Entrepreneur aims to establish innovation lab to harness Berkshires' economic spirit
STOCKBRIDGE >> South County entrepreneur Laurie Lane-Zucker says he is deeply interested in the environment and related social challenges that confront humanity in the 21st century.
The former executive director of the Orion Society, and founder and manager of the LinkedIn group Impact Entrepreneur, a business and industry development company with over 10,000 members in 150 countries, Lane-Zucker has spent over 25 years of his professional career involved with businesses focused on social and environmental impact.
It's those experiences, and his passions, that have led the Sheffield resident to develop an economic model that if successful could resolve many of the underlying issues that continue to affect the Berkshire County economy.
Lane-Zucker, a pioneer in the social entrepreneurship movement, is interested in establishing an "Impact Entrepreneur Center," a facility that would serve as a social enterprise/impact investing hub in the Berkshires to develop companies that would help diversify the county's economic base and give the region's millennials a reason to stay here.
"It's a center that (would be) looking very clearly at the very serious needs and challenges that the Berkshires are facing, whether it be the declining population, or the declining school age populations in the next 10 to 15 years," Lane-Zucker said, during a recent interview at a coffee shop in Stockbridge. He's lived in the Berkshires for 20 years.
"The challenge that we face long term is keeping talented young professionals here and attracting new ones," he said, "and diversifying an economy that is in desperate need of growing and diversity in ways that are appropriate and suitable for the kind of culture and mindset that is very deeply established here.
"The Berkshires already has a brand that is strong on environmental and social consciousness and creativity in the arts," said Lane-Zucker, the founder and CEO of Hotfrog, a founding B Corporation and the first company to transact shares offering on a designated impact investment exchange. In the United States, B or benefit corporations are a type of for-profit entity that includes a positive impact on society, workers, the community and the environment in addition to profit as its legally defined goals.
"We're talking about extending that brand to the whole economy, and building an economy that is using 21st century approaches to 21st century issues," Lane-Zucker said.
The project, which is currently in the developmental stages, would serve as a business incubator, innovation lab and co-working space providing different kinds of resources for entrepreneurs to build companies.
People associated with the town of Great Barrington have suggested the former Housatonic School in Housatonic as a possible site for the project, but Lane-Zucker said he's open to establishing the center anywhere in the Berkshires, and hasn't ruled out the possibility of establishing more than one facility here.
"1Berkshire has introduced us to the BIC project to see if there's a role that we can play there," Lane-Zucker said, referring to the yet-to-be built Berkshire Innovation Center at the William Stanley Business Park of the Berkshires in Pittsfield. "We're looking at brownfields, greenfields, potential building sites all over the county."
Lane-Zucker is also exploring ways to attract both public and private investment to fund his project.
The center's concept is based on a business model developed by MissionHUB LLC, a company that supports social entrepreneurs and impact investors in developing sustainable businesses that drive long-term social and environmental change.
A key provision in the center would be the establishment of a "Public Benefit Enterprise Zone," roughly an economic empowerment zone established to service incubating and accelerating impact businesses in the Berkshires. Lane-Zucker's concept recently attracted national attention via an article in Forbes magazine, and interest from an innovation group based in Baltimore.
"Just as Impact Entrepreneur has grown up around this idea of start your company but build an ecosystem around it, there's a similar principle at work here," Lane-Zucker said. "The Public Entrepreneur Benefit Zone merges the traditional enterprise zone with the Impact HUB prototype that exists in a number of cities around the world.
"Engage the governmental, commercial, educational, and NGO sections of the region around this idea of 'Let's not build any impact economy, but let's build an economy in the Berkshires that is fueled by social and environmentally impact businesses.' "
Programming for the Impact Entrepreneur Center will consist of a two-year, countywide initiative including lectures, summits and conferences featuring regional, national and international thought leaders in the impact entrepreneurship and impact investing sector. The first event, "Living the Change Festival" is scheduled for May 7 at Shire City Sanctuary in Pittsfield.
As part of a new partnership with the Fourth Sector Mapping Initiative, a global program that tracks for-benefit organizations, the Impact Entrepreneur Center also will undertake a complete census of all current for-benefit entities in the county, and create a new remote learning portal that will connect local entrepreneurs, investors and students of social and environmental impact as well as the 10,000 plus members of the Impact Entrepreneur Network to a range of online educational opportunities.
Lane-Zucker has met with government officials, business organizations and educational institutions in the Berkshires to discuss his idea.
"Overall, entrepreneurially I think it's well-founded, and I think it could be beneficial to the area," said David Curtis, an economic development specialist for 1Berkshire, who has met with Lane-Zucker several times. "Entrepreneurship takes many forms. ... It has the potential to draw people here which is something we're most interested in."
Speaking at a Berkshire Chamber of Commerce function two years ago, Curtis suggested the development of an "entrepreneur ecosystem" in the Berkshires to help businesses grow in the region.
"That would be a valuable piece in the building of that ecosystem, yes," said Curtis, when asked if Lane-Zucker's idea fits into the model that he suggested. "Building an entrepreneurial ecosystem takes many different players to make it work. This would be one piece that goes into the overall puzzle."
State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli. D-Lenox, also has expressed interest.
"Conceptually, I think it's a wonderful idea," Pignatelli said.
The legislator said Lane-Zucker's plans remind him of Greentown Labs in Somerville, a company that provides prototyping space, shared machine shop tools, office space and event space to provide its member entrepreneurs access to the equipment, services, education and networks that they need to launch companies quickly. Founded in 2011, Greentown Labs began when four entrepreneurs were looking for affordable space to build prototypes near the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
"It's tapping into the entrepreneurial spirit that people have," Pignatelli said. "Greentown Labs is a big old building where people rent space or tables to develop their own products. Sometimes you don't need an office just incubator space. I think it we could so something like that it would be pretty cool."
But could Lane-Zucker's idea work here? Rosalind Greenstein, the director of research and education at the American Institute of Economic Research in Great Barrington, read the article in Forbes regarding Lane-Zucker's idea of establishing a Public Benefit Economic Zone in the Berkshires.
"I'd like to see more about the business model and understand it to see if it would fit in (here)," Greenstein said. "I do know right now that the town (Great Barrington) is really focused on strengthening existing businesses."
When asked if Lane-Zucker's idea could work elsewhere in the Berkshires, Greenstein said, "It might. To me, it really matters what the linkages are. The idea that we support existing businesses to me is how you build clusters."
MissionHUB, the company Lane-Zucker's business model is based on, was founded in London in 2005 as a gathering place for impact pioneers. It's grown into a community of more than 7,000 professional members in 50-plus physical spaces worldwide that are mostly located in big cities.
"Few have been in rural areas" like the Berkshires, Lane-Zucker said. "But there are some. Through our diligence with this project I've been in touch with an impact hub in (a rural area) in northern Italy," he said. "They're in the black."
Pignatelli is impressed with the amount of knowledge that Lane-Zucker has brought to the project, and he thinks it would fit in Great Barrington.
"I give him credit. He's done a lot of homework and seems to have a good grasp of the ideas that are affecting the Berkshires," Pignatelli said. "If he can raise the money to make it happen, I think the town would be supportive."
Contact Tony Dobrowolski at 413-496-6224.
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