No slouch in the entrepreneurial department, the young Benjamin Franklin liked to bring people from different backgrounds together regularly for discussions on ways to improve the Greene Countrie Towne he lived and worked in.
Called the Junto, the group gathered in the name of mutual improvement and from its deliberate question-and-answer format would emerge volunteer fire companies, the nation's first hospital, night watchmen and first lending library.
Last week, a Junto for the 21st century convened that attracted old and young, hackers and fashion designers, as well as social enterprise advocates and venture capitalists. Organized by the nonprofit GoodCompany Group, the gathering sought to ponder whether Philadelphia could become a center for "new capitalism."
That might have been enough to catch my eye since our region often seems to have so much difficulty handling good old-fashioned capitalism. But what was truly striking were the more than two dozen groups that had signed on to tackle the concepts championed by Umair Haque, a deep thinker on sustainability and author of a book called The New Capitalist Manifesto.
Those groups include what I'd call the status quo (Ben Franklin Technology Partners, Greater Philadelphia Alliance of Capital & Technologies (called PACT for short), University City Science Center) and the disrupters (Independents Hall, Philly NetSquared, Sustainable Business Network).
Garrett Melby, founder and director of GoodCompany's ventures program, said his goal was to bring together organizations that don't interact that often in order to talk about the promise of social entrepreneurship through the lens of Haque who advocates replacing Industrial Age ideals with practices that are sustainable, democratic and equitable and that have the potential to make people happier and healthier.
Sounds like a lot to wrap your head around in 90 minutes.
But Melby told me that he sees Philadelphia as possessing the ingredients to produce new small businesses and growth firms who walk that walk. "Do we really want to be a third-rate Silicon Valley," he said. "Or can we be No. 1 in social enterprise?"
To a man, a panel that included Dean E. Miller, president and chief executive of PACT; Bob Moul, CEO of mobile-applications developer AppRenaissance and president of Philly Startup Leaders; and Melby found a lot they liked about Haque's manifesto.
Miller, a venture capitalist, said that given the repeated episodes of corporate bad behavior driven by bottom-line pressure since the collapse of Enron Corp., this is a good time to explore new ideas to improve capitalism.
Moul, who sold his previous software company to Dell Inc., pushed back on Haque's call to reduce emphasis on financial capital and increase consideration of other types of capital, including human, intellectual, social, emotional and more.
"The fact is businesses do require capital," Moul said, referring to the greenback kind. "It's not something to be ashamed of."
As the program ended, I was standing with Thomas G. Morr, the head of Select Greater Philadelphia, the arm of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce that markets the region as a good place to do business.
When I asked him what he thought about the junto, he responded by telling me about his day. In the morning, he attended Drexel University's Laurence A. Baiada Institute Entrepreneurship Conference that discussed crowdsourcing and how businesses are using it.
In the afternoon, he attended a session of the chamber's CEO Council for Growth, which is comprised of some of the heads of the region's biggest employers. What was on the minds of the big bosses? Things they could do to nurture entrepreneurship in the region.
Finally, he found himself in the midst of a disparate group of about 200 professionals who wouldn't normally be together sipping wine or beer on the sweltering 17th floor of a Center City office building and discussing how nonprofits and businesses can tackle big societal problems.
All of it suggested to Morr a high level of energy and activity in the business community — much of it coming from organizations that didn't exist when he came to Philadelphia seven years ago.
And yet, it's only a start for a city that needs to be creating more jobs and businesses with staying power. Thinking outside the box, thinking outside the planet is the key, Haque said in a video address played at the GoodCompany's Junto.
A little more impatience with the way things are would also be helpful.
Contact Mike Armstrong at 215-854-2980 or email@example.com, or @PhillyInc on Twitter. Read his blog, "PhillyInc," at www.phillyinc.biz.