Real Leaders

How Soup Is Uniting and Transforming Communities

When last did you fund a new venture over a bowl of soup? Well now you can.

Detroit Soup invites community members to pay $5 at the door and then listen to presenters vying for votes on a project that will make a positive difference in their communities. Projects range from art, urban agriculture, social justice, education and technology. Budding entrepreneurs have four minutes each to pitch an idea to diners and then take questions. Your $5 buys you a bowl of soup, salad, bread and a vote, and once the votes are counted, the winning presenter receives all the money collected at the door.

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“It’s like Shark Tank, but minus the a-holes,” says Amy Kaherl, the founder of the Soup fundraising idea, that has already spread to more than 100 cities around the world. “We’re not a slick TV show and don’t use presentation material,” she adds. “My view is that a big screen highlights disparity, and furthermore I couldn’t be bothered with what version of Windows you have or why your specific model laptop won’t link to a projector. I want to create a personal experience, eye to eye, that focuses more on the individual and the idea.”

151 Soup dinners later, and after raising more than $160,000 for various projects, Kaherl can pull together a dinner for 300 people in under 90 minutes. Beyond the distinct sense of community ownership (and the cheap entry ticket), much of the success of Soup can be attributed to mainstream media outlets that have highlighted Kaherl’s simple idea and fired the imagination of communities that can see how simple change can be. They may even get to hear a neighbor pitch they’ve never met, or become aware of an issue they didn’t know existed.

The term “social innovation” or “social enterprise” is sometimes tagged onto the project, but Kaherl is unfazed by terminology and would rather focus on the mysterious energy that exists when people come together for a ritualistic meal – which somehow opens minds and pockets to new ideas. Millennials wearing T-shirts emblazoned with “Detroit Hustles Harder,” rub shoulders with pensioners. Black and white, rich and poor, and ages 8 to 88 all eat the same meal with a common purpose of doing good.

“People get their power back. Diners – ordinary suburban folk – assume the role of investors and presenters have easy access to an audience that knows they’ll ultimately be the beneficiaries of the winning idea.” Diners who’ve brought food to share, get 60 seconds to announce what they’re working on, or ask advice. “Our events are like human bulletin boards,” Kaherl laughs.

Kaherl has done away with the institutional gatekeepers of traditional fundraising and has helped fund 57 projects, 48 nonprofits and 27 for-profit enterprises. Thirty-three projects would not have existed if it weren’t for the Soup initiative. It’s amazing how far $5 can go. “Some people will spend $1,000 on bags and clothing without even thinking. I’ve shown how a fraction of that can change lives. There is so much in society trying to push us apart right now, Soup proves that we all have more in common,” explains Kaherl.

Since 2010, more than 1,000 ideas have been presented over a bowl of soup to 25,000 diners and two marriages have even come about. It’s a simple idea with complex outcomes. You’ll find plenty of other good restaurants in a Soup host city, but nothing quite as profound.

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