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Group helps businesses move forward on social change

Can a company focused on societal good make real money?

Charles Thomas thinks so. He leads Queen City Forward, a nonprofit started in February 2012 that’s focused on helping Charlotte-area entrepreneurs use business strategies to solve social and community issues.

These “social entrepreneurs” aren’t afraid to make money, Thomas says – in fact, “they see that as a core part of their business model.”

But they also “want to create systemic change, big change,” Thomas says. “They want to scale their social impact. Those are the kind of individuals and companies we want to work with.”

Queen City Forward’s slogan is “Innovate for the Greater Good.” Since the organization is housed inside Packard Place, the uptown Charlotte hub for entrepreneurs, members can benefit from being around like-minded business people, Thomas said.

He advocates for members, spreading the word about their companies to generate networking and business opportunities. QCF board members and mentors from the business community serve as advisers.

Membership starts at $45 a month. About 25 nonprofits and for-profit businesses have been enrolled, Thomas said.

They include Second Helping, a nonprofit that aims to set up coffee stands around the city that are run by women recently released from prison. The group has two spots so far, including a coffee and lunch stand inside Goodwill Industries at 2122 Freedom Drive.

Melissa Mummert, who founded Second Helping, says feedback and help from fellow QCF members and advisers prompted her group to set bigger goals.

They launched a fundraising blitz that raised $23,000. Now, Second Helping is renting a kitchen on Central Avenue, with plans to open a catering and takeout place, generating more jobs, Mummert said.

Queen City Forward “lit a fire under us, I think, to be bolder than what we would have been initially,” says Mummert.

Nonprofits “think in nickels,” Mummert adds.

“Just being exposed to people in the business world we might not have been exposed to…that really encouraged us to jump outside our comfort zone.”

Profits and purpose

The idea for QCF started in 2010 through the Charlotte Chamber’s and Mayor Anthony Foxx’s interest in bringing social entrepreneurship to the city.

They tapped the thinking of Christopher Gergen, co-founder of Bull City Forward in Durham, and later invited him to launch the Charlotte version of the organization.

Thomas and other practitioners point out successful examples of doing good with a business spin. They include Grameen Foundation, a global microlending nonprofit that aims to lift up low-income people through entrepreneurship. A Charlotte branch of Grameen America opened late last year.

Other high-profile examples include the privately owned TOMS Shoes, which donated its one millionth pair of new shoes to a child in need in 2010, according to its website. Durham-based Burt’s Bees beauty products, which Clorox acquired for $925 million in late 2007, ties its brand to environmental and social consciousness.

The next generation of prospective businesspeople includes more who want to help the greater good through their companies, in addition to being successful, notes Polly Black, instructor in the School of Business and director of the Center for Innovation, Creativity and Entrepreneurship at Wake Forest University.

Black says in addition to focusing on the much-discussed “triple bottom line” of profit, planet and people, there’s a fourth category emerging: purpose. “They want to find a way to give back in some way while they’re getting ahead,” Black said.

Kim Weller Gregory, assistant professor in the Knight School of Communication at Queens University of Charlotte, said she designed her business communications class around social entrepreneurship after seeing a shift toward it. Her class is working with Thomas this semester on the organization’s branding and message.

“A lot of entrepreneurs are realizing they can take their passion, draw on traditional business principles … and rally a movement behind it,” Gregory said.

Buzz for businesses

To generate that type of attention, Queen City Forward is targeting specific sectors in Charlotte, where new business strategies can shine.

Queen City Forward’s first social innovation fellowship, which finished earlier this month, focused on health care. Six local companies received training and mentorship on their business plans over an eight-week period. Among the participants generating local and national attention is WeRx, a free Web and mobile app created by two Charlotte doctors that allows consumers to compare prescription drug prices at pharmacies.

Seeing the widespread impact of innovating for social issues will take some time, experts say.

One reason for that is it’s a business model that requires patience, Thomas says.

“It may be slow growth, and slow return for investors,” he says. “But they get a return from investing in a for-profit enterprise (with) a social mission.”

It will take 10 to 15 years for today’s students to be decision-makers within companies, notes Black, the Wake Forest director.

When that happens, she says, “there will be more and more pressure for companies making good profit to give back.”

Future success stories will help fuel the movement, Thomas says.

People will realize, “ ‘I can work for a company that’s doing good, and make enough money for my family,’ ” Thomas says. “It’s possible to have a career doing this.”

Smith: 704-358-5087 Twitter: @celestesmithobs
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