The economy has long been split into two separate and distinct entities: the for-profits and the not-for-profits. In the space between, another model has emerged: social ventures—for-profit businesses that are as mission-driven as a charity and as financially savvy as a corporation. These are companies that structure missions around and siphon revenues into some sort of social good, from humanitarian causes to environmental activism.
“Social ventures,” says the University of Florida’s Kristin Joos, Ph.D., the director of Social Impact & Sustainability Initiatives, “are just like other businesses—the difference is that they have an integrated bottom line. … Meaning that not only are they concerned about their economic impact, they also care deeply about their impact on the environ- ment and society; they care just as much about people and the planet as they do about profit.” Finances nevertheless remain critical; social entrepreneurs recognize that the more revenue they generate, the more they can support their objectives. In fact, Joos says, more and more philanthropic-minded people are starting businesses because doing so “may be the most impactful and/or scalable way to make positive change.”
The industry forebears are firms like Ben & Jerry’s, TOMS Shoes and Seventh Generation, whose successes have inspired a fast-growing cadre of other like-minded entrepreneurs around the globe. Southwest Florida is no exception. Gulfshore Business has found several startups that are using business to enhance the common good and capitalism to create change. Meet some of the region’s social entrepreneurs.
With those words, yoga instructor Lauren Fox begins to guide her students, six of them on this particular morning, through the asanas—various poses to strengthen, stretch and energize.
In the background, waves lap at the shoreline and birds pass overhead. The class takes place at Lowdermilk Park, one of the community locations where this roving instructor unrolls her mat and shares this practice of movement and meditation—and her love of philanthropy.
Fox is the founder of Donation Yoga Naples. She does not charge a fee for her classes, asking instead for a donation, based on one’s ability to pay (or for volunteerism, such as cleaning the beach, if unable to contribute otherwise). She splits her proceeds 50/50 with community nonprofits, ranging from the Shy Wolf Sanctuary to Habitat for Humanity.
“Teaching Donation Yoga has been incredible,” says Fox, who established her program three years ago.
She was driven by a desire to give—both money and knowledge. Yoga, says Fox, has become too expensive, too exclusive. Too many people who long for it and could benefit from it are priced out.
Fox’s love of yoga was born several years ago. The Naples native had been a dancer growing up, thriving on the competition circuit and winning a scholarship for advanced studies at a studio in Colorado. But a dancer’s life is a hard one, and Fox ultimately gravitated to the non-competitive, non-judgmental culture of yoga.
She became a certified instructor and was invited to teach at studios in Naples. She says she encountered lots of people interested in yoga but unable to afford the tuition.
“I asked myself, ‘Could I afford yoga if I wasn’t teaching here?’ And the answer was ‘no.’ It’s a car payment a month,” she says. The finances don’t favor instructors, either. Fox says she couldn’t make a living based on the rates that studios paid instructors. She says she makes far more now—even after giving away half of her proceeds. She teaches some 20 to 25 hours a week, on the beach, at special events, at businesses, at a studio she shares with Open Mind Zen, a Buddhist nonprofit.
“I’ve taught yoga privates for $5. But that’s how it goes. I’m happy to be there, and you never know how that one hour might change someone’s life. I’m not doing this to become a millionaire. I’m doing it to be happy,” she says.
Taste of Immokalee produces salsa, sauces and spice rubs using local crops. But the real output is of the human variety—the development of young leaders, carefully cultivated from the rocky soil of poverty and its limitations.
The company was the brainchild of 16 Immokalee High School students who three years ago decided to use their community’s bounty to celebrate its cultures and to give students an opportunity to learn entrepreneurship firsthand. Education was everything to these teens, mostly immigrants or first-generation Americans whose parents toiled in fields and packinghouses so that their children might enjoy more prosperous futures.
The Immokalee-based One by One Leadership Foundation provides funding with the expectation that the company eventually will become a self-sustaining, for-profit firm anchored by its social mission. The Tamiami Angel Investment Fund, in a first for its investors, recently set up a funding mechanism through the Community Foundation of Collier County to support the students’ leadership development.
Taste of Immokalee products are sold at Publix supermarkets throughout Collier, at Wynn’s Market in Naples and online. The Collier County School District uses its hot sauces in school lunch recipes.
“My thesis has always been there is nothing more dan- gerous on the planet than an 18-year-old kid with no hope. That’s who fights the wars, that’s who commits ter- ror,” says John Slusar, the CEO. “We’re addressing that directly by creating leaders.”
This past summer marked a reboot for the company, which is in a constant churn of incoming and outgoing students. The newest crop of young businesspeople was charged with a number of big tasks, including developing new products. The adult advisers pushed for a kind of social development, too, inviting for the first time young people from Naples to join their peers in Immokalee.
