Panelists discussing social enterprises.

Combination of people, planet and profit prove to be “mission possible”

Austin Ambrose
December 8, 2016

Social enterprises sprouted and spread through the nation in recent years — at least, a definable concept of what one is. The idea of joining social good with business ventures is not new, but it has developed into its own business sector recognized by entrepreneurs. The Center of Entrepreneurship hosted “Mission Impossible,” an event to help students break into this emerging field.

John Glazer, director of TechGROWTH Ohio, started the event with a presentation discussing what constitutes a social enterprise, its key factors, and where to get investment for a social enterprise. He noted that more funding is available than ventures to fund.

“Look into the nature of money; where does it come from and how does it enter the economy,” Glazer said. “You need the capital or your venture will die.”

Three panelists from different social enterprises illustrated how a social enterprise sprouts from the combination of making money and doing social good. They all work for or created organizations that identified a societal need and found a venture to capitalize on.

Brian Vadakin spoke about his work as social enterprise coordinator for Rural Action, where he is responsible for overseeing the organization’s two social enterprises: Zero Waste Event Productions and Chesterhill Produce Auction.

The Zero Waste Event Productions began when Athens-area #Fest hired Rural Action to clean up the waste from the music festival. Rural Action realized that #Fest shared this problem with all outdoor festivals and decided to turn the task into a profitable venture. Festivals hire Zero Waste Event Productions to ensure the event can claim zero-waste status, which means that 90 percent or more of waste is recycled or composted. With pressures for creating a green footprint, claiming zero-waste status produces respect for companies.

Rural Action identified another need in the southeast Ohio area: Growers who live outside Athens County needed a more time-efficient way to sell their produce than traveling to the Athens Farmer’s Market. Chesterhill Produce Auction was created as a venue for this market. An eclectic group of individuals make their way to the auction, which has turned into an educational and community center as well.

Launching a social enterprise is just like starting any other business, Vadakin said: Identify problems and create solutions to address them.

“How do I find a problem that a social enterprise could help to address?” Vadakin said. “Be present to witness problems in the community. Build relationships. Listen to people’s stories.”

Sarah Duplessis, like Vadakin, did not build her own social enterprise. However, Duplessis was there from the early stages of Food for Good Thought. The venture began when founder Dr. Audrey Todd wanted to create a way for her autistic son to receive employment, and asked Duplessis — who has degrees in special education and advertising and public relations — to help develop the organization.

Todd’s son ate a gluten-free diet and had become interested in cooking and baking because of it. Combining Todd’s son’s need with his interest, she and Duplessis decided to open a gluten-free bakery that would employ workers with autism.

The venture grew into a job service for people with autism, operating both non-profit and for-profit programs that help their clients obtain employment. Their services include matching those looking for jobs with positions, supporting those with jobs, and even a training program to teach necessary skills and behaviors for a work environment. The bakery still operates, too.

Unlike the other two, Merry Korn, CEO of Pearl Interactive Network, created her social enterprise when the opportunity emerged. She fell into her venture when she was senior vice president of marketing at American Health Holding.

Korn was one of four founders of American Health who helped grow the company from a start-up to a company with more than 300 employees. Her experience there helped her build her own venture, which began when she hired a paraplegic woman to work at American Health.

Although the woman could not move from the neck down, her mind and mouth were so sharp that she succeeded greatly at selling to pharmaceutical companies. Korn expanded her efforts to match job opportunities with skilled, underserved populations by starting her social enterprise: Pearl Interactive Network.

The company looks for openings that would fit their niche clients, who include not only people with disabilities but also veterans, military spouses and residents of rural areas. Korn’s success with Pearl is partly due to gaining large federal government contactors as employers for her clients. The image of the venture differed from Korn’s original idea. However, she does admit that she was uncertain of its trajectory, and learned to take opportunities that became more lucrative as time went on. Korn is ecstatic about where the company went and where it is going.

“Dream big and go for it,” Korn said. “You might find other opportunities that are going to be more lucrative than your original idea, and you have to go with them. Also, love what you do.”

Ohio University’s participation in Global Entrepreneurship Week, which is celebrated in 160 countries, was supported by TechGROWTH Ohio and the Center for Entrepreneurship, a partnership between the College of Business and the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs.