For our latest spotlight, we’re featuring Charles Thomas from Queen City Forward. Queen City Forward is a community initiative that seeks to help increase the creation, scale, and impact of social ventures in Charlotte.
Learn more in our interview. Enjoy!
Charlotte Business Resources (CBR): Thank you so much for talking with us! First and foremost, tell us a little bit about the early days of Queen City Forward. What were the initial goals? Why was it established?
Charles Thomas (CT): Queen City Forward is a hub for social entrepreneurs that purposefully encourages, enables and scales high-impact social enterprises in order to create a robust cluster of innovation in the Charlotte region that spurs economic development, improves the lives of citizens, and drives a new model of sustainable growth.
The idea for Queen City Forward emerged from the Chamber Annual Retreat in 2010 when Christopher Gergen, the co-founder of Bull City Forward and the current CEO of Forward Ventures, shared Durham’s approach to supporting social entrepreneurship. Excited about the possibilities for Charlotte, city, corporate, and non-profit leaders decided that the Charlotte community was ready to provide the support necessary for social entrepreneurs and invited Gergen to develop Queen City Forward.
The initial goal was to create a hub and community to support social entrepreneurs. Connecting for-profit and non-profit business members to the resources and relationships needed to boost their triple bottom line of people, planet and profits. We are empowering the next Goodwill Industries, Habitat for Humanity or Burt’s Bees, a for-profit franchise with a reputation for social activism.
CBR: Tell us a little bit about the significance behind your slogan “Innovate for the Greater Good” and how you see it represented in your organization.
CT: We are actually changing our tag line to Creating the Ideal Economy because we feel this slogan better describes our mission. Our mission is to accelerate the growth of high impact businesses that are focused on the triple bottom line of people, planet and profit. In addition, our goal is to be a catalyst for social change by supporting social innovations, elevating the profile of social entrepreneurs and educating the community on the power of high growth entrepreneurs to create a truly sustainable economy.
CBR: How have you seen the organization change and grow over the years?
CT: We started as a membership based organization. In 2013, we launched the Impact3 accelerator as a 3-month program to accelerate the growth and impact of social entrepreneurs in our region. The program accepts up to 10 companies 2-3 times per year, providing mentoring and access to resources and relationships.
CT: Social entrepreneurs are unique in the Charlotte market so it’s easy for them to be missed in the entrepreneurship ecosystem. We feel it’s critical to connect them to resources and relationships. The benefit for Charlotte is economic development and positive social change.
IMPACT3 accelerates the growth and scalability of social ventures through targeted business development, connections to mentors and resources, and opportunities to access funding sources. The Accelerator consists of a facilitated mentor experience, one-on-one sessions with legal, financial and tech experts, Reality Check pitch sessions in front of investors, industry leaders and experienced entrepreneurs, workshops covering the basics of start-up development, and a final pitch/demo event.
The Queen City Forward College Accelerator IMPACT-U is a ten week summer accelerator program (June – August) specifically designed for undergraduate entrepreneurs to build and scale a socially conscious startup. Connected to the resources and relationships of Queen City Forward and the entrepreneurship community at Packard Place, students participate in workshops led by entrepreneurs and are exposed to a rich network of mentors, coaches and potential funders. The program culminates in a Demo Day in August or September, providing colleges the opportunity to enrich student learning and experiences while stimulating the entrepreneurial energy on campus.
CBR: How/where can social entrepreneurs utilize the resources provided by Queen City Forward?
CT: People can use our resources online at www.QueenCityForward.org, or they can visit us at Packard Place in uptown in Charlotte.
CBR: How did you personally become involved with Queen City Forward? What’s your personal history as a social entrepreneur?
CT: I graduated Duke with an economics degree and desire to make lots of money. I worked at Andesen Consulting (Accenture) for a few years and realized I wanted to live a purpose driven life. I left Andersen and started photography businesses teaching kids photography. After several years in business for myself, I joined The Light Factory and led the development and growth of their education department as the Education Director.
It was at The Light Factory that I realized the power of making money and doing good from revenue growth from our education classes that funded the work we did with students in the community. It was also on a trip with The Light Factory that I read about social entrepreneur Muhummad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank for the Poor. Reading the story of the start of Grameen fascinated me and inspired me to identify myself as a social entrepreneur.
A year or two later, I learned of the start of Queen City Forward and put my hat in the ring. It’s been a true startup journey since I started in October 2011.
CBR: In what ways has this organization changed your life for the better? What have you learned?
CT: I have learned a great deal about myself. I am a better leader professionally, civically and within my family. I learned the rigor of running a startup from taking calculated risks and preserving through the down times. Queen City Forward has strengthened me.
CT: We hope that Queen City Forward will play an instrumental role in developing Charlotte as an an attractive hub for innovation and entrepreneurship.
We seek to spur economic development, improve the lives of citizens, and drive a new business model of sustainable growth.
CBR: What are your own personal goals for the organization?
CT: In 2015, I’d like to see Queen City Forward’s programs go national and international. Recruiting startups to our region from all over the world. In addition, I’d like to see Queen City Forward launch our own venture fund or partner with a venture fund.
CBR: What do you think is the single-most important thing for Charlotte business owners to know about the City of Charlotte?
CT: I think of Charlotte as a partially painted canvas. There is opportunity and room to grow if you are perceptive, strategic and determined.
Want to learn more about Queen City Forward? Visit their website, engage on Facebook, and join the conversation on Twitter for more information!
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