Monday, October 10, 2011

Nashville "non-profit" Entrepreneur Center receives millions in government subsidies, and then "counterprotests" Occupy Wall Street

Shorter Entrepreneur Center social media content strategy.

I blogged on the Occupy Wall Street occupations almost 2 weeks ago, about 10 days after they started in New York City. By then Occupy groups were spreading around the country, including cities in Tennessee. Today a poll came out showing that a majority of Americans know about #OWS and more view it favorably than negatively. This movement is looking increasingly like the protests for reform and revolutionary democracy that have encircled the globe since the "Arab Spring" earlier this year.

Another indication that #OWS is gaining momentum is the knee-jerk way they are attacked not just by right-wing political groups, but by other organizations not known for sniping in political debates. Take Nashville's Entrepreneur Center. For some unacknowledged, inexplicable reason the Entrepreneur Center decided to "counterprotest" Occupy Wall Street by trying to encourage its 2,000 Twitter followers to tweet against #OWS with a hashtag (#Iamthe53) originally promoted by an arch-conservative blogger. The Entrepreneur Center's twitter stream issued a curiously polarizing battle cry:

What exactly does the Entrepreneur Center stand for again?

And the surprisingly unabashed partisanship and callousness toward dissenters, who have the right to assemble and demand industry reforms, was only the first problem for what should be a more neutral resource center for small businesses.

The counterprotest posturing is also problematic because the Entrepreneur Center, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, just received one of the largest grants from the federal government Economic Development Administration in Tennessee history ($2.5 MILLION). That money is designated by the federal government for flood recovery, but in effect it also alleviates the center of costs it might incur by continuing its private mission in Rolling Mill Hill development. This list of heavy-hitters in venture capitalism, the Nashville Chamber of Commerce, law, and health care suggests that the Entrepreneur Center is not hurting for money or influence.

This appears to be an influential special interest organization, subsidized by our tax dollars, taking a side against ordinary people who themselves are trying to leverage wider opportunities for other ordinary people at the grassroots because they themselves do not have the financial resources so readily available to wealthy EC leaders. EC counterprotesters are obviously willing to beg federal grant money that the rest of us help pay, that allows them to organize their increased resources to maintain political influence. However, rather than being satisfied with what they have they begrudge others--many of whom have been cut out of the system--for mobilizing the only shared resources they have: the masses who push for social change from the bottom.

When I pointed these problems out to the unidentified Entrepreneur Center social media manager tweeting on Friday and asked for an inventory of corporate welfare they were receiving from taxpayer dollars, all I received back was a reiteration of their company's stated goal:

So, again if their purpose is to aid entrepreneurs with their businesses, what business does the Entrepreneur Center have taking sides in social protest through social media while promoting conservative Republican attempts to torpedo Occupy Wall Street?

As I write this, #OccupyNashville is camped at Legislative Plaza near the state capitol in a departure from the focus of other Occupy groups, which are trying to occupy economic institutions (like the Wall Street financial district). Since so many protest groups hold their demonstrations at Legislative Plaza, Nashville's occupiers look merely like another in a long string of protesters, including the Tea Party. I am clueless and puzzled by why Legislative Plaza was chosen, when it seems to dilute the difference this movement intends to make.

Changing the system cannot start with protesting government, because corporations own government. Legislative Plaza seems to be a diversion. Might I suggest that a good place to take the Occupy Nashville protest would actually be places like the Entrepreneur Center where movers and shakers are. The idea of flood recovery money going to a business special interest group that is now attempting to counter dissent is dramatic, and it underscores the caste system dragging our country to hell. The dissent needs to be registered at places like 105 Broadway, Suite 200, Entrepreneur Center central, because the non-profit entrepreneurs seem to be inviting a fight.

UPDATE: I just found out from City Paper reporter, Joey Garrison (who is doing a story on the Entrepreneur Center's "counterprotest"), that EC has scrubbed their #iamthe53 tweets from their Twitter stream (there was a second one blaming stock market uncertainty on the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Bill and Barack Obama's health care initiative). Fortunately, I saved a screenshot of the EC tweets, because I've seen this happen too many times. You can view their tweets in the middle of the post above. I have never understood why people who delve into social media think that you can simply wipe a dubious history out of existence. Their counterprotest really happened, and I have the shot above to prove it.

UPDATE: When contacted by Garrison, the Entrepreneur Center's PR specialist did not acknowledge the partisan tweets or claim any error in their communications tactics. He did equivocate and walk back the non-profit's earlier stridency:

“Within the bigger context of economic development and job creation, there is frustration across the country about the status of the economy,” Clay Jackson, the entrepreneur center’s director of marketing and communications told The City Paper. “The Occupy Wall Street protests, as such to me, are very undefined as far as what their goals are.”

Jackson seemed to downplay taking sides in the ongoing protests.

“The [Entrepreneur Center] stands behind people who are trying to create jobs and build companies,” he said. “I don’t know if there’s a side for us to fall on within that debate. If you see us as weighing in, it’s weighing in on the side of people who are trying to create jobs, to build great companies.”

Blah, blah, as such to me, blah, blah. That obfuscation seemed to provide the perfect hazy background for a blog post at the Entrepreneur Center site (like the tweets, anonymously written) which transformed the non-profit's social media content from hard-right hippy hater to granola-crunching tree-hugger merely observing Occupy Wall Street:

The national dialogue about Occupy Wall Street, greed and profits creates an excellent opportunity to talk about social entrepreneurs ....

