A Sweet Vision for the Future – Carla Javits, REDF President and CEO

Amidst a daily barrage of stories about what’s wrong in America, REDF’s 20th anniversary offers a moment to pause and celebrate what is working, namely, social enterprise.

Let’s illustrate with Sweet Beginnings, a social enterprise business located in Chicago that extracts honey from its urban apiaries to create raw honey and honey-infused body care products. While the honey is delicious and the products are luxurious and all-natural, what really distinguishes Sweet Beginnings is its employees.

The men and women who make Sweet Beginnings’ products would not likely be hired by most employers. They are all citizens returning from incarceration and many have spotty or nonexistent work histories. The bees whose honey they harvest don’t distinguish between a weed and a flower. They just look for the pollen they can turn into something sweet and good. Like bees, the people who run Sweet Beginnings look beyond the surface and the circumstances, to the core humanity and the good they know exists in the people they hire to run their business.

What they find is that these striving men and women are great employees who are inspired by the chance to work, eager to demonstrate the power of a new opportunity, and ready to forge a path to a better life.

While this is a story of sweet honey and a job, it’s also about the ripple effect on children, families, neighborhoods, and all the lives that are improved when people who are outside of the economy are provided a way in.

Social enterprise helps break intergenerational poverty. Fathers and mothers who go to work every day reconnect with their children and role model successful behaviors. They become the heroes of their children’s lives and inspire them. Their neighborhoods’ prosperity and safety is positively impacted as more people work every day.

We all benefit when we live in a society that provides people with the opportunity to forge a new path, and contribute their skills and talents to the workforce, and our communities.

If there is one thing REDF has learned in the past 20 years it is this: While we may not be able to see the possibility on the surface of every person, we know that tremendous human potential is unlocked when we offer the chance to work, with the right set of supports, at the right time.

The men and women who get jobs in the social enterprises REDF partners with are overcoming great disadvantage, and still want the same things we all want. To contribute. To feel valued and respected. To have pride in their work. To have the chance to grow as person, a parent, a citizen.

With the help of early leadership, they built REDF. From Social Return on Investment (SROI) thinking and methodology to creating sustainability through earned revenue, together they invented and field-tested many of the practices that are now buzzwords for corporate social responsibility and philanthropy.

Twenty years later, the track record is strong. 25,000 people employed with incomes tripled, over 100 social enterprises directly assisted generating $392 million in earned revenue, and a growing network of employers and workforce development professionals benefiting from one another’s evidence, knowledge and experience.

These businesses are also more sustainable than many nonprofits because they make money and reinvest it to employ even more people with a social return on investment of $2.23 for every $1 spent.

And more and more mainstream employers are starting to recognize the benefits of buying social enterprise products and services, and hiring their employees, people who are among the hardest-working, best-trained, and loyal employees they will ever meet.

Of course it is the lives transformed that mean the most. People contributing their many talents, nurturing their children, voting, and paying taxes.

Our aspiration now is to cultivate and support a thriving social enterprise movement where men and women who are overcoming great disadvantage can transition from trauma and despair to lives of contribution and hope.

Whether tending bees, making delectable food, or manufacturing airplane parts – social enterprise is a simple idea with unlimited power to change lives.  It’s time to move social enterprise from best kept secret to priceless asset.