SHEFFIELD >> For any resident of the Berkshires reviewing the general and school population projections for the coming years, the news is undeniably dismaying: a county-wide population dropping below 100,000 (from a high in 1970 of 150,000) by 2045, and school-age population dropping by 28 percent in only 14 short years. Couple that with economic stagnation and it could be crippling to the region.
This can all seem incredibly daunting. Let me, however, paint a different picture and offer a reason for hope. I see in these numbers an immense business opportunity – but for a new type of business; a business that seeks to generate social and environmental value, alongside traditional profit.
Some call these For-Benefit companies or B Corps. In Massachusetts and in a growing number of states, there are now specific legal designations for benefit corporations. To me, these sustainable businesses represent a clear path to growing a more inclusive, vibrant, resilient economy in the Berkshires.
Here's why I'm so optimistic. There are now over 1,600 B Corps in more than 47 countries. Just look to our neighbor to the north. Vermont is home to many leading B Corps, including Seventh Generation, King Arthur Flour, Cabot, Native Energy, Gardener's Supply, and Ben & Jerry's. Fast Company Magazine called the advent of the B Corp one of the top 20 business ideas from the past 20 years that has moved the whole world forward.
Side-by-side the incredible rise of social and environmental entrepreneurship and enterprise has been the growth of capital to meet these unique businesses' needs. Today this is generally recognized as impact investing. In 2015, impact investing moved, as Rockefeller Foundation President Dr. Judith Rodin likes to say, "from the margins to the mainstream." Global investors committed over $12 billion in impact investments — 54 percent more than just three years ago. Major players like Bain Capital, BlackRock, Citi, Goldman Sacs, and JPMorgan are all growing their impact investing portfolios.
Investing in an impact economy has tremendous potential for all of us who live in the Berkshires. Today, however, there's only one certified B Corp in the Berkshires, Feronia Forests in Lanesborough — the innovators behind Mission Maple and Ramblewild. With smart, targeted investment, there could be hundreds of new, for benefit companies in our region like Feronia.
Unfortunately, one of the most common failings of many current approaches to economic development, even when branded as innovation economies, is that they often employ 20th century approaches to address 21st century challenges.
Impact Entrepreneur, a professional network I established in 2011, is taking an alternative approach. We are launching a center for social and environmental Innovation here in the Berkshires that will tap into a global network of leading social entrepreneurs, impact investors, philanthropists and academics. The center will incubate businesses that will tackle the problems we face here in the Berkshires using 21st century solutions.
New model introduced
Alongside our Impact Entrepreneur Center for Social and Environmental Innovation, we've introduced a new model to incentivize regional sustainable development. We call this model Public Benefit Enterprise Zones (PBEZs). This model differs from traditional enterprise or economic "empowerment" zones in that they are explicitly structured to stimulate the incubation and acceleration of social and environmental impact businesses, trigger impact investments and spark the development of a regional "impact economy."
The Impact Entrepreneur Center for Social and Environmental Innovation will be a B Corp incubator and accelerator. It will be a gathering place for global thought leadership. The Center has begun to collaborate with local partners, especially the region's educational institutions, to cultivate "home grown" impact entrepreneurs.
A rising tide of for-benefit businesses will provide much-needed jobs for the region. They will help retain and attract talent to the region — particularly millennials, more than 80 percent of whom value a company's social and environmental impact as a leading factor when considering employment.
The Berkshires has long been a region rich with social and environmental pioneers and firsts. Just a short bike ride from my home in Sheffield will take me to the place where Elizabeth Freeman became one of the first slaves in the United States, to be freed through legal process; Great Barrington was the birthplace of human rights champion W.E.B. Du Bois and home to the first electrified Main Street;Indian Line Farm in Egremont was the first Community Supported Agriculture farm (CSA) in the United States, and world-renowned physician and social entrepreneur, Dr. Paul Farmer was born and raised in North Adams.
We can continue that rich tradition. The establishment of the Impact Entrepreneur Center for Social and Environmental Innovation and the world's first Public Benefit Enterprise Zone can create a vibrant regional economy that authentically reflects our forward-thinking, farm-to-table values, taps into the region's extraordinary creative culture, and creates a replicable model of a regional impact economy that we can export to a world thirsting for life-affirming, sustainable solutions.
Working together, we can build a more inclusive economy in the Berkshires. One that reinforces the values and brand of our region. Making the right investments now will help jump-start the viable economic engine needed to tackle the crippling problems on our horizon.
Laurie Lane-Zucker, a 20-year resident of the Berkshires, is founder & CEO of the Impact Entrepreneur Center for Social and Environmental Innovation.