Movement Building – Nicole Kenny

I am one of the many “non-traditional” students currently enrolled in an MBA program. I graduated with a B.A. in English, and I distinctly remember a dinner conversation with my father, during which I (snark-ily) declared, “I’ll never work in business like you.” Yet, here I am, entering the second year of a dual MBA-MPA program at New York University. Four years ago, I had no idea that I would choose this path. Armed with idealism, all I wanted to do was fix what I perceived as broken systems supporting the urban poor. After spending two years working for an amazing nonprofit organization in Rhode Island, I became convinced that the nonprofit and public sectors alone could not solve such complex challenges as poverty, homelessness, and unemployment. So I enrolled in business school with the “social enterprise” buzz in my ear and the idea that three sectors must be better than two.

I, of course, am not the only person to have this idea. Thought leaders in the field of social enterprise have, for decades, been exploring the potential to combine public, private and nonprofit efforts for good. And REDF is leading the charge. As REDF’s CEO, Carla Javits says, “We’re building a movement.” As a Farber Intern this summer, I was lucky enough to be part of REDF’s movement, and my experience has, undoubtedly, made me a more deeply committed follower.

If I may, I would like to share what my internship taught me about movement-building in particular:

Everyone is an ally. As a Farber intern, I had the opportunity to meet many of the diverse members of REDF’s network: from successful corporate donors and CEOs to dedicated social enterprise leaders; from analytical non-profit consultants to inspiring community organizers; and from creative entrepreneurs to determined civil rights activists. Every person I met in connection with REDF shared a belief in the power of social enterprise to strengthen communities and create jobs. Discovering this shared vision among such diverse individuals as George Roberts, co-founder and CEO of KKR, and Mike Fox, CEO of Goodwill Silicon Valley, showed me that, in building a movement, we need allies in all sectors. These allies are advocates for our work, and they can expand the reach of our message far beyond what we could ever do alone.

Complexity requires nuance. The model upon which REDF has built its movement seems elegantly simple: build social enterprises to create jobs for those who need them. Yet, the challenges this model addresses are dauntingly complex. For example, social enterprises and support services that work for homeless individuals may not meet the needs of individuals re-entering the workforce after prison. It may seem obvious that when addressing complex barriers to employment, what works for some may not work for others. But this recognition requires action. I have seen REDF adapt its strategy and invest in a number of models, from strictly transitional employment to worker-owned cooperatives. This has taught me the importance of nuance–of questioning simple answers and imagining new solutions. I learned that in building a movement, we cannot be satisfied with one theory of change; we need a set of theories that can work together to achieve our vision.

Seeing isn’t knowing. Growing up in and around cities, I have witnessed how homelessness, poverty, and lack of opportunity have challenged my neighbors. As a Farber intern, I had the opportunity to try to address these challenges. I learned, however, that simply seeing or investigating or talking about the barriers individuals in our communities face is not at all the same as experiencing them. REDF taught me to recognize when I do not know and to seek out those who do. In building its movement, REDF seeks out the leadership and insight of individuals working at its social enterprises. In fact, one of my fellow Farber interns spent his entire summer putting together a proposal for how REDF can systematically incorporate feedback from social enterprise employees into its model. This is because REDF wants to build its movement in partnership, not simply on behalf of, the individuals it serves. REDF showed me that a strong movement cannot simply assume its own merits but must rely on those it hopes to serve to shape and guide it forward.

I am humbled to be counted among REDF’s so many amazing Farber Interns who have, since their time at REDF, carried the message of social enterprise to new corners of the private, public and nonprofit sectors. I want to thank REDF for giving me the opportunity to join its movement. I hope to be as strong an ally as the Farber Interns before me and to continue to build the social enterprise sector for those who will come after.

Nicole Kenny is a second-year MBA/MPA student at New York University. Through this program Nicole is exploring the connections between the public and private sectors and their potential to generate positive social change. Before beginning her graduate studies, she spent two years working at a Rhode Island non-profit organization called Foster Forward, which serves children and families involved in Rhode Island’s foster care system. At Foster Forward, Nicole worked in both development and policy analysis. Nicole received a BA from Providence College, where she studied English and Public and Community Service.

This is part of our Farber Blog Series.