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Learning Continuously: Five Changes for the Fifth REDF Accelerator Cohort

By Saaleha Bey, Yodit Beyene, Lauren Taylor

This year we welcome the REDF Accelerator cohort against the backdrop of an inequitable post-pandemic economic recovery and the continued reckoning of our country’s racial injustice. We’re hopeful about the future, despite all its challenges, because the forward-looking, impact-driven employment social enterprise leaders in this year’s cohort remind us what’s possible when we stand up against the status quo and invest in the hidden talent in our communities. 

As we expand the program to welcome two groups a year as part of our roadmap to build a more inclusive economy, more of these inspiring leaders will be able to develop and test strategies to strengthen operations, programs, and financial sustainability within their businesses. Now in its fifth year, we continue learning from and with the Accelerator’s leaders, adjusting our curriculum to continually improve. Here are five ways we’re strengthening the program:

Accessible Application Process

We received feedback on the entire application process from REDF staff – from the language we used and our scoring rubric to content and context – to make sure the application was approachable. We hosted office hours and open “ask us anything” sessions where applicants could ask deep questions and receive guidance on what we we’re looking for, with over 80% of applicants attending a webinar. In the application itself, we avoided jargon, defined acronyms, and used example responses to be as transparent as possible. 

Prioritizing Leaders’ Lenses

Over 20+ years of working with ESE leaders, REDF has evolved as an organization and deepened our understanding of what makes for effective and impactful ESE leadership. It’s both REDF’s belief and experience that leaders of color and leaders that share the backgrounds of their program participants are in a strong position to understand the needs of participants, design programs to meet their needs, and advocate for them. We’ve seen that the perspective they bring to their leadership is powerful and contributes to their participants’ success. Several members of this year’s cohort bring that lens to their work, and we’ve found that bringing together leaders with varied points-of-view makes for a more enriching Accelerator experience.

A Responsive Approach Ready for Scale

This year’s cohort has pivoted and persevered amidst some of the most challenging circumstances their businesses and employees have faced. Throughout COVID-19, ESEs have been responsive to the needs of the communities where they work. Many of these resilient leaders made strong pivots to stay profitable while supporting their employees, often pausing the “transitional” aspect of their program models to keep employees on-the-job. Several businesses also saw an increase in combined revenue, a testament to their leadership, the employment social enterprise model, and public support for this proven approach. 

As REDF continues to work with mission-driven businesses across the U.S., our cohort represents ESEs ever-broadening reach. We have a lot to learn as we introduce REDF to new areas, and the South, in particular, is a region we’re excited about. Of the nation’s 13 states with the highest incarceration rates, 12 are located in the South. And Florida and Texas, where two of the Accelerator organizations are located, have some of the highest rates of homelessness in the United States. The South has demand for the services and support REDF provides, and we’re learning how to reach, equip and partner with new businesses across the region.

Responsive, Curated Content

Our curriculum introduces an experimental approach to launching new initiatives. In 2020, many businesses have had to learn this on their own, in order to stay afloat during COVID-19. We’re excited and curious to hear leaders share their experiences and outcomes, since they’ve already integrated this approach to their work.”

In designing our 2021 curriculum, we’re striving to be as responsive as possible to the cohort’s goals and the events of the last year. Ahead of the program’s start, we’re doing a baseline assessment of each group to understand what areas they’re trying to strengthen, and we’re leaning into that. We will also do in-session polling and gather post-session feedback during the five-month program. We want to make sure what they’re spending their time on is valuable and actionable to them. 

In the spirit of tailoring, leaders can choose from a handful of sessions offered and decide which one to attend based on their type of business. One advantage of being virtual this year is our ability to bring in folks who are subject-matter experts in specific areas. To that end, we’ve got a full lineup of guest speakers, a wellness facilitator, exploratory workshops, activities, and opportunities to break bread together.

Great Gains

As you’d imagine, we’re big believers in the concept of an accelerator and think there’s so much to be gained from this experience. In addition to fellowship, networking, and community, we want this year’s cohort to walk away feeling connected and equipped with the tools and resources to change the trajectory of their growth. That’s why, after the successful conclusion of the program, ESEs receive a grant to implement strategies and activate ideas. Alumni also gain an extended network of fellow builders and bridgemakers, becoming part of the REDF Community of 150+ high impact employment social enterprises located around the country. REDF continues to provide partnership and offer support to these mission-driven businesses at each stage of their life-cycle to drive the field forward and build a more inclusive economy where all people have the opportunity to work and thrive. 

 

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