A Souper Time: Big-Time Ideas Get Small-Time Startup Funds (And Some Grub) at Cleveland Soup 

The premise is simple: Gather a bunch of folks together, charge them $20, serve them food, watch a handful of presentations from people with ideas they'd like to fund, have everyone vote for their favorite, give the kitty to the winner.

That's Cleveland Soup, organized locally by Marika Shioiri-Clark and her partner Graham Veysey, which just hosted its first outing/dinner/fundraiser/incubator meeting in August. The model has been popularized elsewhere — Toledo Soup, Detroit Soup, etc. — and it finally made its way to the shores of Lake Erie. With one session under their belt, Shioiri-Clark, who called in from New Delhi, and Veysey chatted about what it was like and how the quarterly events might come into shape.

Vince Grzegorek: How's it going?

Marika Shioiri-Clark: I'm a little sick. What a way to enjoy New Delhi.

VG: We won't keep you long then. So the first Soup was back in August. Give me the rundown on how you two decided to lead the venture in Cleveland.

MSC: Well, I first heard about it from a graduate school friend in Detroit, where they have it. I thought it was a really cool idea and then, of course, I never got around to do doing anything about it. Then I talked to some friends and we decided to just try it. It didn't have to be this big commitment. Let's just try it, let's give it a go, let's do the minimum it would take to make a cool event and just do it already. So Graham and I put together 200 people or so on a mailing list and just told everyone to invite anyone.

VG: Open casting call.

MSC: Yeah. We decided to just do it in our place to make the whole thing easier, and it fits about 100 people. We had five ideas — I had people just email me their pitches to start. And those were the five that presented. We had food from the Souper Market and Mitchell's donated ice cream. It was really simple. We figured we'd just do it ourselves this time and maybe next time do it someplace else.

VG: Who won and who didn't?

MSC: The group that won was Rust Belt Riders. They do composting and they started their whole concept with $3,400 to begin with, so they almost doubled that in August with the $2,000 they took home.

Graham Veysey: You know what else was really cool was that Marika reached out to the people who run the Detroit Soup and they were really quick to respond, really nice and really helpful.

MSC: Yeah, they were really excited that we were starting it here.

VG: So how does this micro-grant type of funding work?

MSC: We collected $20 from everyone. It's lower in some other places — Detroit charges only $5 — but we wanted to make sure we collected enough money to be able to give the winner some real money, something they could do something with. We had people who didn't even have a chance to show up who still gave $20 because they thought it was cool.

VG: What were some of the ideas that didn't get funded? We won't call them the losers. It's all positive.

MSC: There was Peter who runs Soulcraft Woodshop. He wanted to do a shopclass training idea. There was a guy named Aseem Garg who had an idea for off-the-grid housing that would be a larger project but the money would have helped with initial renderings. There was David Jurca, who had an idea for winter urban interventions — it'd be different things to do outside in Cleveland during the winter, cool ideas that show you don't have to just sit at home when it's cold. Help me out on the last one, Graham.

GV: Caitie Hannon from Cleveland Public Theatre. They basically wanted to have Soup fund a reading of a play that had been wildly popular.

VG: So, what are the guidelines on the ideas that get submitted? Can I present on making really good lemonade? Does it have to be a business?

MSC: I think it's pretty open. Basically, we have questions we ask: What would you use the money for? How would it benefit Cleveland? There's not much more to it than that, and people have to get up in front of 100 other people and showcase their idea and defend it, so... People have to be able to understand tangibly what the money will go for and why it's good for Cleveland.

VG: And it's just given out? No checks and balances? Just good faith that folks will use the money to do good things?

MSC: There were some questions about monitoring and observation. But in the spirit of the idea, that's not something we felt is necessary. It's nice, it's informal, we'll invite the winners back so they can update us on their idea, but there's no real formal checkup. We're trusting they'll use it to do something good in the city.

GV: Another cool thing that happened at the first one: These people sat around and got to workshop their idea, even if they didn't get picked to win. They got feedback, they got to meet neighbors; it was community building.

MSC:There were a lot of people I didn't know. Probably like half the crowd.

GV: It was a great energy. It was a unique experience. Old, young, new, friends, people who'd never been to this part of town before, it really was a mix. It really was a slice of Cleveland.

VG: Where's the next one going to be? I'd imagine it might outgrow your place.

MSC: We have offers from Spaces gallery and a few other places that we'll talk to. It really felt nice and informal and warm in our place, but it'd be nice to have a bigger space, more money, more people. It'd be great to get 150 or 200 people next time.

VG: And when is next time?

MSC: We had been planning on quarterly events, but there's no exact date yet.

GV: Readers can check the Cleveland Soup website for updates (clevelandsoup.org).

VG: The idea really is simple, and the lack of restrictions is refreshing, especially when these are little fun ideas and you're amongst neighbors and friends and friends of friends. How did the voting go down? Was it close?

MSC: I would say Rust Belt won pretty handily.

GV: The simplicity of the concept really is great. I think the goal is to keep it simple going forward, keep the barrier low for presenting and attending and let that produce a nice upside for the community.

MSC: I don't want to have to turn people away.

VG: Time for a bigger space then.

MSC: For sure.


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