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Invisible Heroes – Bruno Waked, Kellogg School of Management

Think of a business—any business—and picture its cost structure. Take a candle factory, for instance. There’s the direct cost of wax, scents, wicks, vessels and packaging, there’s rent for the factory space and inventory storage, there’s maintenance for the machinery, all kinds of SG&A costs, and, of course, salaries and benefits for the employees.

Now imagine this business is a social enterprise. In other words, you are balancing profit with purpose. Let’s assume this is an employment social enterprise, meaning its mission is to help people with barriers to employment. What changes? Maybe we add training costs? Productivity might be lower?

That is all true. And more. Much more. Training costs do increase, but not only in technical training—there is an added need for soft skills training as well, things like time-management and communications skills. Given the serious employment barriers your workforce is striving to overcome, there is also a need for increased flexibility, whether that’s around daily shift hours, working days, or something else. By design, turnover is higher because employees who graduate the program move onto competitive jobs—so you are constantly training new employees. As a result, average tenure and technical experience can be lower, which impacts productivity. Business decisions that were very straightforward, such as whether to automate some production processes, now must take more factors into consideration, like if there is any skill development lost. And so on.

During this summer, I underwent this same scenario, except it was not theoretical—I was there, literally on the factory floor. I spent the summer with the amazing team at New Moms, an organization that supports young mothers and their children who are experiencing poverty and homelessness, and Bright Endeavors, their candle-making social enterprise that employs young mothers in a 16-week transitional employment program that helps them prepare for a long-term career. I observed, first-hand, the incredible challenges social enterprises face daily—as well as the powerful rewards.

The market for social enterprises is no different than the market for profit-seeking companies—most people don’t buy products just because they come from a social enterprise— the products and/or services must be competitive. If, according to Bloomberg, 8 out of 10 entrepreneurs who start businesses fail within the first 18 months, imagine what this number is for social enterprises!

From my perspective, leading a successful social enterprise is nothing short of heroic.

Here’s where REDF comes in—to help ensure that social enterprises across the US aren’t part of that statistic. With an amazing team and a powerful network, REDF has 20+ years of experience helping social enterprises thrive in any stage of its lifecycle, from REDFWorkshop and the Accelerator for early-stage social enterprises, to grants, loans, advisory services for more mature social enterprises, and of course, the program near and dear to my heart – the Farber program.

Speaking of the Farber program, the incredible cohort of Farber interns, which I was honored to be a part of this year, started this summer at REDF in the company’s annual retreat. We were exposed to the brilliant work of the top employment social enterprises in the country and their heroic leaders. Just like everyone I met at New Moms and Bright Endeavors, this was a group of incredibly hard-working, resilient and inspiring people from around the country, who refuse to accept social injustices.

I was surprised by how honest and pragmatic these leaders were. There was no ego-boosting or self-promoting desire to ‘brag’ about achievements, but instead only candid conversations about current challenges and possible solutions. The relationship between REDF and the social enterprises is one of trust and vulnerability, key to solve the challenging problems faced.

Personally, the exposure to these high-impact, low-ego, brave leaders was the highlight of the whole summer experience. Despite being invisible to many of us, these heroes are, to me, the perfect embodiment of servant leadership and, if I have been successful in learning and absorbing just a bit of knowledge and skills from them, then I can confidently say my summer experience was worth it.

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