Opinion

Opinion | Diane Hessan

Help Wanted: Let’s be the best at social entrepreneurship

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LAST YEAR, for the second straight year in a row, Massachusetts topped Bloomberg’s rankings of the most innovative states in America. We beat California by only .03 points, but we were number one because of our universities, our talent, and the sheer quantity of companies starting up in our region.

In places like Kendall Square, the Seaport District, and Harvard Square, nearly 2,000 startups are passionately solving problems in new ways – often supported by accelerators like Mass Challenge or the Harvard i-Lab. This past month, Babson (the number one school for entrepreneurship in the country) held its BETA business plan competition, and Tufts held its 100k New Ventures Competition. Events abound, from last week’s gathering of the region’s food innovation community to this week’s Boston Blockchain Week. And this past Sunday night, the MIT Media Lab was celebrated in a “60 Minutes” segment.

The amount of innovation going on in our city is downright dazzling — a huge point of pride for all of us who call Boston home.

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Still, it seems like we are making less progress in leveraging our vigor, creativity, and grit to attack our biggest societal problems. If our entrepreneurs can invent Trip Advisor — or create apps to help us find parking spaces — why can’t we apply that innovation to the T? If our phenomenal cluster of education technology companies can help people learn online, why does Starbucks need to wait six weeks and close down for an afternoon to deliver racial bias training? If our biotech companies are making inroads with all kinds of diseases, why can’t they accelerate a solution for our opioid crisis? Could our innovative Massachusetts companies also attack fake news, income inequality, and more?

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Clearly, we have startups working on civic issues, such as Voatz, which is building technology that allows citizens to vote using their mobile phones. The result: increased voting rates for millennials, for our military, and for people who have a hard time getting to the polls. Voatz is using a combination of blockchain technology and biometrics, which will eliminate the concerns about security that serve as obstacles to online voting. The company recently raised $2.2 million (led by a Utah investor) and is trying to get traction with local and state decision makers. Results are excellent, but the sales process is like molasses. Could we help them move faster?

Companies like Voatz need our support, our funding, and our networks — and they need a spotlight to shine on them. Most of the civic tech, political tech, and social tech companies in our region are tiny and underfunded — and thus not able to scale in the way that other tech companies can. The Boston Foundation, the Barr Foundation, and a growing number of impact investors are contributing to social causes — but their investments rarely are at the same scale of the private equity or venture capital firms in our region.

We should be able to do better. Massachusetts is already at the center of addressing some of our thorniest problems – particularly in life sciences. It’s time for the next stage: for Massachusetts to be the best at inspiring and supporting a new generation of social entrepreneurs who want to change the world.

Diane Hessan is an entrepreneur, author, and chair of C Space. Follow her on Twitter @DianeHessan.