Dr. Shelley Cooper held back tears during a nearly four-hour introductory session to the new LaunchKC Social Venture Studio earlier this spring, she said. She’d already found her calling with Diversity Telehealth; now the startup founder had discovered truly mission-aligned colleagues within her cohort.
“My focus has always been to bring healthcare to underserved areas using any means necessary — preferably telehealth. But today I have a whole cohort of folks who are doing similar things,” said Cooper, one of seven founders tapped for the just-launched venture studio, which announced the member companies at an event Tuesday.
“I’m not by myself anymore.”
Founders selected for the program — all hailing from Kansas City and ranging from a well-known tech startup to an urban eatery, a composting operation, and a food desert solution — are expected to participate in a six-month program, receiving professional support, grant awards ranging from $35,000 to $50,000, temporary office space at the Keystone CoLAB at 800 E. 18th St., mentoring, and network connections to strengthen their social venture business concepts.
A pitch event for potential funders and supporters is planned for the fall.
“This is exactly what I need,” said Cooper. “This is specifically geared toward helping people meet profitability while also hitting their mission, their goals as a social entrepreneur.”
“Not only are we going to learn how to make our product more scalable, we’re going to learn how to frame it in a way that makes it more investable on its face, as opposed to just trying to prop it up to look more investable,” she continued.
Click here to learn more about the LaunchKC Social Venture Studio.
Programming is expected to be led by consultants from Social Impact Advising Group, India Wells-Carter and Jacqueline Erickson Russell, and administered by Keystone Innovation District.
“Social Venture Studio is a prime example of how we as a city can tackle many societal issues with creative and sustainable business models that also drive job creation and local investment,” said Jim Erickson, director of strategic initiatives for the Economic Development Corporation of Kansas City, which alongside the Downtown Council powers LaunchKC.
Companies chosen for the program are specifically working to solve social, racial or environmental challenges.
“I think that’s what intrigued the Social Venture Studio group about Diversity Telehealth,” said Cooper, whose startup offers a streamlined tool for patient engagement and scheduling called Come On Now. “In their words, I’m already a social impact entrepreneur, I just didn’t realize it.”
Additional ventures selected for the studio include:
- The Prospect KC, Shanita McAfee-Bryant — Located on Kansas City’s east side, The Prospect KC is a social enterprise nonprofit that addresses local food insecurity through innovative solutions that provide access to nutritious whole foods, education and skill-building, and wraparound support services. These key services are integrated with a robust workforce development initiative that effectively combines classroom learning with direct hands-on experience, leading to apprenticeship opportunities that culminate in securing employment that pays a living wage.
- Healthy Hip Hop, Roy Scott — Roy Scott, founder and CEO of Healthy Hip Hop, infuses hip hop culture with innovative technology, education and positive attributes. The online platform allows educators to livestream content and educational resources to improve focus, engagement and bring culture to the classroom. The Healthy Hip Hop mobile application is a “Spotify meets TikTok” in a curated environment for children and families.
- EPEC Inc, Natasha Kirsch and Jarrod Sanderson — EPEC’s pilot program is a two-generational approach to breaking the cycle of poverty through the high wage, high demand trade of pet grooming and complete wraparound services. EPEC partners with housing, childcare, mental health, dentists, lawyers, and banks, while teaching emotion regulation, parenting, and budgeting. EPEC’s goal is to move a family off welfare supports to self sustaining in two years.
- Kanbe’s Markets, Maxfield Kaniger — Kanbe’s Markets works to build a more equitable and efficient food system by using the excess food from wholesalers or farmers and redirecting it to the most appropriate end user via a variety of programs. The core program called “Healthy Corner Stores” provides daily deliveries of fresh, healthy, and affordable food to convenience stores in food deserts.
- One Pair LLC, Jerren Thornhill — Jerren Thornhill is the founder of One Pair, a shoe store designed, owned and operated by the kids of KC. The company buys, sells and trades shoes, along with having six different local clothing brands.
- KC Can Compost, Kristan Chamberlain — KC Can Compost is committed to improving the environmental and social landscapes of Kansas City through systematic organic waste diversion and green job training for those struggling with barriers to employment.
Chef Shanita McAfee-Bryant agreed with Cooper that a core element of the program — alongside personal development and solid mentorship opportunities — will be in strengthening relationships with peer social entrepreneurs.
“We have all felt like unicorns at any given moment in this work,” The Prospect founder said. “Social Venture Studio has gathered us all in one space to learn and develop individually and collectively.”
Joining the cohort signals a “wave” of momentum for The Prospect, she said, adding that the group of social entrepreneurs is creating a roadmap for systemically changing their communities.
And that’s the point, organizers said.
Backing from the Sunderland Foundation gives the studio a three-year runway to prove its model and set an example that could be used to scale the concept nationally, LaunchKC and studio officials said when the initiative was announced in December.
Click here to read more about the studio’s origins.
“This program shows, once again, that Kansas City is a city with a heart and also a city with incredibly innovative minds,” said Mayor Quinton Lucas, in a video message during Tuesday’s announcement of companies. “We’re thrilled about this inaugural cohort, and I look forward to the day in the not–too-distant future when Kansas City has become a national model for social venturing.”
At the individual level, that begins with scaling Diversity Telehealth, Cooper said, noting the company recently was named a winner in Husch Blackwell’s Get Started Omaha pitch competition, and is rolling out a Spanish version of its platform to better meet needs of underrepresented communities.
“The Social Venture Studio is going to allow us to be ourselves in our goals,” she said. “Some of us are for-profit, but we’re still geared toward products that save lives, save the world. We just want to pay our bills and change the world at the same time.”
Our #SocialVentureStudio program has kicked off with our first class of 7 companies making an impact in KC. SVS is powered by our @Launch_KC strategic initiative, a partnership with @godowntownkc. pic.twitter.com/goChcOwjUA
— Economic Development Corporation of KCMO (@EDCKC) May 4, 2022
This story is possible thanks to support from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a private, nonpartisan foundation that works together with communities in education and entrepreneurship to create uncommon solutions and empower people to shape their futures and be successful.