Experiencing the Power of Business to Change Lives – Max Lafortune, Kellogg School of Management

As someone who has always been passionate about helping people this summer, I was lucky enough to have had the opportunity to work at Conservation Corps North Bay (CCNB), a REDF portfolio social enterprise that helps young men and women break the cycle of poverty through education and job skills, while serving the environment and community.

I arrived at CCNB both excited and nervous. Having spent much of my early career trying to better define what ‘impact’ could mean, and how I could best do good for others through my own career, I was keen to work within an organization where I could interact directly with the program participants, and see the difference being made each day. I am a strong believer in the power of business to generate positive and scalable social change, and also believe that one of the most meaningful ways in which we can help people build a better life is through employment. Both of these ideas live at the very core of what REDF has stood for since its inception in 1997, and continue to guide its strategy today.

As a first-year MBA student at the Kellogg School of Management, I tailored much of my academic experience to gain a better understanding of how to leverage social innovation and public-private opportunities for social good, but I also wanted to gain real-world experience and put some of these learnings to the test. This brought me to REDF, which is a leader in identifying, funding, and fueling growth at some of the highest potential employment social enterprises nationwide. REDF offered me the opportunity to experience the inner workings of a leading venture philanthropy, build a strong network of professionals in the sector, and work directly at a social enterprise where I was able to interact with and get to know the young men and women CCNB services. At the risk of sounding cliché, it was a dream job for me!

CCNB is an organization operating two social enterprises in the areas of nature conservation and recycling, employing youth between 18 and 30 who face high barriers to employment (e.g. lack of English or high school diploma, a history of adverse childhood events, homelessness, etc.). When I arrived at CCNB, I met with my boss, the Chief Operating Officer, who explained the business model and asked me about my goals for the summer. I told her I wanted to get my hands dirty and better understand what it was our participants do each day. Before I knew it, I was picking up cans and bottles with a recycling crew and getting into hip waders on to clear a fallen tree out of a nearby creek. I appreciated the opportunity to experience what a day in the life of a program participant looked like, and it provided me with much more perspective to deliver value to the organization over the summer.

Armed with this newfound understanding and perspective from both business school and prior consulting experience, I worked with CCNB staff and Corpsmembers (our participants) throughout the summer to find new and innovative ways to address some of the daily challenges faced at the organization. CCNB takes a three-pronged approach to generating impact, whereby Corpsmembers are given a job within one of the social enterprises, the opportunity to complete ESL and high school on site if they haven’t already, and access to weekly career counseling to build job-readiness skills prior to ultimate exit for college or full-time employment. In bringing an outside perspective to the way that CCNB thought about its business and working with staff to come up with creative solutions to current challenges, we were able to co-create a plan that delivered a set of short and long-term actions that should lead to better Corpsmember experience and overall outcomes from the program.

When people ask me what we do at CCNB, I start with the basics: we employ people, we teach people, and we help them become job-ready. But as I think back and reflect on my response, I believe that the true answer is that we change lives. CCNB is a special place – one where people are welcomed and given a chance to learn, grow, and alter the trajectory of their own lives, and also the lives of their families. I’m so proud to have been a part of this family, and I won’t soon forget the experience that I had this summer. Now reflecting back, a few key learnings will stick with me as I continue to seek out how to best make a difference:

  • Impact comes in many shapes and sizes. This became more and more clear as I interacted with multiple portfolio social enterprises at REDF, and saw that each took a unique approach to generating the positive social change they were looking to achieve. Given this, it’s especially important to have a clear definition of success that the organization is aligned on, as well as a comprehensive system by which to measure that success. Without this, it can be easy to lose sight of what is most important on a day-to-day basis.
  • Social enterprises are exactly what they sound like – businesses dedicating to doing good. This means they almost always need to make tradeoffs between mission and financial sustainability, which often makes operating significantly more challenging than a traditional business with purely profit-oriented goals. Given this fact, creative solutions almost always have a role in maintaining the balance between mission and bottom line.
  • Data is critical. While it may sound obvious, data tracking is not just for resource-rich corporations. When things don’t go as expected, it’s often true that everyone has a different idea as for why, and mission-driven organizations are no exception. Only with well thought out and tracked metrics/indicators coupled with strong institutional knowledge are we generally able to unpack the underlying reasons, and ultimately make meaningful changes to the day-to-day operations and improve. In other words, thoughtful data collection and tracking are critical to social enterprises trying to tweak and perfect their business model.

When I look ahead and think about how our society can better help people striving to improve their lives, I see tremendous potential to create impact through collaboration across the public, private, and non-profit sectors. While government and non-profits are typically looked to first as those responsible for tackling social issues, I believe corporations can play creative roles via partnerships with non-profits to create opportunities for transitional employment and/or support participants as they embark on the path to job-readiness, which, especially in today’s economy, offers a strong benefit to those corporations at the end of the day in the form of a steady pipeline of eligible hires down the road. As I transition back into the private sector for my next step, I look forward to continuing to be part of the conversation around impact, and how each of us can contribute to building a stronger and more inclusive workforce for all.