Upstart Co-Lab: How Artists, Social Entrepreneurs, and Impact Investors Change the World, According to Laura Callanan

Interview by Kelly Eisenhardt

(3BL Media/Justmeans) - In a world that has long relied on business and science to make a better and healthier planet, we see traditional disciplines embracing collaboration with artists to gain new perspectives in solving the world’s problems. Impact investors have been looking for similar opportunities in the creative economy, but there have been none – until now.

Laura Callanan is the founding partner of Upstart Co-Lab, a nonprofit connecting artists, industry leaders, and investors to solve social challenges. She is the former senior deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, where she led all grant-making programs, operations, and research before launching Upstart Co-Lab in 2016. Previously, as a consultant with McKinsey & Company’s Social Sector Office, Laura led work on social innovation, sustainable capitalism, and social impact assessment. She has served in a leadership capacity for a number of organizations, including her role as senior adviser at the United Nations Development Programme, executive director of the Prospect Hill Foundation, associate director at the Rockefeller Foundation, and associate treasurer for the Wallace Foundation—Kelly Eisenhardt

KE: Upstart Co-Lab aligns systems, connects people, and brings creativity and investment together. What was your inspiration?

LC: I have a friend to thank for inspiring me. Jim Houghton was the founding director of Signature Theatre in New York City. Six years ago, at one of our periodic lunches, Jim told me about big plans for a $70 million public-private partnership to build a three-theatre complex for Signature. It would be a large, comfortable lobby and café, which would be open 12 hours a day, seven days a week as a community green in the middle of Manhattan. The tickets for all of the shows would be $25, making theatre accessible to diverse audiences. The theatre would support living playwrights writing original plays about the experience of today.  

I had been on the Signature Theatre board in the early years, knew how it had started small, knew the importance of its mission, and knew what this growth meant. Suddenly I heard myself say, “Jim, YOU are a social entrepreneur.” I then babbled on about how nobody called him that because he worked in the arts – and he did not call himself that because he worked in the arts. But that, indeed, he was a social entrepreneur.

I started wondering how many other artists were also social entrepreneurs. That was the start of the journey that led to the launch of Upstart Co-Lab in April 2016. By the way, Signature opened its new facility in 2012, and it lives up to all of Jim’s original plans.

KE: What is the mission of Upstart Co-Lab?

LC: Our mission is to create opportunities for artist-innovators to deliver social impact at scale. We want to increase opportunities for artists as innovators, unleash more capital for creativity, and enable sustainable, creative lives.

As our name suggests, we are new and spunky. Art is at the center of what we are about. We work to foster collaboration between artists, impact investors, and social entrepreneurs. We aspire to be a laboratory, hatching new solutions to scale impact.

KE: Is every artist a social entrepreneur?

LC: We believe artists are entrepreneurs and innovators just by the nature of who they are, what they do, and the work they create. When we talk about artists, we include all artistic disciplines – music, dance, painting, and writing – out of a core belief in the value of creativity.

Creativity connects tradition with innovation. It’s about building something new by leveraging history. To craft radical change requires an understanding of context, whether the form is aesthetic or scientific. In that way, artists represent our ability to explore, take risk, and solve problems.

Many artists are engaged in a social practice, using different tools and techniques to address climate change and social cohesion, but they are working like other social entrepreneurs. Artists are working in every thematic area, on every social issue you can name: youth development, environmental conservation, community building, sustainable food, and criminal justice.

KE: Can you give us some examples of the artist-innovators who have inspired Upstart?

LC: Artist and designer Jae Rhim (JR) Lee gave a popular TED Talk titled My Mushroom Burial Suit.  What started as an artistic provocation is now a company, Coeio, which offers the Infinity Burial Suit. Infinity Burial uses mushrooms and other biological organisms to help facilitate decomposition in a planet-friendly way. JR would like to see society become less of a “death-denying culture” and lower the burden on the planet. As an artist, she came to this work differently than an ecologist or start-up entrepreneur. This allowed JR to discover that her business model was not so much about selling a product as it was about supporting a person and his or her family in discussing and preparing for end of life.

David Gurman is a data artist. He translates information into sound and motion. David is co-founder of VibrantData, a software company that enables next-generation predictive modeling. He also leads design for Hacking Creativity, the largest data-driven study of creative styles which is a project of Red Bull’s High Performance Group.

Jeni Britton Bauer is the founder of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, a B Corporation that partners with Ohio farms, direct trade growers, and women-led businesses. Jeni is a visual artist and now uses her creative process to create unique ice creams.

Robert Karimi is an artist, comedian, and cook who combines theater and cooking to promote health and well-being. He describes it as making healthy messaging delicious. Robert’s ThePeoplesCook Project also uses food as a way for people to share their culture, tell their stories, and build community. Because Robert is a fun, engaging guy, he gets welcomed in to lead team-building activities and corporate off-sites. When he brought his program to General Mills, he was approached by a food scientist to help re-invent breakfast cereal. Robert was seen as an ideator, not just as an entertainer. I get excited when artists are actually recognized as the entrepreneurs that they are.

KE: With such inspiration and innovation, were you able to get buy-in from large-scale funders to undertake these efforts?

LC: Upstart is a fiscally sponsored project of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, a nonprofit. We are fortunate to be supported by the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the FB Heron Foundation, and others. We are currently talking with impact investors about putting capital into the first impact investing product for the creative economy, the first of five projects Upstart is launching. The initial response has been very positive.

KE: Any advice for aspiring artist-innovators?

LC: If you are still in school, go study business and entrepreneurship. This builds the foundation for understanding what investors and partners will be looking for and why. You will learn some of the basic jargon and key concepts. It’s also a great way to meet folks outside the arts who may become your partners, investors, or clients.

Find ways to move beyond the arts sector. Partner with individuals and organizations that share your goals, but bring complementary techniques, talents, networks, and resources.

Be patient. You are building a bridge between worlds. Keep your sense of humor. Think like the ambassador that you are. Expect points of difference and disagreement. Look for the common ground.

KE: How can artists, potential partners, and impact investors learn more about Upstart Co-Lab?

LC: We have a great website and a fun video that explains who we are, what we do, and why we do it. The keynote on the Surprise Social Entrepreneur that I gave at SoCap13 is also there, talking about Jim Houghton and Signature Theatre.

Readers can learn more about the projects we are working on and check out my favorite part of the website – profiles of 21 artist-innovators, including my friend Jim who inspired it all.