(Photo by Tony Abraham)
Delaware may be small in stature, but the state is in no way short on social entrepreneurs.
The cream of the do-gooding crop gathered at the University of Delaware in the Horn Program in Entrepreneurship’s Venture Development Center earlier this week to present their impact-driven businesses to a room full of eager students, community members and fellow entrepreneurs.
The Horn Program itself is no stranger to social enterprise, having just expanded its signature Diamond Challenge to include a completely separate track for social ventures. That’s the news Youth Programs Manager Julie Frieswyk closed out the evening with, after giving attendees a bit of insight into how social entrepreneurship has changed over the past five years.
“For a lot of years, people were talking about how businesses need to start acting more like nonprofits — they needed more purpose and more social responsibility,” she said. “And nonprofits needed to act more like businesses, with better leadership and more fiscal responsibility.”
"For anyone here that is working with communities, you’ve got to get the community to own it. I realized very quickly that if it was about me, it was never going to work."
That understanding is now antiquated, Frieswyk said. Instead, she offered a new definition, more in line with what the Horn Program believes to be entrepreneurship: the process of creating, delivering and capturing value from new ideas for the primary purpose of making a positive social impact.
“We might say that social entrepreneurship might be the most difficult thing ever,” she said. “Now, you have to have a customer and a beneficiary. Sometimes they’re one in the same, sometimes they’re not.”
Here are how five of the state’s top social entrepreneurs are leading the social-impact charge in Delaware.
1. Andrew McKnight (Founding Executive Director, Challenge Program)
McKnight’s Challenge Program works with kids ages 18 to 24 in a discipline-heavy six-month vocational training program in construction and woodworking.
“We do comprehensive case management,” said McKnight. “We operate like a construction company. The kids earn a credential, with our No. 1 goal being employment following exit.”
Ultimately, employment is the task at hand for the Challenge Program. Not just employment rates, but retention in employment once the students exit the program. Those two metrics are how the Challenge program tracks its impact.
The program’s latest social enterprise, CP Furniture, is doing furniture production (they recently put together some work for Grain in Newark).
“If you’re being a social entrepreneur, you’re not just trying to solve a problem,” said McKnight. “You’re a businessperson first, and you’re a businessperson who’s got to be very profitable.”
2. Donald Baker (Executive Director, FAME)
The Forum to Advance Minorities in Engineering (FAME), a nonprofit that strives to get more minority representation in STEM fields, has actually been around for 40 years. When Baker came on board as executive director in 2010, he changed things up by creating STEMulate Change, a structured outreach initiative that teaches kids a project-based STEM curriculum over the course of the summer and after school hours.
“If we don’t have, in my opinion, an educated society, then we all suffer the ills of society — poverty, crime, social injustice, many of the things we all know far too well,” said Baker. “We’ve grown from serving 60 students to this year serving over 1,400 students, and we’re doing this with intellectual property.”
3. Patrick Callihan (Managing Partner, Zip Code Wilmington)
Callihan opened by saying there will be an estimated one million unfilled programming jobs in the U.S. by 2020. Hundreds of those jobs, he said, are currently in Wilmington.
“JPMorgan Chase, Barclays, Chase, Bank of America, Capital One — they sound like banks, [but] these are tech companies,” he said. “They’re filled with thousands and thousands of developers.”
That’s where Wilmington’s newly-established code school Zip Code Wilmington comes in. Callihan’s nonprofit Tech Impact manages the code school, which they consider to be a workforce development program.
After Callihan delved into the code school’s origin story, he began to talk about the future — specifically, the scalability and sustainability of the model.
“I want to be able to replicate this in other places,” he said.
4. Kris Vaddi (President, Sidus Holdings)
Vaddi, one of the founding members of Incyte and the brains behind its miracle drug Jakafi, talked about his latest venture — the Sidus Cancer Care Initiative, a nonprofit with a mission to lower cervical cancer rates and deaths abroad.
“After a 15- to 20-year journey in trying to discover new medicines to try to improve the standard of care of cancer in the developed world, I learned that more people die from cancer because they don’t have access to medicines or diagnostic approaches we [in the U.S.] take for granted,” he said, adding that trends in cancer mortality are projected to increase by 70 percent by 2030. “I decided to do something about it and give some of my time to making a difference.”
Vaddi created the initiative with the idea of creating a model system in the developing world, choosing cervical cancer — the No. 1 killer of women in cancer-related mortalities in India.
“In 80 percent of those deaths they don’t have adequate screening procedures,” said Vaddi. He said that there’s a “very simple” and lifesaving test involving vinegar that can be implemented easily. Vaddi is currently trying to hone the model.
5. Matt Meyer (Cofounder, EcoSandals)
Back when Meyer was in college, he studied abroad in Kenya, spending most of his time in the city of Nairobi.
“You expect it to be really, really poor, but you get there are there are huge buildings, nice restaurants and people driving beautiful cars,” he said. Meyer mentioned his surprise to a stranger.
“He brought me to the other side, where everybody lived. It was destitution,” he said. “Growing up in Wilmington Delaware, you have no idea what that’s like — people living like that every day.”
Everything people did, he said, was a money-making endeavor. Everybody in Nairobi is operating a business. So Meyer started a busienss.
“The business I started was called EcoSandals. We got investment from the U.S., gave youth the opportunity to invest with equity, and through sweat equity, they earned shares in the company,” he said. “We’re a group of individuals with a common purpose providing you with handcrafted sandals from recycled materials while providing security and financial freedom for our families.”
Meyer ended his presentation with some valuable advice for aspiring social entrepreneurs.
“For anyone here that is working with communities, you’ve got to get the community to own it,” he said. “I realized very quickly that if it was about me, it was never going to work. It had to be about them.”
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