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Farber Series

Employment Social Enterprise: A Whole Person Approach – Ben Harris, Booth School of Business

Prior to business school, I spent my entire career in the US public healthcare system. Throughout my time at a community health center and state Medicaid agency, I saw how healthcare could be a stabilizing force in the lives of many individuals who have been underserved and marginalized by the broader society. But I was not naïve to believe that healthcare was a panacea that would solve all problems. Over the course of my career, I began to take on projects that required me to partner with other agencies that provided other services – like housing and employment – to build more whole-person models. Through these projects, I worked with social enterprises that were successful in merging these services and supports and bringing about stability and wellbeing to the individuals they served.

Heading into business school, I was interested in how these enterprises operated, how they could be supported, and how their impact could be scaled to reach more people within their communities. When I discovered the Farber Fellowship at REDF, I realized I had the opportunity to gain hands-on experience at a social enterprise that would help me answer all the questions I had.

I was fortunate to be paired with Repowered this past summer, a social enterprise based in the Twin Cities that focuses on recycling and refurbishing used electronics and employing individuals with justice system involvement. In addition to receiving training in electronics repair, customer service, and warehouse operations, employees also receive on-site support and counseling as they work to rebuild and heal other parts of their lives.

When I joined, Repowered had been at an inflection point: they had built a solid brand within their communities and markets, and recent adjustments to their supportive employment program had led to higher retention rates within their staff. Realizing an opportunity to make a larger impact, they had set a target to double their size.

The question was: how?

My previous colleague, Meg Rudy, had considered new service line expansion and competitor acquisition as growth strategies, but after analyzing the various options, she and Repowered leadership concluded against both. That left organic growth through traditional sales as the primary option, which became my summer internship.

Sales and Marketing were new disciplines for me, but having taken a few courses while at Booth, I was excited to flex my understanding and skills. I was able to scope Repowered’s market share and identify new market segments to explore. I conducted interviews with customers to find out what their experience was like and what Repowered’s value proposition was to them. But the most enjoyable portion of my project came as I was working alongside the Sales and Marketing teams to pull the information together into an action plan and sales strategy for the months ahead. In assembling the final growth strategy, I saw firsthand the ingenuity, talent, and drive of staff across the sales process – from the customer drop-off staff to the route sales team to the business development managers. Sometimes, our working sessions would wade into the personal, and I would hear about various staff’s path to Repowered and how its culture and commitment to them had kept some of the staff coming back well after their formal time in Repowered’s Work Readiness program had ended.

As much as my project was focused on identifying and expanding Repowered’s value to other markets, it was not lost on me the core value proposition it has to its own employees. Working at Repowered not only allowed me to answer many of the professional questions I came to business school with, but it also affirmed a conclusion I had a while ago: here was an enterprise where many, for the first time in a long time, could receive support and feel healthy and whole.

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