Employment-focused social enterprises are something I had not heard of until the REDF Farber application fell serendipitously into my lap. I had just finished reading and was inspired by, “Forces for Good – The Six Practices of High Impact Non-Profits” by Leslie Crutchfield. As I did research on REDF, I soon discovered that they exercise all six of these best practices! 1) Advocate and serve; 2) Make markets work; 3) Inspire evangelists; 4) Nurture nonprofit networks; 5) Master the art of adaptation; and 6) Shared leadership. If you’d like to read more about these ideas, click here. I spent a large portion of my initial Farber interview excitedly sharing my findings with the REDF senior portfolio associate and getting more and more excited as I did.
This type of business model, social enterprise, is an effective, long-term approach to addressing chronic unemployment and underemployment among people with serious employment barriers. While there are significant start-up costs in the first few years, as well as the to be expected kinks to iron out on the social/programming side, once the business is up and running (as seen in many of the mature REDF portfolio organizations), it is an effective way of helping people enter, and remain, in the workforce. The end result isn’t just the competitive product or service delivered; it is the participants who graduate, and as a result of their social enterprise experience, have the skills, work history, and support they need to succeed in the workforce, and in life.
This summer, I had the pleasure of working at Mile High WorkShop (MHW) in Aurora, CO. While the metro-Denver area has record low unemployment rates, people with histories of homelessness and incarceration, in particular, struggle to find a job. These are the people MHW serves. The participants learn both soft and technical skills while working in the sew shop, wood shop, fulfillment, or the CoorsTek-sponsored ceramics SELECT Center (more about that partnership below).
One of my focuses for the 10-week internship was analyzing the feasibility and building out financial projections of a private-label product line, with the intent to sell corporate gifts with customized logos to organizations in the area. It was an important project because MHW needed to understand how it would fit in with their current lines of business, both operationally and financially. In order to help answer that question, I conducted interviews with current customers, potential collaborators, and workshop participants. I also launched a survey which provided insight into the factors that drive customer decisions in selecting a manufacturer. To help ensure that my findings are acted on, I provided a detailed marketing and implementation plan. What I discovered in doing this research was that a private-label product line would be a great addition to MHW’s existing work with little up-front investment cost.
The other project that kept me busy this summer was a deep dive of MHW’s current partnership with a local ceramics manufacturer. This partnership was particularly interesting because CoorsTek, the partner firm, installed equipment within Mile High WorkShop’s warehouse and outsourced there as an opportunity to train people offsite and in turn, lower their turnover rate. In addition, I created a list of leads for future partners after developing appropriate criteria for identifying the right fits. Lastly, I presented a “pitch deck” to bring to initial meetings and an implementation checklist.
I think these deliverables will be helpful for the MHW team. It is still largely in start-up stage and therefore, the leadership is often doing the jobs of five different people. They don’t always have the time to step back and fully analyze financials and other information that provide the foundation for decision making. If they are able to start implementing some of the short-term solutions and consider the longer-term recommendations for later in 2018, I will consider the project a success.
What surprised me the most about this internship was truly the power of hope. Every time the founder of MHW, Andy Magel, is faced with a challenge, he doesn’t even blink. He just figures out how to address it and keeps moving forward. I believe a lot of great leaders have that quality and MHW is lucky to have Andy at the helm. Every day I hear people joking and laughing while on the job and it reminds me that MHW is giving them hope as well. They see their friends graduate every six months and move on to competitive jobs in the local area. Despite having overcome significant challenges in their lives, that don’t necessarily just stop coming because they are in a social enterprise program, MHW’s employees come to work each day with purpose, commitment, and a dedication to building a better future.
I accepted this internship to learn from the brightest, use the skills I learned in my first year of business school, feel intellectually challenged, and to feel fulfilled by helping a group of deserving people. I can confidently say that each of those objectives were met this summer through my internship at REDF. I am excited to spread awareness when I’m back at Georgetown and stay in touch with the other Farber interns.