February 16, 2016
By: Ariadne Ellsworth
When Lindsey Lerner speaks of her social enterprise, Level Exchange, there’s an echo of Andy Warhol’s saying “good business is the best art.” As Lerner puts it, Level Exchange is “an event company that creates immersive brand experiences through the intersection of local art and business.” As she’s quick to mention, it also took her two years to come up with the pithy pitch for her startup — that’s because Level Exchange is much more than an event planning service. By curating unique events that bring together local musicians and companies, the startup seeks to elevate local brands and bands through a level exchange of arts and commerce in order to create a space of valuable cultural interaction.
Lerner, who graduated from Bryant University in 2015 with a degree in global studies, has always attacked projects from an anthropological perspective, and Level Exchange is no exception. When Lerner started hosting music showcases at Bryant, she saw the events as an opportunity to bring together a diverse group of people — an attitude she’s also brought to her startup. When she’s organizing an event through Level Exchange, Lerner isn’t thinking of it as “just a music festival or acting like a club promoter,” instead she sees the opportunity to “get as many incredible people in one room at the same time, because when you combine the right music and the right people really interesting things start to happen.”
Although Lerner has long appreciated the power of event hosting, the idea for Level Exchange itself was born out of a music showcase she organized in January 2015. The event was hosted at a local Providence bar that was facing tough times and would eventually shut its doors, but the night of the showcase the six bands brought in over 65 people to the establishment. Beyond creating a culturally rich environment, Lerner realized that showcases like these tapped into a synergistic, business relationship between local establishments and musicians: restaurants can never have too many customers and musicians are looking for venues to expand their audiences. With this in mind, last fall Lerner drew up a business plan and applied for a Hub Scholarship Program with Social Enterprise Greenhouse (SEG), which she received; she also applied to Bryant’s New Venture Competition where she took first place in the student track of the competition. With that, Level Exchange was off the ground.
Throughout her college career Lerner experienced first hand the disconnect that exists between art and business. Initially a photography student at Delaware College of Art and Design, Lerner didn’t feel as fully immersed in “the fine art mentality” as her peers who were only thinking of art and weren’t thinking about business at all. Similarly, after transferring to Bryant, a business-heavy school, she noticed that there was a disregard for the fine arts. Although for her fellow students art and business seemed to exist divorced from each other, Lerner explains that for her “art and business always go together — business is an art and art is a business.” Lerner had always felt stuck in between being an art student and “ridiculously nerdy stuff,” Level Exchange bridged the two.
Lerner knew that Level Exchange existed at the intersection of business and art, but she wasn’t sure how to frame its mission — that’s where SEG came in. “When I came to SEG,” she says, “everyone was throwing around “do well, do good” — it was the perfect definition for what I was already doing.” SEG helped equip Lerner with the tools to create a company that brings together the abundance of local companies and musicians that are in Rhode Island, all with the mission of creating a culturally relevant and exciting space for the community. The first step was creating a web platform for Level Exchange that brought together local musicians and restaurateurs, the next — and the one Lerner and her coaches at SEG are currently working on — was formatting that online platform to do more than simply secure monetary compensation for musicians.
“The website solved a problem, but not the problem,” explains Lerner. Like when they helped clarify her mission, Lerner’s mentors at SEG also showed her that what she was doing was more than simply securing payment for musicians. What the musicians really valued, Lerner realized, was the unique experience at the events she was curating and putting together. As such, Lerner is currently working on creating a web platform that brings all the elements together for such events: brands, bands, and location. In only a few months, Level Exchange has evolved from a platform that simply provides a space for restaurateurs and musicians to meet into a service that curates entire events with a very specific experience in mind.
This winter Level Exchange partnered with Narragansett Beers and three local bands — the Silent Shoals, the Fates, and K&M music — to put on a music showcase at the Social Enterprise Greenhouse Hub in Providence. The event, hosted twice, drew over 80 people both times, “The audience got to learn about social enterprise, got to listen to incredible music, and the artists felt validated and listened to,” says Lerner. By linking the musical and cultural experience to the host-product being offered, these events also serve a marketing function; the bands and the brands elevate each other. It is events like these that Lerner hopes to replicate on a larger scale as Level Exchange grows.
As of now, Level Exchange is a two-woman team made up of Lerner and her intern, Peyton Judge, a junior at the Metropolitan High School (Judge took over for Marta Gravier, Lerner’s summer intern), but it seems that it won’t stay that way for long. The key to growth? Taking advantage of all the opportunities around you, “Get over yourself and show up,” says Lerner, “That’s when really, really cool things happen. That’s when you meet the most interesting people and put yourself in the most unlikely situations.”
Ariadne Ellsworth is a junior at Brown University studying Political Theory and English. She is interning in the journalism program under Crystal Rosatti. Originally from Santa Fe, New Mexico, she has previously worked in publishing and was the Editor In Chief of the Brown Political Review. She is using this opportunity to explore the junction between journalism and social entrepreneurship.