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An interview with Laura Callanan, Founding Partner of Upstart Co-Lab.

What is the mission of Upstart Co-Lab?

Upstart Co-Lab connects artists, impact investors and social entrepreneurs to create opportunities for artist innovators to deliver social impact at scale. Upstart is introducing a Creativity Lens to impact investing, and launching a campaign to promote Artists as Innovators.

What’s an Artist Innovator? 

Artists represent our ability as a society to solve problems. Upstart coined the term “Artist Innovator” to describe a spectrum: from artists who are addressing themes of social significance in their work — to individuals with training, professional experience, or a current practice in the arts working in fields like business, government, technology, and finance.

Can you give us some examples of Artist Innovators?

Artists working like social entrepreneurs:

  • Gregory Sale is an advocate for justice reform and successful re-entry after incarceration. Gregory dedicated his creative practice to the country’s incarceration crisis after visiting Tent City Jail in Arizona’s 115-degree weather, speaking with female chain gang members, and witnessing male inmates dressed only in pink underwear marching in public.
  • Aurora Robson is a multimedia artist who repurposes debris into art, most often intercepting plastic before it flows into our oceans. One of Aurora’s sculptures is composed of 15,000 bottles gathered from the streets of New York City.

Artists as community leaders:

  • On the South Side of Chicago, Theaster Gates is transforming neighborhood buildings, starting community arts centers, building affordable housing, and creating vocational skills programs for young people.
  • In San Francisco, Deborah Cullinan has re-imagined Yerba Buena Center for the Arts as a community center, a citizen institution that engages in local priorities like promoting a ballot measure to ensure funding for the arts + family homelessness.

Artists are starting social purpose businesses:

  • Jeni Britton Bauer is the founder and CEO of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, a certified B Corporation that partners with Ohio farms, Direct Trade growers and producers, and women-led businesses. Jeni’s employs a diverse working community and incorporates recycling in its business model. Jeni’s background as a visual artist inspires her creative process in the kitchen.
  • Matt Stinchcomb was a member of French Kicks, a New York-based indie rock group that toured extensively across the US and internationally for more than five years.  As the first employee at, an online marketplace for 1.5 million craftspeople and entrepreneurs, Matt led marketing, expanded the company to Europe, and served as Vice President of Values and Impact. In 2015, Etsy was the first certified B Corporation to go public.

How does Upstart Co-Lab increase opportunities for artists as innovators?

Working with Emergence Creative, a global creative agency specifically dedicated to social impact, Upstart Co-Lab is launching a paid and earned media campaign to recognize artists with a social practice and people trained as artists who are innovating in diverse fields of endeavor. This campaign will re-frame the artist in the minds of leaders in all fields of business, investing, government, the social sector, science, medicine, and technology.

Our goal is to open more diverse professional opportunities for artists, increase cross-sector partnerships, and grow financial investment in artists’ ideas.

Why impact invest in the creative economy? 

The creative economy in the U.S. is more than $730 billion or 4.2% of U.S. GDP. Since 1995, the Social Impact of the Arts Project at the University of Pennsylvania has documented how the presence of cultural resources in low-income neighborhoods are “significantly” linked to better health, schooling, and security. Taken together this means the creative economy is investable and can generate impact.

Impact investing is vital to shaping a creative economy that is inclusive, equitable and sustainable. However, according to the Global Impact Investing Network, 0% of impact investment is in the arts & culture sector. Upstart is working to close this gap.