This article was published on April 1, 2011

The Illuminated Ventures Project taps student talent to benefit communities

The Illuminated Ventures Project taps student talent to benefit communities
Megan Sayers
Story by

Megan Sayers

Based in sunny Los Angeles, Megan Sayers writes about design, media and tech with a sprinkle of pop culture. She has worked for The Huffingt Based in sunny Los Angeles, Megan Sayers writes about design, media and tech with a sprinkle of pop culture. She has worked for The Huffington Post and Forbes Magazine, and also been a contributor to PSFK and Find her on Twitter here.

Social entrepreneurship essentially boils down to doing good while doing well. This emerging movement is based on the premise of building a profitable business that also looks to address big picture problems like poverty, unemployment, malnutrition and climate change. It’s been gaining speed in recent years, thanks to influential people like Jeff Skoll, the co-founder of eBay. In fact, the 2011 Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship kicked off this past Thursday in Oxford, England.

Drew Little, of Richmond, Virginia has started a program that merges the idea of social entrepreneurship with the concept of web incubators like Y-Combinator, one of the new models of startup funding that provides capital, connections and resources in exchange for a small percentage of equity.  His company, IllVP, which stands for The Illuminated Ventures Project, taps college students to build profitable websites that benefit local communities as well as disadvantaged youth.

How it works:

IllVP is focused on creating local, new media in the form of revenue-generating websites that provide opportunities for local businesses to connect with the community. It’s no secret that companies such as Groupon, Facebook and Gowalla recognize the value of location-based services, and Little creates and builds web start-ups that penetrate this market on a local level.

For example, IllVP provides Richmond businesses with inexpensive and effective marketing through Blinkpons, a location-based coupon service that offers first-come, first-serve deals at businesses in the area.  By helping Richmond residents connect with each other and businesses near them, IllVP aims to benefit the local economy while helping people save money. IllVP also developed the UPBL (United Potential Basketball League), a tournament basketball league that awards cash prizes to members. In addition to tracking stats and league standings, the website offers social media features so players can interact with each other online.

Little recruits students from his college, Virginia Commonwealth University, to work on one of several web start-ups like the two mentioned above. More than half of the 13 IllVP team members are “voluntaries,” students who are volunteering their time in exchange for equity in the venture. Since most of the ventures are focused on interests relevant to young people, like basketball, Little hopes the company will put students on the path for success while providing them with the opportunity to pursue their passions.  A 2010 study by the Conference Board research group showed that only 45% of people are happy with their jobs, a statistic that Little believes could be dramatically improved.

“Students are usually only aware of non-profit and for-profit companies,” he said. “For profit, you can make money but not do what you want. Non-profit is no money. Social entrepreneurship merges the two.”

The Philosophy

The idea for IllVP was hatched back in 2007, when Little first realized the profitable potential of social networks. “I had all these ideas for website, and I didn’t know how to get them started,” he said. Inspired by worker cooperatives, which are owned an managed by its workers, Little decided to look for ways to create cooperative-influenced web start-ups that actively contributed to social change. “It was sort of a breakthrough moment for me, realizing how capitalism puts money over people and the environment,” he said.

IllVP is based on Little’s own philosophy of Producism:  a  hybrid of capitalism and socialism, based on a system where all parties benefit from any given transaction. Little ultimately dreams of creating a virtual nation of socially and environmentally conscious individuals, by integrating social entrepreneurship, worker cooperatives and social media.

Paying it Forward: UPSEF

Perhaps the most compelling aspect of IllVP is the built-in notion of paying it forward; 30% of the company’s profits goes to their non-profit venture, UPSEF (Unified Potential Social Entrepreneurship Fund). UPSEF works with disadvantaged youth, teaching life skills like personal finance, effective communication and time management, all areas that are normally overlooked by public schools. “We help them develop ideas that are socially conscious, innovative and self-sustainable,” said Little.

In this way, the company also hopes to make the opportunities presented by new media and technology more available to women, minorities and under-privileged youth, especially those living in low-income urban areas. According to Little, the biggest problem for these demgraphics stems from a basic lack of awareness to the potential of social entrepreneurship.

“There are huge education hurdles we need to jump over. Sometimes I almost feel like I’m from California or something, because I read all the blogs and stuff. But then when I try to explain, people are like what? When I say social entrepreneurship, they think I’m just talking about social media. When I say incubator, they think I’m talking about babies.”

IllVP is one of the companies selected for 33needs, a new crowd-funding website similar to Kickstarter but with a social mission. The campaign ends on Sunday at 11:59 pm, and IllVP is still pretty far off from their goal of $29,000, which will be spent on technology, necessary legal fees, and acquiring a company car (most of the team members live on campus, and don’t own cars.)

UPDATE: 33needs has decided to officially extend the campaign for another 90 days, so donations to IllVp can be made until July 4th.

“You know how you get that warm fuzzy feeling when you donate money?” said Little. “Now you can get that warm fuzzy feeling, plus a potential return on investment for the community.”

Interested? Invest here.

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