Creating a ripple effect: Social impact entrepreneurs focus on people, planet, and profits

One who is willing to take risks in an effort to solve community-based problems and affect positive societal change. This is the definition of a social entrepreneur. While it is common to think of a mission-based organization as being a non-profit entity, in today’s society, many for-profit businesses are seeking to create change while maintaining a strong bottom line.

In this space, companies such as Patagonia, Toms, and Clif Bar may come to mind. According to B Lab, the organization that certifies companies seeking to balance profit with a purpose, there are currently over 3,200 companies in 71 countries that have been recognized as certified benefit corporations or B-Corps. Though not all hold the B-Corp designation, within West Michigan, there are numerous companies seeking to serve as a social enterprise.

“It’s not uncommon for people to address people, planet, and profit as separate issues, but I can’t help seeing them as a constellation, because they all influence one another. I’m so grateful to have a job that allows me to work with some really exceptional and innovative people who see that connectivity as well. I’m always so inspired by the creative solutions they design to make a change,” says Good For Michigan Program Manager Alice Jasper.

Motivated to make change

One of those people is Janay Brower. Brower earned her degree in public policy and has over a decade of systems change work experience with vulnerable populations — mainly youth and families. This work was specifically focused around social determinants of health, economic considerations, housing, and community development.

Janay Brower, founder of Public Thread.Reflecting on this work, Brower says, “I loved it. It was fantastic. What was challenging was that we never really got to the root causes of what was really going on. A lot of what the root cause was, was a lack of access to living-wage jobs [and] an opportunity for people to take care of their own financial needs as a household. When you’re living and working in poverty, it is really difficult to meet all of your basic needs. Typically the resources just aren’t there. Continually seeing people needed economic opportunities, and particularly living wage jobs, was a huge factor in wanting to do something.”

That “something” leads to the creation of Public Thread in June 2016. Combined with her drive to be creative and create items she would want to purchase, Public Thread is focused on “[paying] living wages, being thoughtful about the environment, [and having] a sustainable approach about manufacturing,” Brower says.

Finding creative solutions to on-going problems

“Social entrepreneurs are invaluable to our community because they are willing to assume the risks of charting new waters by changing the way business has typically been done. Their success is what demonstrates to others that impactful, place-based business models not only work but are increasingly outperforming their competitors,” Jasper says.

Public Thread is deepening their approach to design, growing the business outside of private label work.One area of the business model that Public Thread is continuing to deepen is their approach to design. “We’re really about trying to design around the materials that we already have. Typically with apparel and accessory design, you have an idea. ‘I want to make a wrap dress. I want to make a purse that has this kind of handle’ and then you would go out and source the material. We go at it a little backwards,” says Brower. “We go, ‘we have 300 yards of this stuff that looks like hemp. We have 75 yards of this vinyl. We have 3,000 yards of billboards.’ [We see] what the materials are best used for and then put them together in new and unique ways.”

Brower says they currently have around 80,000 pounds of material on hand including faux leather, mesh, hemp, and various strap materials. Partnering with organizations including Steelcase, PADNOS, Camira Fabrics, and Meijer allows them to access items such as these that are post-industrial waste, which means they have never been touched by consumers, but otherwise could end up in a landfill. “A lot of it is scrap and surplus material that is leftover from the manufacturing process,” she says.

Seeking to combat the on-going use and disposal of plastics, Boxed Water is the “first sustainably packaged water alternative to plastic bottles,” says chief executive officer Daryn Kuipers. One of the biggest drivers for their operations has been focusing on environmental impacts. “The paper-based carton is really our differentiator. Paper comes from trees, which can be re-grown,” Kuipers says. Boxed Water also looks at other aspects of its process when gauging its overall impact. 

“Our cartons ship flat. Shipping is one of the biggest components of distribution. If we can reduce the carbon footprint while we ship things, we’re going to save our environment. We’re sustainable in the form of [our] sourcing and we’re better for the environment from the [standpoint] of carbon emissions,” Kuipers says.

