Dreamapolis: Indy's social entrepreneurs 

click to enlarge Dreamapolis founder, Derrick Braziel. - SUBMITTED PHOTO

Standing across from me, with a piercing gaze and sense of urgency, Eric Sarver asks, "So you're a freelance writer. What matters to you, Dan?"

I'm at an entrepreneurial training workshop to cover Dreamapolis. I need background research — duh."My story, my deadline," I say.

Unconvinced, my partner continues his barrage, "I don't buy it. What really matters? What matters to you, Dan!"

The old broken record routine, eh? Go deeper. "My audience, professional development and financial security."

Sarver's verbal assault escalates.

I met you five minutes ago, buddy. Tone down the existential interrogation. Aren't I here to interview you?

Irritated, I exclaim, "My integrity, my future ... finding a permanent job!"

"There it is. I felt that." He smiles.

I am attending the "Rise and Grind" workshop to learn more about Dreamapolis — an up-and-coming community organization advancing urban, social entrepreneurs — not to take a look in the mirror. Yet there I am, unable to merely observe, surrounded by dozens of others engaged in the same coercive exercise of self-discovery. So much for being a fly on the wall.

"Dreamapolis is continuing to help me learn what it takes to run a business," explains Sarver, a workshop participant planning to open a transitional home for women struggling with domestic violence, HIV/AIDS and addiction. "Right here is a circle of doers — people who have ideas and want to make a difference in Indianapolis. We are voting with our feet by being here."

It is within this circle of doers that Dreamapolis has begun to locate, train and invest in untapped potential.

Through a series of workshops — the next beginning June 4 at Central Library — Dreamapolis and its partners are promoting a new model of sustainable development in Indy's metro area; one that emphasizes the strength of urban social entrepreneurs and their commitment to better their own communities.

The dream in Dreamapolis

Like many entrepreneurs who find their niche after a series of failed endeavors, Dreamapolis was not the first venture of its founder, Derrick Braziel. Following an internship with a local non-profit, where he witnessed the time and energy put into fundraising, Braziel began a self-imposed crash course on social entrepreneurship and its many models.

"I read everything Muhammad Yunus that I could find," Braziel says, referring to the Bangladeshi economist whose work on microcredit led to a Nobel Peace Prize. "It helped me realize that alternative models exist that can achieve social objectives while also being sustainable."

Inspired by the literature of Yunus, David Bornstein and others, Braziel set off to start his own social business — a co-op that would produce a trendy, Native American-inspired shoe. Without investors, however, the idea remained just like his mockup shoe: planted firmly on the ground.

"Through the failure of that idea I recognized that my story was not unique," Braziel says. "There are a lot of other folks with great ideas and an entrepreneurial spirit. But for whatever reason – business background, intimidation – they are not translating their idea into a reality."

Dreamapolis launched in 2011 to fill that void, specifically targeting the urban community. Braziel, an African-American, learned early on from his parents to never let adversity make him "another statistic" within a city. It's a message that surfaces in both Dreamapolis' name and the themes of its workshops, including the "Rise and Grind" series earlier this year.

"We want to use language that is welcoming and inviting to people," Braziel explains. "Rise and grind is something that is used by urban entrepreneurs to mean they are up — they are working hard and trying to make their dream become a reality. We want our workshops to resemble that spirit and attitude."

Dreamapolis is interested in any entrepreneur, regardless of age, race or business experience, that believes his or her idea can benefit the city. Each workshop tackles a different stage of the business process, from writing a business plan to creatively marketing a product. Attendees are encouraged to be active in exercises and engage their peers, actions that develop important networking skills and promote a collaborative spirit among participants.

Collaborate and conquer

Braziel is the first to admit that Dreamapolis' success thus far has been a tribute to its own networking, including partnerships with the KI EcoCenter, Innovate Indy, Purdue Extension, Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) and the Indianapolis Public Library.

"The KI EcoCenter is an example of a place where I am surrounded by positive, African-American role models," Braziel says, "but I have met plenty of people that continue to encourage and support what Dreamapolis is doing."

KI EcoCenter, itself a social enterprise dedicated to youth-based, "green" development, quickly opened its doors to Dreamapolis and Innovate Indy for the earliest training workshops.

"I met the Dreamapolis guys last year and we began meeting at KI [EcoCenter]," says Alvin Sangsuwangul of Innovate Indy. "The workshop was on how to leverage social media to create a brand for yourself and for your mission, as well as a way to build a source for crowd-sourcing and crowd-funding."

LISC was also receptive to Dreamapolis and agreed to provide the initial seed money for their "Dollar and a Dream" competition. The competition awarded grants to urban entrepreneurs, including second place winner Denise Whittaker of Strategic Marketing Solutions, whose business supports small non-profits in Indy with their targeted mailing campaigns.

"The competition was really the beginning of going back to the drawing board to say what I really wanted to do," says Whittaker. "The prize money has helped me start branding myself from nametags to my website. And feedback from Dramapolis has helped inspire some new approaches for both targeting and connecting with potential clients."

What matters?

While Dreamapolis hopes to provide more grants in the future, it is currently focused on its upcoming workshop series with Indianapolis Public Library. Six will take place between June 4 and Aug. 18, and any Indianapolis resident interested in social entrepreneurship is encouraged to register by phone and attend.

"We pinpointed important ideas so that people can take an 'a la carte' approach to our program," Braziel explains. "They can pick one or two workshops and still be able to glean information relevant to their own situation."

As Dreamapolis continues to host successful entrepreneurial workshops, Braziel hopes the organization's reputation will attract a donor to both fund more seed grants and sponsor its incorporation as a 501 (c)(3) non-profit. Further down the road, he would like to see Dreamapolis incorporate as a low-profit limited liability company (L3C). L3C status, while not yet legal in Indiana, denotes companies that are for-profit as means to a social end, and would open more avenues for Dreamapolis to be a self-sustainable social enterprise. For now, Dreamapolis is focused on what matters.

"We want Indy to ultimately become a city in which a dreamer, regardless of race, class or gender, can become empowered to create solutions that are world-changing."

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