jammed packed hour, the overflow crowd of 450 guests heard 3 minute pitches from 10 of Charlotte's most innovative, courageous community change-makers.

“Erma the Bookworma” from Promising Pages enticed the crowd with a goal to collect one million books and end childhood illiteracy in Charlotte. Mike Elliott, one of the six judges, praised the scalability of the approach. Another judge Carol Hardison, agreed with the urgency in reaching children before they fall too far behind.

Playing for Others was theater in action, parroting teens evolving through the program as they build self-esteem and reorient their focus to helping others. Judge Landra Johnson asked the presenter to please bottle and send to all parents the formula for getting teens to clamor for anything.

Beds for Kids is working to ensure that every child in Charlotte sleeps in a warm bed at night, and urged the audience to “get up off your couch … and give it to us.”

Judy Carter at The Learning Collaborative asked “who was your first teacher?” and reminded us that for most, the answer is our parents. She helps parents embrace their role, bringing love and learning together well before the first day of school. Former SEED20 winner, second grade teacher and 2013 judge Julie Jones applauded Carter's efforts as essential to early education.

Innovative approaches to old problems included Swaraj Yoga which is addressing homelessness and mental illness through yoga and meditation for homeless men. Founder Laura McCarthy is single-handedly offering these classes to 200 men per week – just one woman and a truck, with a profound and heartfelt commitment.

All of the contestants are incredibility creative, dedicated leaders. But a few stood out as true entrepreneurs, creating businesses around their mission. Neet's Sweets is a bakery started by Antonia “Neet” Childs as a way out of the sex trafficking that ensnared her at age 16. Neet's bakery has a future of its own that could include store expansions, franchising or national branding. But to take it further, Neet has created the Market Your Mind Foundation to encourage other women to build businesses that enable independence, self-esteem and a life out of the shadows.

Speak Up Magazine is another enterprise which creates micro-businesses for homeless entrepreneurs who sell, write or market for the magazine. As Founder Matt Shaw pointed out, there are 120 organizations in Charlotte that serve the homeless, but only one that provides jobs and a creative outlet for this market.

Sustainability was a big theme for the evening – how to break the cycle of dependency by creating jobs, lifelong skills, and a path to independence. My First Suit described its four week mentoring program that prepares first generation college students to dress mentally to be productive men, culminating with a tailored suit for each young man. The need resonated with Judge Lana Johnson, who recalled being told early in her career to “dress for the job you want next” – but recognized it takes more than clothes, it takes knowing yourself and how to behave socially to take that next step.

The big winner for the night was the Community Culinary School (CCS). Who couldn't resist supporting a buddy for the Bistro buggy? Chef Ron gave a rousing (and loud!) Pitch to expand his roving food cart, pointing out that CCS has already trained and found jobs for 700 former inmates, and has now taken its program on the road to reach folks in food deserts and other under-served areas. Many of us did not recognize Chef Ron in his suit (rather than his apron), but his engaging passion and humor were unforgettable.

Celebrity judge Mike Collins of Charlotte Talks was uncharacteristically short on words for the evening. Some took this as lack of interest, but it came across to me as awe and dumbfoundedness at the array of innovation and initiative taking place right under our noses. Indeed more than once, judges admitted they “had no idea” that some of these creative programs were underway in our community.

If you are as inspired as the crowd that repeatedly erupted into applause last night, but not sure which of these fabulous programs to support, you might be interested power2give , a micro-philanthropy website founded by the Arts and Science Council. Judge Paul Wetenhall was impressed by the statistics shared on money raised to date through the website, and Director Laura Belcher asked for support to expand its focus from cultural organizations to all area non-profits, including the SEED20 entrepreneurs.

Something's burning in Charlotte – a fire in the hearts of social entrepreneurs who are taking small steps toward big impacts all over town.

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