Challenges along the way

Focusing on the greater good does not necessarily automatically come with increased consumer demand. At times, an additional step may be necessary to help people buy-in and understand the added benefit or elements of a social impact mission.

Mariam Al-Swiadi works on sewing a bag.“Having a greater mission comes with increased cost. When you go after a major industry like this, the beverage industry, they have their way of doing things. We’re small distributors. We’re not a Coke or a Pepsi. They can move [more cases at a lower price]. Consumers have a harder time buying a more expensive component. For us, it’s educating all levels from distributors to retailers, to consumers that it may be a couple pennies more, but in the end, you’re doing good,” says Kuipers.

The manufacturing industry has provided its own challenges, too. “Being in the for-profit sector and not a charity where we could have grants that can offset costs has proven to be incredibly difficult. It’s hard. It’s also [doing] some of the best work. To figure out how to actually create systems to use materials that are here already and in creative ways, you really need the tech [and] professional thinking around production systems, efficiency, lean manufacturing — all of those things,” Brower says.

Keeping impact front and center

Despite these challenges, keeping the big picture in mind helps. As traditional for-profit businesses are typically most concerned with bottom-line numbers, for social enterprises, returns can come in various forms. 

“We’ve allowed all of our customers to be connected to our marketing,” says Kuipers. “We started a campaign called Better Planet. If you post a photo of boxed water or our brand, use the hashtag #BetterPlanet, and tag us, we plant two trees. We’re over 850,000 trees today just based on social posts. We have a fan base out there that believes in what we’re doing and shares the good word.”

“One of the ways that we keep [our impact] front and center is when I do my invoicing. I include how many jobs are supported through that particular project and how many pounds of textiles were diverted from the landfill with that project so that people can right away not only look at the financial impact, but they can also see the impact on humans and the environment,” says Brower.

A vision for the future

According to Jasper, “Social entrepreneurs are the change-makers who play an integral role in building an inclusive and regenerative economy for our community.”

“When I started this, my whole focus [was] how do I become a worker-owned business within an industry that is largely based [on] slave labor and low-wage labor globally,” Brower says. 

“For me, trying to create generational wealth opportunities for those that are working with us, has been one of the primary drivers. How do we create jobs and … a system around production that is human-centered yet also efficient and produces a really high-quality product,” she adds. 

“That’s a really fine line of art and science to try to figure that out. It requires significant investment to be able to have the equipment, the machines, and the people that you need to manage the process,” Brower concludes.

Advice for prospective social entrepreneurs

“Social impact entrepreneurs may find that there are fewer resources available to companies who prioritize their stakeholders over their shareholders. It’s also not uncommon for people with innovative and viable ideas for a social enterprise to feel discouraged by a lack of business savvy. Fortunately, there are a number of organizations like Spring GR [and] Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women (GROW) that are designed to meet entrepreneurs where they are and provide support with everything from accessing capital to making a business plan,” says Jasper.

For these individuals, Kuipers encourages them to consider Simon Sinek’s philosophy of determining your ‘why’. “You have to start with your true north, why you want to start your business, what your mission’s going to be, what your product or service is going to be, and how you’re going to make a difference.”

In addition to Good For Michigan, Brower also recommends leveraging community resources such as Local First, the Small Business Development Center, and Start Garden to help new entrepreneurs. She recommends “from the very beginning, continually come back to how [you are] actually having a positive impact on people, the environment, and making money while doing it.” 

“I would encourage everyone to consider how you can have bottom-line impact around humans and the environment all the time,” she says.

About Leandra Nisbet: Leandra Nisbet, Owner of Stingray Advisory Group LLC and Co-Owner of Brightwork Marine LLC, has over 14 years of experience in leadership, sales & marketing, and graphic design. She helps businesses grow and assists with: strategic planning, marketing concept development/implementation, risk management, and financial organization. She is actively involved in the community, sitting on several Boards and committees, and has been recognized as one of the 40 Under 40 Business Leaders in Grand Rapids.

Contact Leandra Nisbet by email at [email protected]

Photography by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.
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