Ten years ago I enrolled in an MBA program with a focus on helping companies adopt environmentally sustainable practices. Over time, as my interest in the field deepened, I saw how clearly social justice issues intersected with environmental issues. As I became increasingly passionate about racial justice and resource disparities, I realized what I was looking for in a career was the opportunity to apply what I was learning in business school to solving social problems. So I returned to my hometown of Portland, Oregon and began working with New Avenues for Youth, where I help marginalized populations find access to greater opportunity through business and entrepreneurial training.
Organizations like New Avenues for Youth and the other Social Enterprises represented at the REDF retreat face big challenges on a daily basis as we balance becoming economically self-sustaining while prioritizing our social mission. Having such a powerful community of organizations networked and coming together to discuss the path forward is a critical step. I gained so much for listening to the comments, questions, successes and challenges voiced by everyone in the room. Attending the retreat offered a great opportunity for deeper learning about both the individuals doing such amazing work as well as the practices they were implementing to achieve specific goals.
A key takeaway for me was the importance of policy advocacy as a tool to advance the goal of Social Enterprise. I saw a tremendous opportunity for me to engage in some deeper policy learning at a local level to better understand the context in which social enterprise workforce development operates. I learned the importance of understanding the business, philanthropic, and governmental climate of the community—the “who’s who” of Portland—in order to identify and influence key political levers. I left the retreat inspired to set outreach goals and specific targets for relationship building that could really impact the work we do at New Avenues.
Thanks to the presentation on messaging I learned there’s a more powerful and effective way to talk about the work we do in Social Enterprise. To maximize the opportunity when talking about New Avenues to others about who we are and the work we do, I’ve learned to avoid jargon and “insider” terminology and instead deliver an elevator speech that’s all about impact. I discovered that when the opportunity presents itself, it’s vital to paint a picture of our impact by making it interesting and relatable to the average listener. As someone who engages a lot with folks in the community who are unfamiliar with our agency and the work we do, I have noticed (since the retreat) that changing the way I talk about the work, has encouraged the listener to be more engaged and curious. This sounds like a little thing, but the smallest shift in how I engage people around this work has a profound impact in securing partnerships and community support.
Speaking of support, the other key take-away was the importance of my team! These are the folks doing the work on the ground. They are supporting a highly-barriered population of young individuals every single day to build confidence and skills in accountability, communication, customer service, peer conflict resolution, and industry-related knowledge which they need to be successful in their lives, while meeting aggressive financial targets and maintaining high standards set by customers in a fast-paced, administrative-heavy work environment. I am humbled by the work they do and reminded that to be an effective leader for them, it is important that I prioritize mirroring back to them their successes and achievements.
Being a part of the REDF national portfolio is of tremendous value to myself, the organization, and the young folks we serve. Retreats like the one convened by REDF has helped New Avenues gain exposure to a community of other organizational leaders in social enterprise that share a commitment to mission, best practices and tools. Networking with other groups in the portfolio, and problem-solving around shared challenges has already inspired specific improvements in business operations, marketing, and strategic decisions.
About Sara Weihmann
Sara Weihmann earned an MBA with an emphasis in environmental sustainability and social equity from Dominican University. Following many years in the Bay Area working in urban agriculture, food policy, and small-business, she returned to Portland, Oregon to serve as Director of Social Purpose Enterprise at New Avenues for Youth. For the last three years, Sara has overseen a portfolio of businesses New Avenues owns and operates designed to provide job-training to young people in the community who are currently homeless or at risk of homelessness.
About New Avenues for Youth
Based in Portland, Oregon, New Avenues for Youth takes a complete approach to addressing youth homelessness and its root causes, delivering support and resources that enable foster, at-risk, and homeless youth aged 14-24 to overcome their barriers and realize their potential. Through direct service, community partnership, advocacy, and data-driven evaluation, New Avenues helps youth exit street life and prevent those at risk of homelessness from experiencing it. For more than a decade, New Avenues has used social enterprise as a key strategy. They operate two social enterprises: Ben & Jerry’s PartnerShop franchises (of which they own two) and the screen-printing business New Avenues INK.