The popular reality TV show “Shark Tank” highlights innovative start-ups pitching to investors. This past year, Michigan piloted a real-life version of this show, but instead of making profit, the idea was to demonstrate an innovative way to address poverty.

In 2013, Michigan created a competition to attract more than $1 million in new financial commitments to fund unknown change agents—people with innovative solutions to addressing joblessness, environmental problems, urban vacancy, and other issues.

As the nation focused on Detroit’s failure last year, it missed Michigan’s new strategy for actually moving the needle on poverty. Here’s what happened.

In a 2012 speech, Governor Snyder charged the Michigan Economic Development Corporation and Michigan Corps, a local nonprofit under the leadership of Elizabeth Garlow, to develop the nation’s first statewide social entrepreneurship competition. The competition aimed to “bring together the best innovative minds to design sustainable solutions to address unemployment.”

The first task was to define social entrepreneurship—no easy task. Elizabeth Garlow and I ultimately came up with a simple five-point checklist:

The entrepreneur is a tenacious leader with a pragmatic vision. The solution addresses a clear social problem. The solution changes systems, not just symptoms of the problem. The model prioritizes social impact over financial gain. The model generates a sustainable funding stream.

Using the state’s existing annual entrepreneurship contest as a foundation, Michigan Corps set out to launch Michigan’s Social Entrepreneurship Challenge. The hope was that they would receive 30 or so business plan submissions, but the response was overwhelming. Grassroots Michiganders came out in droves to the first training webinar, which racked up over 100 participants. By the time the competition chose winners, nearly 300 people had registered for the competition and 150 business plans had been submitted.

As Michigan piloted the nation’s first, statewide social entrepreneur competition, partners and funders were initially skeptical it would generate any meaningful outcomes. “We were told it would be impressive to get 50 entries to the competition,” remembered

Garlow. ”Michigan, it turns out, is full of civic-minded social entrepreneurs who have been waiting a lifetime to share their ideas.” In fact, so many participants asked for coaching on their business ideas that Michigan Corps had to hold a solid week of half-hour coaching clinics to meet demand. By May, the competition team chose 10local change agents as winners.

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