Center for Civic Innovation aims to fix what government can’t

With little more than laptops and meeting spaces, a small nonprofit aims to right some of Atlanta’s wrongs

Rohit Malhotra is young and funny and bright, and he could be — should be — making six figures at a consulting firm somewhere. He has a bachelor’s degree from Emory University and a Master’s degree from Harvard. He worked in President Barack Obama’s administration.

Malhotra, though, loves Atlanta. So he sold his car, lives at his parents’ house in Lawrenceville, and hasn’t taken a paycheck in more than a year. He works 18-hour days.

Malhotra is the founder and executive director of the Center for Civic Innovation, and he’s going to make your city better.

“What’s cool about young people,” he says, “is that they haven’t lost that sense of optimism and that hope that, ‘This is my Atlanta.’ And they’re young enough to see an Atlanta that’s different. ... They believe that in the short term this city is going to be everything they could dream it to be.”

Sitting in a plastic chair in a concrete room on the third floor of Downtown’s M. Rich Building, Malhotra is technically responding to a question about other people. But the 28-year-old is really talking about himself and the work he wants to do with CCI — a startup with huge goals for social good.

The unofficial tagline for fledgling CCI is something along these lines: “finding entrepreneurial solutions to civic challenges.” Translated, it means the center is going to find and support businesses that can fill gaps left by government. It means, ideally, that Atlantans will be better served and better represented.

There are several short-term and long-term ways CCI says it wants to see that happen. The center has “members” and hosts TED Talk-y events, networking sessions, and specialized training. It’ll have roundtables and mentoring meetings. The launch of its flexible Downtown office — tables, chairs, and whiteboards can be easily moved for different gatherings and presentations — attracted more than 200 people from Atlanta arts, policy, and business scenes.

But the lifeblood of CCI flows through the following process:

After identifying a key, overarching issue — open data, food access, education/counseling, sustainability, the arts, and bicycle-related transportation are all targets for 2015 — the center brings together people from all sides. Corporate bigwigs, nonprofit officials, community members, and other stakeholders talk, identify what long-standing problems could be fixed by local entrepreneurs (read: not government), and then issue a public request for business proposals.

From there, CCI hopes that a passionate, community-minded entrepreneur will step up and “fill the gap.” Initial funding for the problem-solving business will come from the same decision makers and bigger organizations that helped identify the need.

The aim: invest a little now in hopes of saving money and operating more efficiently in the long run.

“You issue that challenge out to the public and you put some weight behind it,” Malhotra says, “and then you invest in really great solutions.”

On their face, CCI’s goals seem a little pie in the sky. They rest on the optimistic assumption that there are lots of people out there who, like Malhotra, are willing to put in the work to do good and do it well. But the vision already has big-name backers.

Among them is Brian McGowan, former CEO and president of Invest Atlanta and current chief operating officer of the Metro Atlanta Chamber. He’s already played a role in making sure Malhotra and CCI have a seat in front of the city’s most powerful businesspeople and policymakers.

“Atlanta should be the best at this,” McGowan says. “Of any city in the country, with our history of civil rights, this is a place that should be leading the charge on supporting social-impact kinds of businesses like this. ... I think all the right pieces are in place to make this successful.”

Bill Bolling, the executive director of the Atlanta Community Food Bank and one of the Atlanta nonprofit movement’s elder statesmen, is also sold on CCI’s potential. He called Malhotra and the center “the kind of folks that I want to encourage and mentor and support in any way I can.”

And make no mistake: CCI needs all that.

It is, after all, a startup, and Malhotra and co-founders Jon Keen and Melonie Tharpe are learning as they go. They’re also very aware that they are, in fact, trying to build the exact kind of business they’re hoping to help.

“You find this group of people ... who just kind of operate in limbo,” Malhotra says. “And they give up, go back to their day job or a job they don’t love necessarily, they make ends meet and do (social good) on the side. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

“You can create a business out of doing social good. And it would be cool if that was the norm.”