When interviewing Entourage actor Adrian Grenier, steer clear of questions about tequila.
Avion tequila plays a staring role in the hit HBO show as a business venture promoted by one of the characters on the show. But Grenier declined to discuss it. Perhaps he’s shy because the drink is rumored to appear in the upcoming Entourage film that is due in theaters later this year. Actors certainly don’t want to spoil potential plot lines.
Grenier is more chatty about whale documentaries and his beer company, Churchkey Can Co. He’s also happy to discuss his role as pitchman for Dell computers, which recently hired him as “social good advocate.” Unsure of what that means? Check out this Fortune story.
Fortune sat down with Grenier to talk about yet another role he’s taking on: Judge of a business start-up competition. He will help decide which of five entrepreneurs will be awarded $1 million. “The Venture,” reminiscent of the entrepreneur pitching show “Shark Tank,” is sponsored by Scotch brand Chivas Regal. The judges will also include Alexandre Ricard, CEO of Pernod Ricard’s (PDRDY), which owns Chivas Regal.
Grenier, who is most known for playing Vincent Chase, an A-list movie star on Entourage, outlined what he will be looking for in the winner.
“We want to make sure the business we are voting for won’t be gone the next year,” Grenier said. “And we are also looking at their core principles and what they are looking to do from a social perspective.”
Social entrepreneurship is the idea that financial success and positive social change can go hand-in-hand. It has gained significant traction over the past two decades with millennials, in particular.
“The Venture” received over 1,000 applications from contestants hailing from five continents. Their ranks will be winnowed to a group of 16 competitors. Ultimately, the group will be narrowed to five finalists, who will pitch their start-up ideas to judges including Grenier and Ricard. All five of the aspiring entrepreneurs could be awarded a cut of the $1 million prize.
The program, which isn’t being televised this year, though it could be down the road, is reminiscent of an annual event hosted by brewer Boston Beer (SAM). The “Samuel Adams Brewing the American Dream” philanthropic program provides loans to small businesses and also runs a contest that helps them perfect their pitch. What’s the point of these programs? The alcohol companies will tell you it’s part of their corporate mission to be responsible corporate citizens. A cynic could argue it is merely good public relations.
“We want a better world, and that’s just the bottom line,” Grenier said. “We don’t want to just support the status quo — we want [the winners] to really make a sacrifice and perhaps cut into the bottom line a little bit.”
The 16 finalists will be announced on May 11, with the final judging planned for July 24 in San Francisco.
Grenier said socially conscious companies also consider how they can improve the environment and improve the lives of their workers along with broader society. When asked about some prime examples, Grenier named Mexican restaurant chain Chipotle (CMG), grocer Whole Foods (WFM) and eyeglass maker Warby Parker. Though he didn’t go into details, Chipotle is known for their “Food with integrity” campaign, Whole Foods backs numerous small brands and often gives them their first taste of national exposure, and Warby Parker has donated more than a million glasses to those in need.
What Grenier brings to the table as a judge is his own experiences as an entrepreneur. But he humbly points out the panel will also include business experts who have far greater experience to draw from.
Grenier’s entrepreneurial roots are like many people’s. As a child growing up in New York’s Upper West Side neighborhood, he sold cups of Kool-Aid on the street for half a dollar each. The profits didn’t go to save the world. But a nine-year-old Grenier can be forgiven for spending his hard-earned money on Garbage Pail Kids trading cards and toys.
Today, Grenier is a part-time entrepreneur as co-founder of Washington-based Churchkey, which makes flat top beer cans that must be opened with a tool called a churchkey. It seems counterintuitive for a beer company to go back to an old-style packaging that died out in the mid 1970s. But Grenier and his business partner were lured by the nostalgia.
Being a businessman himself, Grenier advocates for small businesses today, in particular those courting the hyper-aware millennial generation.
“There was a time when you needed to be an iconic brand like McDonald’s to have a presence,” said Grenier. “But with the Internet, you don’t need a lot. Smaller companies, mom and pop stores where the owners can instill their values into the business — have more of a shot where they can be successful.”
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