Atlanta church starts ‘shark tank’ for new socially conscious ventures

At First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta, church member Ellen Adair Wyche (left), the Rev. Dr. Tony Sundermeier and the Rev. Rebekah LeMon are the key people involved in creating “Epiphany,” a new endeavor at the church to create a social enterprise incubator that will choose worthy start-ups to fund and mentor through its membership. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

At First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta, church member Ellen Adair Wyche (left), the Rev. Dr. Tony Sundermeier and the Rev. Rebekah LeMon are the key people involved in creating “Epiphany,” a new endeavor at the church to create a social enterprise incubator that will choose worthy start-ups to fund and mentor through its membership. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

From its centrally located spot on Peachtree Street near the High Museum and Arts Center MARTA stop, First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta has long been synonymous with words like compassion, humility and commitment.

Words like “Shark Tank”? Eh, not so much.

Until now.

First Presbyterian (FPC) recently announced it will give away as much as $250,000 through its newly created "Epiphany" social venture incubator. Following in the footsteps of two other churches in Minnesota and Texas, FPC is soliciting applications from "social entrepreneurs" who have innovative ideas for start-up ventures and projects.

“In the past, we have been the implementers,” said Ellen Adair Wyche, an FPC member who first brought the idea to church leaders’ attention after learning of something similar being done in Houston. “What we’re trying to do now is be the catalyst.”

Applications will be accepted through Oct. 10 ( Next, semifinalists will be matched with experienced church members who'll help them develop their ideas over several months before they make their closing pitches to a judges panel in late February 2019.

The winning projects will receive planning assistance and start-up funding from a $250,000 pool that FPC jump-started via a $30,000 anonymous donation and money from an only-in-Y’allywood source: The makers of an upcoming major motion picture paid FPC a healthy fee to film inside the church.

OK, so the kinder, gentler Epiphany actually has nothing to do with "Shark Tank" and other TV reality shows. Still, it represents a new direction for the 170-year-old church, whose numerous community ministries include a food pantry, a residential women's transitional center, emergency rent assistance and a weekly breakfast for the homeless.

“Being on the front line of something new is not unfamiliar territory for this congregation,” said FPC’s senior pastor, the Rev. Dr. Tony Sundermeier. He stressed that Epiphany is adding to, not replacing any of the church’s programs and commitments. “Taking a risk is in the DNA of this church.”

Indeed, beyond saying that the proposed ventures should “address social challenges” and “further the values of love, community, transformation, and servant leadership,” the good folks at FPC don’t know what, exactly, will be arriving over the proverbial transom. Or what types of ventures will end up being selected. Or even how many.

And that’s a good thing, they say.

“This is a paradigm shift for us,” the Rev. Rebekah LeMon, FPC’s executive pastor, said enthusiastically. “A lot of what we’ve done has been doing it ourselves — seeing a need and having the creativity and the resources to address it. This is just a very visible way of shifting from, ‘We do that by people coming here and we meet with them’ to ‘We may never see the thing happen in our space.’”

Still, there's some precedent to go on. Refuge Coffee in Clarkston and Thistle Farms, a Nashville nonprofit that provides job training to and sells soaps and other natural products made by female survivors of trafficking, prostitution and addiction, are both good examples of what's meant by social entrepreneurship, the FPC team says.

FPC was already discussing "economic empowerment" of poor and vulnerable populations as a possible focus going forward for some of its ministry work when Wyche told them about "Project Flourish." First Presbyterian Church of Houston launched its social impact initiative for entrepreneurs in 2017. After a slight delay caused by Hurricane Harvey, Project Flourish's judges panel awarded $240,000 in grants to five ventures in March 2018.

The largest grant — $75,000 — went to a pair of Houston-area architects who created a flooring product for refugees living in tentlike shelters in temporary camps around the world.

"They have dirt floors, which get cold and can lead to infections and disease," Austin Hermann, the director of ministry empowerment at First Presbyterian Church of Houston, said of the temporary shelters that the venture known as Good Works Studio: Emergency Floor set out to improve on with its low-cost elevated floors. "It's brilliant, but no one ever thought of that idea."

Project Flourish, in turn, was modeled on the Innové Project at Colonial Church in Edina, Minn. Beginning in 2010, the church located in an affluent Minneapolis suburb created a $250,000 pool to fund social enterprise ventures. Among the impetuses was a desire to see if the church's giving could have more long-term impact by integrating some of its congregants' untapped professional "Monday to Friday expertise" into the wave of social entrepreneurship within the broader culture, said Brian Jones, Colonial's minister of mission at the time.

The riff on “Shark Tank,” with the finalists pitching their ideas to a panel of judges?

“I wanted it to be fun,” Jones chuckled, “and also a practical way for identifying money that can launch a fresh venture.”

The Innové Project wound up funding 11 social ventures over two rounds of giving. Jones, meanwhile, moved on to create Innové Studios, a nonprofit that consults with churches, including FPC in Atlanta, on launching their own social innovation projects.

It seems FPC’s congregation has bought in to the idea in every sense of the word. The church “has the money” to fund Epiphany, Sundermeier says; still, FPC did a little innovating of its own this year as part of its annual giving campaign, creating a “Second Mile” giving opportunity for any members who also want to contribute toward the $250,000 pool.

Very early in the campaign, the results were encouraging, LeMon said.

“So far every pledge that’s come in that I’ve seen has had a pledge for the operating fund and a Second Mile gift.”


The ideas submitted can be for nonprofit or for-profit ventures.

There’s no age or experience requirement for applicants.

Applicants don't have to become FPC members or adhere to the Christian faith to be considered. However, "proposals should further the Christian values of love, community, transformation and servant leadership," the Epiphany FAQ says.

The ideas or ventures can have impact beyond Atlanta, although applicants must reside in the Atlanta area “so that they can fully participate in the incubation process.”

The church won’t own the winning ideas, and the judges may award varying amounts to different individuals or projects.

Source: First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta, Epiphany Frequently Asked Questions

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