February 04, 2014

Forging a Social Enterprise

Robert Bart ’14 is putting his legal education to use as a social entrepreneur.

Last year a team of Lewis & Clark law students were selected as finalists in Lewis & Clark’s first venture competition, which featured entrepreneurial proposals from 40 teams of students from across the College, Law, and Graduate schools. Since the competition, Robert Bart ’14 has continued to move forward with his aspirations for Forge Portland, a social enterprise that will provide a shared office space and resources to nonprofits and other startups. Robert describes how his legal education has affected his experience starting a business.

What drew you to attend Lewis & Clark Law School?

Prior to law school I was teaching high school in Hood River, Oregon. I knew that I wanted to stay in Oregon after law school. Lewis & Clark’s reputation and connections in Portland made it an easy choice for me to decide to come here.

How have your interests evolved during your time at Lewis & Clark?

When I started law school my focus was on politics and policy work. Once I started a business I suddenly realized the importance of understanding business law. I’ve primarily taken business law classes this year, and would say that anyone who is interested in policy should have at least a basic understanding of business structures and tax law.

What inspired you to start a business out of law school?

As I started doing more policy work, I began to see exactly how dependent advocacy organizations are on grants from industry or private foundations to do their work. I also began reading more and more stories about entrepreneurs who were trying to find market-based solutions to social and environmental issues. Using a profit model to create solutions to problems is at the core of social entrepreneurship. This new type of business model is catching on very quickly, and Portland is in some ways at the forefront of the movement. However, more often than not, these efforts are being led by individuals without all of the necessary supports to turn their ideas into realities. Finding ways to help these organizations understand and access resources has been a tremendous amount of fun and very rewarding.

Describe Forge Portland. What are you hoping to achieve?

The mission of Forge Portland is to provide a collaborative work space for social entrepreneurs and nonprofits and a suite of free services to help them run more efficiently. Tenants at Forge will have free access to basic accounting, legal referral, business development, mentoring and internship placement services. The goal is to help new and existing organizations overcome the hurdles that every new endeavor faces when they launch or try to scale up. Every month in Portland around 500 new LLCs and between 30-40 new nonprofits are formed. By providing a physical space for some of these organizations, Forge will provide an affordable and professional work environment while also providing the access to resources these organizations need to be successful. The goal is to make Forge a hub of collaboration to assist individuals and organizations launch and grow their ideas.

How has your legal education influenced your experience as an entrepreneur?

Perhaps the single biggest thing that helped was entering Forge Portland in the Lewis & Clark Venture Competition. Myself, Jeff Crosswhite, Thomas Sunderland, and Howard Voght worked hard to develop and pitch the idea last Spring. The competition provided some great resources and support structure to develop the idea. The competition provided the opportunity to connect with other parts of the Lewis and Clark community, as well as meet alumni and supporters who are working in Portland.

In a lot of ways, being a lawyer is the perfect training to start a business. In the course of launching Forge, I have met with over 100 people in the community and the legal training we receive in law school is a great foundation for understanding the issues that businesses and organizations face.

This year, I was able to take classes which directly related to the services and supports that Forge is offering tenants. In particular, Income Tax with Professor Brown to my surprise was incredibly relevant and very interesting. Connecting the real world experience of forming an LLC, raising money through and filing the appropriate securities exemptions and selecting the most advantageous tax entity has made the substantive classes all the more useful for me.

Check out Forge Portland’s website, or learn more about Lewis & Clark’s Business Law and Tax Law programs.