Many people aren’t aware of “social enterprises,” or “social entrepreneurs”, so I’d like to elaborate. Social enterprises run the gamut of donation and grant driven non-profits to corporations that adhere to the triple bottom line of People, Planet and Profit.

Social enterprises are “mission-based” organizations as opposed to pure profit-based organizations and as a result of progressive businesses like Ben and Jerry’s, Toms Shoe’s, and local example Magdalene, Inc, (Thistle Farms), social entrepreneurs are changing the world.

At the EC, one of our 4 key verticals is social entrepreneurship, because building good businesses also requires building businesses that do good. The status quo of the pure profit driven corporation has changed a lot over the past several decades, and some of the greatest innovation is created by social entrepreneurs who build businesses that do good.

Commence organization re-branding. A couple of us tried to hash out EC's about-face on Twitter with the blogger, who proceeded to invite us to support the non-profit's "green" initiatives while still failing to answer my questions about how much federal, state, and local welfare they receive for their "mission".

Excuse my cynicism, but does the Entrepreneur Center's flip-flop seem convenient to any one else, given the timing of the City Paper story?


  1. Not 27 percent. I think use of the tag line "Majority Approve is a bit disingenuous. 27% of 54 is not overwelming and 19% is not a huge gap. Do you actually realize what it would mean if these were to turn into Arab Spring type protests?

  2. The location either underscores a poor understanding of the Occupy protests or a fairly sophisticated understanding of Tennessee politics (as in not the guns and God window dressing but the real priorities). I'd like to think it's the latter, but it's probably more the former. Still, it is very close to downtown Nashville's "financial district."

  3. If the Entrepreneur Center wants to be on the right side, they'd join in with the Occupy Wall Street people and demand that the banks start opening up lines of credit to entrepreneurs.

    I know of two local business people, on with a 25 year track record in the restaurant business and another manufacturer with a five year track and a proprietary construction product. They are both expanding their businesses (using savings and credit cards) because local banks are not willing to loan them money.

  4. The Entrepreneur Center is small potatoes, not wasting your time commenting on it unless you intend to hit everyone from right to left.

    People got killed in Arab Spring uprisings. People were shucking off tyrants and asking for democracy.

    In the U.S., we have able-bodied people complaining that they lived too lavish a lifestyle while in college, and it put them in crushing debt.

    These people oppose corporate bailouts, but want a personal bailout.

    They are inchoherent. That may change, but, right now they are unorganized and espousing ideas that work at cross-purposes.

  5. Thanks for posting this Mike. I disagree that the Entrepreneur Center is too 'small potatoes.' Any business owner should understand that they are subsidized by the resources of the federal, state, and local governments in one way or another (public education for an educated workforce, roads and ports to get your product from and to markets, R&D investments, etc etc). It is not okay for the EC to decry gov't initiatives in the very same year they obtain massive federal funding for their new space. Do I hope some new job creating ventures come out of the EC? Sure thing. However, they seem to incubate mostly tech ventures that would have the easiest time picking up and leaving Nashville as soon as the funding runs out. I hope some of the folks running that org can open their eyes and think about the long term way they are creating value for our community. Oh yea, and hire a new Tweeter.

  6. I still don't get it. I think their tweets were stupid and poorly thought out. But I am stunned by people saying they shouldn't criticize the govt while receiving government funds. That's just crazy.

    You all seem to be implying that, even if the government doesn't restrict their speech, that they should self-censor.

    Let me just suggest that if this were a left-leaning tweet, you wouldn't be howling quite so loudly. Mike, I think your final quote in the City Paper was actually spot-on -- I found it surprising that they engaged in this kind of fractious political debate that doesn't seem to have a lot to do with entrepreneurship.

    But the rest of this? I'm still surprised. I'd love for you all to explain what relationship, if any, government and business should have together.

  7. Nice article.

    I think Occupy Nashville chose Legislative Plaza because the law allows them to occupy indefinitely(a key feature of the Occupy movement), it's a designated public space for political protest, and the group is trying to be very inclusive and democratic in its process, showing by example how far afield what they do is from how our closed-door, money worshiping, backroom dealing government works now. So I think maybe you're missing the overarching point of the protest--to arrive at demands and solutions and apply political/social pressure via truly democratic processes over a longer period of time. Being a persistent symbol of inclusiveness at the steps of power is a big part of it, in my opinion. That's not to say they shouldn't include marches and events where the action happens--I think you make a great point to that effect.

    And to the person talking about personal bailouts: the finance sector systematically inflated bubbles that pumped up home prices and tuition to exorbitant levels, which they then sold to pensions, mutual funds, and municipalities with AAA ratings. Thus the prices are based on fraud, and supported by rigged bankruptcy laws and regulatory capture. But you want to blame the dying middle class for wanting the dream they had been promised their whole lives? Nice.

    The money banks are extorting from the American people should go back to the people, and bailing out student debt and home mortgages--two groups definitely victimized by the debt machine--makes a lot more sense than pumping money back into the unregulated finance sector for further extortion. One is stimulative and just, the other is deleterious, except in the case of thwarting yet another manufactured crisis(it's happening in Europe and it will happen here again soon). Add in small businesses loans at low interest and you have a recipe for an actual recovery.

    Also, most people at Occupy are calling simply for rule of law, prosecution of fraud, end of corporate influence over politics, personhood, etc, none of which have anything to do with "personal bailouts". So your criticism is pure garbage and based on reductive criticism. At the multiple rallies I attended, I heard maybe two people mention student loan/home mortgage bailouts. You might try reading the website where the official statements are there for you to read.