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“The importance and potential of impact startups for our society are enormous” – Interview with Birgit Siepmann

As Impact Entrepreneurship & Social Innovation Manager, Birgit Siepmann is the point of contact for Munich impact startups of all phases at the Bavarian state capital of Munich. In an interview with Munich Startup, she reports on how exactly she supports startups with her work and which impact topics she thinks will become increasingly important in the future.

Munich Startup: Birgit, you work as Impact Entrepreneurship & Social Innovation Manager at the City of Munich. Before we go into that in more detail: How do you define ‘impact’ in your work context? 

Our interview partner Birgit Siepmann. (Photo: Birgit Siepmann) 

Birgit Siepmann: For me, impact means a positive effect within our society. This change is a process that can and should be initiated in many places at the same time by different people. First of all, the focus is on awareness of a specific social or ecological problem – such as food waste or lack of equality. With its solution, an impact startup contributes to tackling the problem systemically and achieving sustainable change in society. Usually, this solution initially reaches a specific target group. However, the overarching goal is to gradually persuade larger parts of society to change their behavior. If, with the help of the impact startup solution, a positive effect shows in large parts of our society over time, we call it impact. 

Users are encouraged by the solution to reflect on their own behavior. They are encouraged to question their personal attitudes, their own thoughts and actions with regard to specific social challenges. The framework for action for impact startups is usually one or more of the 17 SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals). 

In terms of Munich’s economy, this means that we are looking for sustainable and regenerative business models that contribute to an inclusive economy within planetary boundaries on a systemic level in order to realize the goals of the UN 2030 Agenda. 

Munich Startup: Impact entrepreneurship seems to be increasingly replacing the term social entrepreneurship – can you explain why? 

Birgit Siepmann: I wouldn’t say that ‘impact’ is replacing the term ‘social’. In my work, however, it becomes clear to me again and again that the term ‘social’ is sometimes misinterpreted. This does not only mean ‘social’ challenges, but societal and ecological ones. In my opinion, the term ‘impact’ is more self-explanatory and inclusive. 

I believe that true innovation can only be achieved through the exchange between different disciplines and perspectives. We need unusual perspectives and creative impulses from all parts of our society, because the complex challenges of our time cannot be solved with a more conventional, linear approach. Accordingly, I want to address as many people as possible by using the term ‘impact’ in order to achieve a positive effect in our society with the help of entrepreneurial means. 

Point of contact for impact startups 

Munich Startup: Back to your work at the City of Munich – what exactly does your work there involve? 

Birgit Siepmann: My central task is to establish the topics of impact entrepreneurship and social innovation more strongly in the relationship between administration and business and to bring them more into the focus of urban society. 

In particular, it is about better exploiting potential in our society, initiating new ideas and supporting existing impact startups on their way to realization in the best possible way. I am the point of contact for impact startups in all phases as well as for initial ideas that need support in their further development. Through our extensive network of partners in the Munich startup ecosystem and the affiliation to the Münchner Gründungsbüro (Munich’s Business Startup Office), social innovations are to be promoted more strongly. 

Another field of action that is very close to my heart is education or Impact Entrepreneurship Education, to be exact. Here, too, there are already great players who are very committed to working in this area. My goal is to systematically establish Impact Entrepreneurship Education at Munich schools in order to reach talents and potential throughout society and to promote the development of solution-oriented, innovative thinking and acting as early as possible. 

My tasks also include providing impetus within the administration, e.g. in order to make it easier for startups and SMEs to access municipal tenders. To allow Munich as a city to benefit from the innovative strength and agility of small companies, I also create the connection to the corresponding specialist units of the departments. 

In addition, further events on impact entrepreneurship and social innovation will take place in Munich in the future in order to strengthen and further expand the existing networks. I would like to use those additional events to launch new ideas from the people of Munich in the sense of open social innovation processes and to promote the development of sustainable, impact-driven business models. Cooperation with existing networks should inspire, encourage and support future players on their way. 

Munich Startup: How exactly do you support Munich startups with your work? 

Birgit Siepmann: As the central point of contact for Munich impact startups, I assist with professional knowledge and build bridges to other experts inside and outside the city administration. Our strong Munich startup and innovation ecosystem is of central importance in this regard. I work closely with players such as the Social Entrepreneurship Network Germany (SEND), the Social Entrepreneurship Academy (SEA), the Social Startup Hub Bayern, which was founded last year, and the Munich Urban Colab. 

Support with financing and funding opportunities 

I am frequently asked about financing and funding opportunities. Depending on requirements, I establish the connection to incubators, accelerators or other network partners. In addition, I inform about specific topics such as impact measurement, which can help impact startups to develop a solid argumentation basis for the measurability of their successes. Here, too, I work closely with our partners and institutions, such as Phineo. 

For me, it is particularly important to respond to the individual needs of startups and idea carriers. Conversely, it is also important for me to receive feedback from the startups, to observe current developments, to cultivate a broad exchange and, based on this, to develop a social innovation strategy for Munich in a participatory manner. 

Munich Startup: Which Munich startups have particularly impressed you with their impact projects so far? 

