Village Capital seeks to help entrepreneurs with social purpose

Entrepreneurial accelerator programs, where early-stage companies can get advice and sometimes funding, are not uncommon.

When 15 startup businesses got together in Atlanta this spring for a 10-week program put on by the nonprofit organization Village Capital, however, it was something different.

Besides trying to make a profit, all of the companies hope to make a positive impact on society.

Also, the companies, not a panel of outside observers, assessed one another's business performance and prospects over the 10 weeks, even deciding which two companies would share $100,000 in prizes awarded at the program's end.

The angle appealed to participant Sterling Laylock, whose company, FOGDOG, developed a wet waste filtration technology to manage the disposal of fats, oils and grease at restaurants.

Laylock calls Village Capital a "human turbocharging system." It creates, he said, "an ongoing conversation about entrepreneurial business realities that is backed by a tremendous level of active collaboration."

The social impact aspect is key, he added. "You're consistently sharing and executing ideas born out of conversations among people that believe what you believe," he said. "VilCap is about why you're doing what you're doing, and what you believe about it. Money is important, but it's not why we're doing this business. Money is a result to a reason."

Among the participants: viaCycle, developer of a bike-sharing system that uses mobile phones; Ballers Bridge, an online networking community that lets athletes of all levels market themselves; and SmartGaon, a mobile technology that helps provide affordable health care in India. Areas ranging from local agriculture to education were represented.

Atlanta lawyer Jeff Woodward, a member of the Village Capital board, said participants benefit greatly from peer review.

It forces them to think "not only as an entrepreneur, but as an investor," he said. Members dig deeply into one another's businesses, he said, to analyze and solve problems.

Founded in 2010, Atlanta-based Village Capital has operated 13 programs around the world, in countries including China, India, Brazil and the United Kingdom. But the program that wrapped this month in Atlanta was the first in its hometown. The program was sponsored by InvestAtlanta, Emory University and Hub-Atlanta.

Ross Baird, the executive director, said he'd like to bring the program back to Atlanta, where 50 companies applied for the 15 slots.

The need for programs to help social-minded entrepreneurs is growing, he said, thanks to increased interest in areas such as clean energy and environmental health, and less available funding from government and philanthropic groups.

More entrepreneurs, he said, "want to do something good beyond making money."

Kyle Azevedo, co-founder of viaCycle, which won one of the two $50,000 prizes, said, "Social entrepreneurship is not always prominent in Atlanta, and being able to connect with people who have built similar businesses and can offer advice and resources is a huge boost."