Signal Fund is bridging critical funding gaps for social innovatorsLEARN MORE

Social Innovation Leadership Takes Center Stage at SXSW 2023

From left to right: Trymaine Lee, Gwyneth Gaul, Laurin Leonard '18, Tiffany Thompson, Liza Mueller, Damon Packwood '16, and Jehiel Oliver ’15.

Social innovation conversations were buzzing in Austin, TX, last month at one of the United States’ premier cross-disciplinary and multi-sector convening of diverse leaders, creatives, and technologists: SXSW EDU and SXSW. The Echoing Green community, including Fellows, staff, and ecosystem partners, spoke at events throughout the two-week conference, bringing insights on design, access to capital for innovators, tech for good, civic inclusion, and more to the stages.

At SXSW EDU, Shante’ Elliott ’20 talked about how technology can fill the gap for the four hundred thousand children in foster care in the U.S. Heejae Lim ’15 convened diverse perspectives to discuss launching and managing an ed-tech startup. And on opening day of SXSW, Jehiel Oliver ’15 expressed the transformative impact of a $5 million investment from Heifer International on his social enterprise, Hello Tractor. Kathryn Finney ’16 hit the main stage to discuss her storied career, followed by a signing for her book Build the Damn Thing. Additional attendees from the Echoing Green ecosystem shared insights throughout the event, including Felecia Hatcher ’17, D’Seante Parks ’22, Tony Weaver, Jr. ’16, Damon Packwood ’16, Laurin Leonard ’18, Chelsey Roebuck ’13, Derick Pearson ’17, and Brandi Mack, representing Designing Justice + Designing Spaces, co-founded by Deanna Van Buren ’16.

Read on for our 2023 SXSW round-up.


SXSW EDU kicked off the two-week convening, gathering innovators to connect about the future of education. Educator-innovator and Echoing Green’s Vice President of Programs, Dr. Kimberly Osagie, shared her insights on a high-powered panel, “Proximity is Powerful Technology for Change,” joining other key voices in the social impact spaces: Tulaine Montgomery (moderator) of New Profit, Sam Cobbs of Tipping Point, and Dr. Carmen Rojas of the Marguerite Casey Foundation. Together, they tackled a lofty and critical question for the field: how do we break away from the dominant culture strategies of philanthropy to co-design solutions alongside people closest to the issues we’re trying to solve?

Kimberly noted that for Echoing Green, “proximity begets proximity.” She explained that since its founding in 1987, Echoing Green has strived to build an organization that is for, by, and of our Fellows—many of whom bring an ethos of community organizing to their work and are from the communities impacted by their work. Their relationship-building skills, power analysis, and solutions orientation advance their organizations and the collective impact of Echoing Green’s global social innovation community. With 1992 Fellow Cheryl L. Dorsey at the helm, Fellows on our board of directors, and Fellows on the Fellowship selection committees, Echoing Green trusts proximate leaders to be the best problem solvers. Fellows have an indispensable influence on Echoing Green, pushing the institution to ensure equity and intentionality in supporting emerging and established social innovation leaders and influencing other funders to do the same.

Proximity begets proximity. We’ve built an organization for, by, and of our Fellows because we truly trust proximate leaders to be the best problem solvers.

Dr. Kimberly Osagie

The Ecosystem

Hundreds of companies and organizations headed to Austin to produce exciting pop-ups, activations, and affinity-based convenings for conference attendees. Echoing Green staff and Fellows had a significant presence at two activations: Black Future House and The Equality Lounge.

Black Future House: Operate in Your Genius

Launched by a community of Black creatives, Black Future House, was created for brilliant Black minds to convene, learn from and inspire one another across various fields.

The two-day activation began with a fireside chat featuring Felecia Hatcher ’18, who talked about the future of Black Ambition, the organization she now leads. Felecia talked about how Black Ambition has had an outsized impact on Black innovation in just three years of operation, daring Black leaders to be who they are uninterrupted.

When talking about the Black Ambition application process, she shared that, “Black leaders should never downplay who they are when applying” because, to her, culture is an irreplaceable asset for Black leaders. As a seasoned entrepreneur who has launched several ventures, Felecia reflected on staying focused and effective, saying, “I started by identifying my genius, then staying in that lane and hiring people around me who do the things I might struggle with.”

For Black leaders, culture is an important asset.