Birgit Siepmann: One of the best-known and most successful examples is certainly Recup, which tackles the waste problem in the to-go sector with its reusable deposit system. They have now become the market leader in Germany, have been awarded numerous prizes, medals and seals and most recently received the ‘Social Entrepreneur of the Year’ award from the German Startup Awards. 

A real success story for me is Social-Bee as an integration service provider for refugees. They rethink existing systems by using the concept of temporary employment in a social way. Refugees are hired permanently and sent out to work at the partner companies. In order to ensure the long-term success of the measure, they work towards being taken on in a permanent position after one and a half years at the latest. In addition, language courses and additional qualifications are organized. Founder Zarah Bruhn has also been Commissioner for Social Innovations at the Federal Ministry of Education and Research since 2022. For me, this shows the importance of thinking holistically and how extensive social innovation can be. 

I am also particularly enthusiastic about Sira, who are working on reconciling family and career and at the same time counteracting the shortage of skilled workers. In cooperation with SMEs, they build and operate company mini-daycare centers. On the one hand, this shows me very clearly how the innovative power of startups can benefit SMEs and the city, and on the other hand, it becomes clear how all sides can benefit from social innovation: companies are supported in retaining skilled workers, parents are enabled to re-enter the workforce more easily, the city can expand its care infrastructure and ultimately society as a whole benefits from this model. 

The Community Kitchen is another great startup that fights food waste by preparing delicious meals from rescued food and offering them fresh in their café every day. The Community Kitchen has become a central meeting place where inclusion is practiced as a matter of course. In addition, the team counteracts further food waste through environmental education projects, among other things. 

The developers of the Greencent app offer a loyalty points system to promote the use of sustainable mobility. With the introduction of the ‘Greencent’, consumers can use the app for example to pay for drinks, snacks or fresh fruit and vegetables in Munich shops. 

An insider tip for me is the coaching platform Mellow. The team has set itself the goal of strengthening mental health in society. The key is that with the help of technical solutions, the special importance of prevention is becoming more important to society. Preventing illness with the support of a coach acts like a gym for mental health, which is an issue for many people, especially in our complex world. 

There are numerous other great Munich startups that inspire me. This selection is intended to illustrate the diversity of ideas and possibilities. 

“Almost every one of the 17 SDGs is covered by Munich startups” 

Munich Startup: How is the Munich startup scene generally positioned in terms of impact? 

Birgit Siepmann: We already have some very strong startups in the impact sector in Munich and, above all, great diversity. Almost every one of the 17 SDGs is covered by Munich-based startups. The topics range from health and education, sustainable consumption, reduced inequalities to affordable and clean energy and climate protection measures. The potential for Munich’s impact startups is far from exhausted. This is also confirmed when you look at other cities such as Hamburg, Bremen or Freiburg – there is still room for improvement. Nevertheless, Munich is well positioned. We can use our strength in the tech sector to generate more impact. Many tech-driven innovations often also have a positive impact on society. Those sectors can’t always be clearly separated from each other. And they don’t have to. 

Countless social and ecological challenges still have to be solved, and new ones will constantly be added in the future. We need visionaries who are awake to the changes of our time and act with foresight in order to help shape Munich’s economy in a sustainable way. 

Munich Startup: Which impact topics do you think will become more important in the near future? 

Birgit Siepmann: The megatrends of our society such as climate change, increasing urbanization and demographic change are particularly evident in the impact area. It is important to bring about lasting changes within our society. It’s only through collective rethinking and behavioral change in large parts of society that certain problems can be solved at all. The importance and potential of impact startups for our society are therefore enormous. 

Climate protection and climate adaptation are and remain an important topic. Especially for Munich with its high degree of sealed surface, we need innovative and specific solutions. Topics such as mobility and the use of water in the city are of central importance. Strong networking is needed in order to sustainably restructure surrounding cities and municipalities. 

Our healthcare system has been severely affected by the pandemic in recent years. However, we are facing many other challenges that have been put on the back burner, for example with regard to widespread diseases such as diabetes, cancer or heart disease. Impact startups can make a positive contribution here by developing innovative solutions that target personal behavior and help prevent disease. 

Impact startups can contribute to the further development of the education system 

In my view, the education sector is also of central importance. Impact startups have enormous potential to make a significant contribution to the much-needed evolution of our education system. Our education system should be designed to prepare students in the best possible way for the challenges of the future. This requires a rethinking of how we look at education and a stronger emphasis on developing soft skills, integrating technology into everyday school life, cultural diversity, sustainability and critical thinking. We need concrete solutions that support teachers and learners in everyday school life. 

Related to this is the issue of a shortage of skilled workers, which will continue to occupy us increasingly in the coming years. This requires considerably more solutions that tackle the system from different angles. Impact startups have the potential to address the growing skills shortage, for example by creating new jobs, promoting training and skills, creating diversity and inclusion, offering more flexible working conditions and collaborating with educational institutions. Through the impact-oriented business goals, impact startups can also help attract professionals who identify with a specific corporate purpose and want to get involved in a company that has a positive impact on society. 

Munich Startup: Birgit, thank you very much for the interview!