The Art and Science of Running a Social Enterprise – Cynthia Tassopoulos , 2017 Farber Intern

Last fall, I began business school with the intent to explore the innovations and change occurring at the intersection of business and social impact. As I thought about different ways to spend my summer, I was fortunate enough to learn about REDF. REDF’s unique Farber Internship program promised to be an intensive, immersive summer working side-by-side with inspiring social enterprise leadership. It also provided an opportunity to be part of a cohort comprised of fellow MBAs passionate about social impact, workforce development, and leveraging business frameworks for social good. With the summer now behind me, I am happy to report that my Farber experience more than held up to those promises.

Putting my skills to the test
I had the privilege of working with New Avenues for Youth in Portland, Oregon. New Avenues, a member of REDF’s national portfolio of social enterprises, provides “homeless and at-risk youths with the resources and skills needed to lead healthy, productive lives”. Known for its entrepreneurial vision and spirit, New Avenues has a robust and growing portfolio of social enterprises – two Ben & Jerry’s stores, a screen printing business (New Avenues Ink), and a graphic design label (dfrntpigeon) showcasing the artistry and creativity of their youth.

My role was to support enterprise growth to create more job opportunities. Specifically, New Avenues Ink was in a critical growth stage and needed to scale strategically. With the support of staff, I poured over their P&L, customer sales data, and operational model to identify different strategic paths forward. I loved this project not only because I put my financial modeling skills to the test, but because I also learned about the art-meets-precision world of screen printing!

My second project challenged me even further.  As New Avenues expands its service footprint for youth in a few highly underserved communities, my role was to identify new social enterprise models that aligned with community need, New Avenues’ identity, and youth opportunity. It was a truly unique opportunity to work on a core strategic initiative, one that stretched my primary and secondary research skills as I met with community and youth stakeholders.

Working hard, evolving, and creating impact
I’ve returned to school with a more nuanced understanding of the complexities involved when managing the tension between mission and margin. Social enterprises balance limited time and resources with an unyielding number of business and social demands, from marketing their message, to achieving operational efficiency, to providing a safe and encouraging workplace, to ultimately supporting their employees’ development in the pursuit of tangible and transferable life skills. Simply put, running a social enterprise is hard work.

However, I also learned that business acumen combined with an entrepreneurial spirit can make a powerful combination, one that can forge deep social impact. The leadership and staff at New Avenues embodied this combination, as did the people who work at the other social enterprise businesses I met throughout the summer:  Green Streets, Food Shift, Goodwill Silicon Valley to name a few. Each one impressed and surprised me with their unyielding commitment to use business opportunities to create change and to continue evolving their own story and enterprises.

Energized and inspired
Finally, I was reminded of the sheer potential and power of our country’s youth. One of my last activities in Portland was conducting a focus group with eight teenagers. As I asked questions about jobs and work, I also heard about their hobbies, their take on the current social discourse, and their vision for their own lives. Despite the challenges they have faced, they remained optimistic. This was a theme I heard from my fellow Farber’s too. The men, women, youth, and everyone else these enterprises and REDF serve are a force to be reckoned with.

So for these reasons (and many more not listed!), my Farber summer has energized and inspired me to continue exploring that space where business and social impact collide and where organizations like REDF and New Avenues thrive.

Cynthia Tassopoulos  is pursuing joint MBA and MPH degrees at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School and Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, respectively. She participates in social enterprise and healthcare activities in her free time. Before graduate school, Cynthia lived in Washington DC and worked at The Advisory Board Company where she supported hospital orthopedic and neuroscience departments with strategic planning and market growth strategy. She is originally from Dallas, Texas, but has never owned a pair of cowboy boots. Cynthia graduated from Harvard University with a B.A. in History of Science and a minor in Global Health and Health Policy.

This is part of our Farber Blog Series.