The Do Good LA Story

“Maybe you are selling Los Angeles short,” the woman from whom I sought advice told me over breakfast.
Me? A native and a lover of the place? Selling Los Angeles short?

I loathe ill-informed stereotypes of my hometown—the misperception that it is a one-industry town dominated by superficial, materialistic and self-absorbed people.  I know better.  I know, for instance, that LA has the nation’s largest port and is a major manufacturing center….that other prominent industries include culture/creativity, finance, health services, high technology research and development and higher education. Criticized as a city that doesn’t respect its past, the LA Conservancy has the largest membership of any municipal historic preservation organization in the country. I know and defend LA as a richly textured place with a vibrant cultural and intellectual life that goes far beyond being the entertainment capital of the world.

But that morning over breakfast, I didn’t see LA as a center of social entrepreneurism. That was my problem. I passionately wanted to help improve the world by finding and applying innovative solutions to our most vexing problems.  And I didn’t want to have to leave LA to do it. Yet the action seemed to be elsewhere, particularly San Francisco and New York, the cutting edges of this exciting movement.

Was I selling LA short? Was there more happening here than I knew? I determined to find out.

What I found:
LA is, in fact, bustling with social entrepreneurs—though they are largely invisible to the general public, the media, and policy makers. They are not closely connected through geography or a communication network; nor are they nurtured by economic incentives. Our social entrepreneurs lack critical mass, visibility and clout. They lack the power to transform LA into an environment that encourages and celebrates their humanitarian work. Because they do not adequately communicate with each other, they lack the ability to support each other and to create a leveraged environment where the “sum is equal to more than the parts."

They are also missing out on money~~philanthropic donations or venture capital~~due to lack of individual visibility and collective coordination. It is distressing to learn from a 2011 California Community Foundation study that a minority of the 2,412 private and community foundations in LA County give locally. Moreover, national foundations make significantly smaller grants to LA organizations than they do to organizations based in San Francisco, New York and Boston because according to the California Community Foundation study, “L.A. has a reputation as uncoordinated and unwieldy when it comes to philanthropy so national funders avoid us."

LA’s social entrepreneurs are living in a city that has lost the distinction of being the city of the future, the land of opportunity, an exciting place where exciting things were happening. While LA remains an important commercial center, many large companies have left. The city has the beginnings of a viable mass transit system but completion is billions of dollars and many years away. Legions of creative and visionary thinkers live here, however bureaucracy, lack of funding and other constraints thwart innovation and action. LA is home to world-class research universities, yet the public education system is among the worst in the country. And the weather is a major attraction, but the cost of living is a leading detractor.

The fact that LA is not included in lists of the country’s most creative, innovative cities that attract recent college graduates and entrepreneurs is telling. A few examples: Entrepreneur Magazine did not include LA in its August 2010 listing of the “50 cities and 10 lifestyles energizing businesses in all shapes and sizes in the United States." Nor did Entrepreneur include LA as a tech hub (that distinction went to Silicon Valley and New York's Silicon Alley) or among the "9 Cities You Wouldn't Think Are Hubs for Startups" in September 2012. While Richard Florida (author of The Creative Class) identified California as the most creative state in the U.S. in an October 2010 study, it won that distinction because it is the home of Stanford and Silicon Valley, not due to robust creativity in LA. Business Week identified the “20 Brainiest Cities in U.S.” and Lumos Labs published its list of the "25 Smartest Cities in America" in 2012. LA was not among the cities listed. 

What could my friends and I do to nurture, promote, and celebrate social entrepreneurism here and help our LA reclaim the distinction of being the city of the future? Identify the problem and address the need.

LA needs a vibrant and visible alliance that promotes, celebrates and publicizes social enterprise/social entrepreneurship as a means of strengthening the civic and economic vitality of the city and region making our community and the world a better place. (Since beginning our work on Do Good LA two years ago, some exciting networks have formed, including Social Enterprise Los AngelesSocial Enterprise Alliance-LA, and HUB LA, among others, and Silicon Beach has emerged as an important center of tech start-ups.)

The absence of this vibrant and visible alliance is a problem. Why? The answer is simple: Our community—our civic culture--suffers. And jobs are lost.

Given the geography of LA and the lack of media who cover social entrepreneurism, very few are in on the exciting secret---social entrepreneurs are beginning to forge a vibrant community in Los Angeles whose bonds are impervious to geographic or socio-economic boundaries. The passion of social entrepreneurs is contagious and has the potential to unite our community~~making it more intimate, purposeful, and meaningful.

No longer a Fortune 500 city, LA is a primarily a city of small and mid size businesses, many established by immigrants and minorities and others who want to pursue a self-charted professional path. There is an abundance of entrepreneurial talent in LA and a desire to help others. This talent and desire can be directed in support of existing or new social enterprises.