Felecia Hatcher, 2017 Echoing Green Fellow

The conversation about genius and power continued with the “Future of Funding for Black Entrepreneurs” panel featuring Kathryn Finney ’16 of Genius Guild, Echoing Green senior director of partnerships and equity, Tiffany Thompson, and investor and founder Lenny Saizan. With headlines buzzing about the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank just days before the conference, this conversation was a timely discussion about the representation and diversity of entrepreneurs and money managers. While it will be quite a while until we know the full impact, Kathryn reflected that Black entrepreneurs and venture capitalists would feel it most. Tiffany shared that, as we think about what Black entrepreneurs will need in these times, it is important who is at the table giving out money. Thinking beyond crisis and pivoting to opportunity, Kathryn made a passionate plea to Black entrepreneurs to “not dim your genius” when interacting with funders, investors, and partners.

The theme of culture as an asset returned later in the day during “The Future of Politics: Voter Suppression” panel conversation featuring D’Seante Parks ’22, entrepreneur Brandon Andrews, and former Houston, TX Council Member Amanda Edwards. D’Seante reflected on the legacy of innovation in Black communities, noting how the Black Church organized vans and rides to drive community members to the U.S. voting polls well before Lyft and Uber launched free and discounted rides to the polls during the pandemic. She continued, noting that transparency is required for the electoral process and is the foundation of why she launched 1,000 More, an app that removes barriers to civic engagement.

Equality Lounge

Led by the Female Quotient, the Equality Lounge framed their activation around this critical question: It took 51 years to create virtual reality, 25 years to create the Internet, and two weeks to launch ChatGPT. Creative innovators can accomplish anything. So why are we waiting another 132 years to close the gender gap?

Echoing Green Fellows Laurin Leonard of R3 Score Technologies and Kathryn Finney of Genius Guild reflected on this question and the urgency of now. More companies are taking a hard stance on ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) initiatives like ethical supply chains, decarbonization, and workforce diversity, but how are they measuring progress and planning for the long term? Reflecting on this question, Laurin noted that language matters. “When we don’t have a clear definition of success or failure, those who do not want to participate use it as a reason not to, and those who do feel paralyzed. What are we running towards?” She explained why her company’s R3 Score is critical to the circular economy. One-third of working adults in the U.S. have a criminal record, R3 Score technologies ensure those with a criminal record get access to a liveable wage by helping businesses and governments with hiring or lending.

Kathryn discussed placing people at the center in the “Underdogs Are the New Unicorns. How Entrepreneurs Raise Funding during a Recession” conversation. She noted, “Diversity is a fact; inclusion is a choice,” so political will is needed to proactively discontinue ignoring oft-excluded Black leaders.

Unwavering: The Power of Black Innovation Film Screening

On Tuesday, March 13, nearly 85 guests joined Echoing Green and Comcast NBCUniversal (lead Racial Equity Philanthropic Fund supporter and sponsor of the Invest in Black Leaders Campaign) for an Unwavering: The Power of Black Innovation screening. Whether it was opening words from Echoing Green’s Vice President Liza Meuller about investing in Black-led organizations or a nod to the power of partnership and storytelling by Gwyneth Gaul, Associate Vice President, Strategic Partnerships & Community Impact, Comcast NBCUniversal, the evening was full of hope, joy, and honesty.

After the film screening, Pulitzer Prize and Emmy Award-winning journalist Trymaine Lee led a conversation with Echoing Green Fellows Laurin Leonard ’18, Damon Packwood ’16, and Jehiel Oliver ’15 about legacy, their journey towards social innovation and what keeps them inspired while navigating the fluctuating philanthropic and investment landscape.

Trymaine noted that while the Fellows are innovators in their own right and are paving their path, “as Black leaders, we drink from wells we did not dig, led by ancestors who made the road by walking.” Reflecting on that, Laurin brought in the spirit of her great-grandmother Maggie who built generational wealth while working at the peanut factory; Damon talked about how he learned about diversity from his dad, who drove a bus route throughout various neighborhoods; and Jehiel, who was raised as a pan-African, holds appreciation for the diaspora as a global community.

We are grateful to those who joined us in Austin for the exclusive Unwavering: The Power of Black Innovation screening and helped us celebrate the Invest in Black Leaders campaign.

To keep in touch with the latest at Echoing Green subscribe to our newsletter!

Subscribe to our newsletter

Leave a reply

Your comment has been submitted and is awaiting approval.