ASU alumna's incubator spurs Phoenix's social entrepreneurs

After graduating from Arizona State University’s School of Community Resources and Development in 2010 with a Master of Nonprofit Studies degree, alumna Courtney Klein set out to increase the odds of success for social entrepreneurs.

“When I was a student entrepreneur, I had a lot of mentors and people who helped me get the organization off the ground,” Klein says. “In 2012 I wanted to help other entrepreneurs have that same experience.”

In 2005, Klein received a $1,000 grant from the Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative to grow her nonprofit organization, Youth Re:Action Corps, a nationwide program that educates high school students about global issues. The nonprofit merged with New Global Citizens in 2008 and now works with grassroots partners in more than 30 countries around the world.

In 2012, the entrepreneur cofounded Seed Spot, a nonprofit incubator for Arizona innovators and social entrepreneurs that has secured more than 60 jobs and provided 15,000 hours of mentorship in the Valley since its launch.

Business incubators like Seed Spot focus on early-stage nonprofits or social ventures, offering shared office space, marketing lessons and mentorship to local entrepreneurs from the idea stage to launch and beyond. Incubators and accelerators have become an important part of startup scenes and economic growth in cities around the world.

“Every large business started as a small business, and the more small businesses that we can grow, the more impact that we can have on a local level.” Klein says.

Some Arizona incubators occupy specific niches: Gangplank, with locations in Chandler and Avondale, focuses on technology. Co+Hoots offers office space to small businesses and innovators and Arizona State University’s SkySong center in Scottsdale provides business services and programs offered or facilitated by the university.

“Entrepreneurs like to be around other entrepreneurs. There’s a power in peer-to-peer collaboration.” Klein says.

Seventy six percent of Seed Spot graduates are still in business in fields ranging from energy and environment to civic engagement. One Seed Spot alumna packages and distributes science-themed subscription boxes to encourage elementary school-age interest in the science, technology, engineering and math fields. Another entrepreneur created a video storytelling app that allows users to create 17-second stories.

The growing popularity of co-working spaces and entrepreneurial collaboration in Phoenix even earned a mention in Mayor Greg Stanton’s 2014 State of the City address: “With a network of co-working spaces, business accelerators and incubators, we’ve ignited the Valley’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. In central Phoenix alone, Seed Spot is helping start-ups get on their feet.”

Outside of business incubators and accelerators, centers like the ASU Lodestar Center are advancing nonprofit organizations and creating entrepreneurial ecosystems throughout the Valley.

“We want all our research, our knowledge and tools to make a difference in real life.” says Robert Ashcraft, executive director of the Lodestar Center for Philanthropy & Nonprofit Innovation at Klein’s alma mater, the School of Community Resources and Development.

Since 1999, the ASU Lodestar Center has made an effort to provide resources and opportunities for students and nonprofit leaders to advance nonprofit leadership practice in the Valley. 

“We offer knowledge, a range of tools and research,” says Ashcraft, who also instructs the capstone seminar required for all master of nonprofit studies students.

“The purpose of the capstone project is to bring a solution to real issues,” Ashcraft says.

The way Klein sees it, connecting entrepreneurs to mentors and like-minded individuals is critical for entrepreneurial ecosystems.

“It’s incredible to have a program that directly educates you about what you’re doing, and it wasn’t a theoretical or even academic education,” says Klein. “It was a really practical education, and I’m really thankful for that.”