“We come from different cultures, but they’re cool,” student Brenda Ponce of Immokalee says of her new Naples co-workers. “We have the same values.”
“For me, it’s an opportunity to learn about business and to give back,” says Johanson Vilsaint, who started at Santa Fe College this year. “We’re known as the second- poorest city in Florida, but we’re not just taking that stat and accepting it. We’re doing something about it.” Slusar and Marie Capita, the executive director, are working to write a curriculum that other communities can use to replicate Taste of Immokalee’s approach. “There are problems in our communities right now, and business can’t solve it. Government can’t solve it. Not-for-profits can’t solve it. The only way they can be solved, in our opinion, is if they work together. We think we have a good model for doing that,” Slusar says.
Sam Lewis’ WTF moment hit one night about a year before his University of Florida graduation, as he was tossing and turning and pondering his next step.
Don’t be crass. WTF is WearTheFund, a custom apparel company born out of an epiphany that night. Lewis had long harbored an interest in philanthropy; a finance professor with whom he had consulted reminded him that before he could give money away he needed to make some.
“Why can’t you do both at the same time?” Lewis wondered.
And thus emerged WearTheFund, a company founded by this self-described “T-shirt guy” seeking a way to do good.
Lewis taught himself to screen print using YouTube tutorials, bought some starter equipment and practiced in his childhood garage in Fort Myers. In time, he was ready to go commercial, first in the garage, and then in the central Fort Myers warehouse where the company now resides, staffed by a handful of friends and family members who’ve embraced the cause.
Lewis donates 5 percent of the purchase price to one of the company’s partnering nonprofits, standing at 45 and counting. Clients choose where they’d like to direct the money. As of last summer, the young company had given more than $100,000 to various causes.
Let’s be clear: This is $100,000 off of Lewis’ bottom line in an industry with little financial wiggle room—a 5 to 10 percent profit margin is generally considered good for a small manufacturer like him.
“The industry we’re in is hyper-competitive,” Lewis says. Because of that, he can’t inflate his prices to offset the charitable giving.
But Lewis, 26, is anxious to be a part of a movement that he predicts will sweep through American consumerism.
“I do believe there’s a tipping point for business as we know it. I think it will become more common to see busi- nesses that have a direct cause behind their sales,” he says, citing companies such as the Patagonia, which uses business to advance environmental issues, or TOMS shoes, which directs proceeds to global causes such as clean water and safe births.
Lewis has far-reaching goals, hoping to eventually add a retail division that features WTF’s own line of sustainably made shirts. “It’s a long battle and a long journey, but we’re glad to be part of the movement,” he says.
At 6 a.m. on a Thursday morning, downtown Fort Myers is dark, but the lights shine through the window of Gwendolyn’s Cafe. The little restaurant won’t open for another 90 minutes, but the owner, Gwendolyn Howard-Powell, is hosting an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. At 7 a.m. that meeting adjourns and another group emerges, some on foot, some on bicycles, nearly all lugging bags and backpacks. They are homeless. Two employees have hot breakfast sandwiches, coffee and bottled water ready for them.
Howard-Powell had enjoyed a good managerial career in the hospitality industry, but she had not intended to be a restaurant owner, and she certainly had not intended to wade into the realm of social services. But she sees her circumstance as a “God thing,” and a chance to redeem past mistakes, and lets it go at that.
“I made awful choices,” Howard-Powell says of her earlier life. (She’s in recovery herself.) “I have been on the street for a quick minute here, a quick minute there, and it sucks.”
In order to provide for the needy, she uses her profits, the sale of cafe T-shirts and the generosity of her customers, who participate in a “Suspended Coffee” program that encourages them to buy extra drinks or meals for those in need.
“Feeding the homeless started with this old, cranky guy four or five years ago. … I’m stopped at the stoplight, and there’s a little old man who is literally in the garbage. I put my window down and I say, ‘Hey, hey, are you OK? He turned around and looked at me with his sun-wrinkled self, and the way he said it, ‘I am so hungry,’ I never want to hear somebody say that again.” And so the breakfast program was born. Howard-Powell and her staff go beyond filling bellies—that morning, her employee Tanesha pauses to have a pep talk with a young man, newly out of jail. Howard-Powell pulls aside a tired-looking woman named Martha to coax her into visiting the county human services department.
She’s similarly generous with staff, gravitating toward people in recovery and coping with other challenges. She’d taken a chance on Tanesha, hiring her upon her release from prison because “there was just something about her energy.” The man behind the counter, Mack, was once a homeless guest. He had made himself so useful that Howard-Powell ultimately hired him. “He’s like the boss. He feels such ownership.” Mack one day opened his hand and showed Howard-Powell the key to his new apartment. “That was the most beautiful thing, that key.”