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(This blog post was co-written by Ingrid Spielman, a Startup Weekend NYC volunteer.)

This weekend, New York City hosted its first Startup Weekend Social Impact Edition. The event started with a bang as Andrew Young, a Startup Weekend facilitator, explained the rules of the 54-hour challenge. The competition criteria included not only the traditional judging categories (i.e. business model, customer validation, design, and execution), but also a fifth category that weighs how much an idea will make a positive impact on society.

While only one team will walk away from the event as the overall winner, the hope is that everyone leaves with a better understanding of what it takes to launch sustainable companies in the unique space known as “Social Impact.”

The audience on Friday night at Startup Weekend NYC Social Impact (Photo credit: Ingrid Spielman)

Three speakers from local, social impact companies kicked things off to inspire attendees, demonstrate the market opportunity, and provide actionable advice for entrepreneurs who are new to the social good space. Joy Hung, from charity: water, introduced “Pipeline” as an example of how technology is improving an existing social sector. Andy DiSimone, of Startup Health, highlighted the enormous market opportunity that exists for healthcare and wellness companies. Lastly, Jessica Feingold, from Kiva Zip, provided practical examples on how microfinancing can jumpstart an idea.

The takeaway from the speakers was clear: there is ample opportunity for disruption and it is easier than ever to start a business and gain access to capital. On Friday night, the attendees, however, seemed to lack a clear consensus on how similar or dissimilar social entrepreneurship is compared to launching any other type of startup idea.

Some attendees viewed social impact as a clearly differentiated business category. Hope Hou described a social enterprise as one that seeks not only to maximize profit but also to create a large outreach effect. Jed, team leader of Financial Fun Factor, said that it is about lasting presence: someone who does the job for profit versus someone who seeks to leave something behind. Eric, an attendee who pitched an idea called Voluntinder, said that “social impact is more about picking a social problem and solving it. It is not necessarily about making money. It’s about figuring a way to do things better for everyone.”

For others, starting a social impact company is similar to launching any other type of business. Tamara from team Voice Whisperer explained: “People have a grand idea of what a social impact company needs to be and it scares them away. It’s about helping the people around you. It doesn’t need to be a far and distant problem, you could be helping someone living next door or working in the next block. ” Paul, who pitched Foodie Scanner (later changed to Check my Label), described social impact as “Having some positive benefit to whomever it is you are targeting,” and explained how many for-profit forms have social impact as well (e.g. AirBnB).

By Sunday night, the event culminated in 14 final team pitches that included ideas on connecting people (e.g. Tech Boomerang, Project without Borders, Sideskillz, Care Go Go), educating people (e.g. Spare Change, Foodie Scanner, Questionator), and empowering people (e.g. CityHero, Voice Whisperer, Pocket Activist, Fitness on Demand, Fair Agent).

The judging panel featured Daniel Gulati from Comcast Ventures, Robert Lee from charity: water, Natalia Oberti Noguera from Pipeline Fellowship, Jesse Levin from Brooklyn Boulders, and Carolina Huaranca from Girls Who Code.

Each team may have pitched a different way to make a difference in the world but the judges’ feedback was consistent: social entrepreneurship is a sustainable and desirable investment opportunity. Levin said that Artcycle Labs is an “amazing arbitrage opportunity. I can think of a million revenue models.” Huaranca lended her own experience to give helpful feedback on finding available financing options. Her advice to Voice Whisperer? “Go straight to district sales. The majority of funding is in special education and professional development for teachers.”

At the end of the night, the winning team was Voice Whisperer, a startup focused on creating a personalized audio book experience for autistic kids. Second place went to Artcycle Labs, a co-working concept that repurposes raw materials. Questionator, a Quora-like forum for kids, came in third. Additionally, TechBoomerang was given honorable mention for the team’s idea on teaching new technologies to the aging demographic. The winners received bright pink gifts from Lyft, Agua Enervia drinks, and valuable prizes from PurposeFuel, one of the event sponsors.

What did the winning teams all have in common? The team members brought their firsthand experiences to help validate and identify the problem they were trying to solve. Oberti Noguera said, “I love first-user founders because they are actually the ones experiencing the pain in the market. They are coming at it with the true sense of what the issues are.”

There is much to learn about the Social Impact space. However, the amount of passion shown by all of the speakers, attendees, volunteers, mentors, and judges who dedicated their time and expertise to deepen the conversation about social entrepreneurship is proof that there is no better time to launch ideas that will make the world a better place in an economically sustainable, and even profitable, way. In closing, Oberti Noguera shared a quote by Vanessa Hurst, CEO and founder of Codemontage, that was the perfect ending to weekend: “Shouldn’t doing good be the only way to make a profit?”

The winning teams from Startup Weekend NYC Social Impact. (Photo credit: Kenny Peng)

*Appendix: List of Sunday night team pitches at Startup Weekend NYC Social Impact (July 27)

  1. Spare Change: Telling the stories of the homeless

  2. Fair Agent: Simplify the process of apartment seekers who are working with brokers

  3. Voice Whisperer: Personalized audiobooks for autistic kids.

  4. Fitness on Demand: Access to fitness trainers and routines

  5. Projects Without Borders: Matching mentors and mentees based upon specific projects and goals

  6. Pocket Activist: Enabling online news consumers to become informed activists

  7. Questionator: Curated content for kids by kids

  8. ArtCycle Labs: Co-working space that repurposes raw and creative materials

  9. Check My Label: Food scanning so that people know exactly what is in the food that you’re buying (ex: gluten, sugar, and cholesterol)

  10. Sideskillz: Connecting college students to businesses for professional projects

  11. Happy Heart Kid: A curated, Sesame Street meets Montessori Education activity kit

  12. Care Go-Go: Sympathy gifting service and resource hub

  13. CityHero: A gamified way to report problems to your local government

  14. Tech boomerang: Helping baby boomers learn how to use technology

Cynthia Knapic