Miller Center, Innovation Works, and Jesuits Team Up for Jobs in Baltimore
For many of the 17 years he served as a prison chaplain in Maryland, Chester France agonized when prisoners asked him where they would find work when they got out. “I knew that having a job was one of the most important things for men and women to have a chance of staying out of prison,” he said. “But there were so few options.”
So about a decade ago, he says, God put it in his heart to create a business to employ those leaving prison in the Baltimore area. Knowing that many had sewing skills—thanks to a program where inmates manufacture all prison uniforms— he set to work creating a business to have them manufacture church robes for evangelical and other churches.
However, despite a customer base that clearly wants to help; a growing board of directors; and a robust potential workforce, his business, The Chill Station, still hasn’t reached operability.
Starting June 18, France is participating in a three-day program he hopes will connect him with socially conscious investors and partners who can help get him the resources he needs to get The Chill Station off the ground.
“I can’t tell you how excited I am,” said France, one of 28 Baltimore-based businesses participating in the inaugural Innovation Works GSBI® Boost. The program was developed by Santa Clara University’s Miller Center in partnership with Innovation Works, a resource network that seeks to help build 250 social enterprises in Baltimore over the next 10 years, employ 5,000 residents and attract $100 million of investment to Baltimore.
“When I was a kid in Baltimore, it was a thriving manufacturing city,” France noted. “Innovation Works and the Boost program are offering to help folks on the ground in the city, who have great ideas to create small businesses that will hire anywhere from three to 50 or more people at some point in time... You keep scaling that up, the landscape in distressed communities will tend to change.”
Santa Clara University’s Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship is providing its proven Global Social Benefit Institute GSBI® Accelerator curriculum for Boost, based on 15 years of experience helping social enterprises increase their impact, scale, and prepare for investment.
Boost participants are paired up with local mentors who have expertise in areas like financial services, impact investing, business planning, marketing, and more. During the three days, they will learn business fundamentals, improve strategic thinking, and get help articulating a business plan that demonstrates impact, growth, and long-term financial sustainability.
“The goal is to meet each entrepreneur where they are, and to help build an ecosystem that can support and expand a network of social entrepreneurs in Baltimore,” said Pamela Roussos, chief innovation officer of Miller Center.
History of Innovation Works
The accelerator is one of the first events to emerge from Innovation Works, created 2.5 years ago by longtime Baltimore civic developer Frank Knott and a group of Baltimore Jesuit works including the Maryland Jesuit Province; Loyola University; St. Ignatius Loyola Academy; Cristo Rey Jesuit High School; Loyola Blakefield; Ignatian Volunteer Corps, and Loyola Early Learning Center.
Innovation Works started several years ago after Knott and his friend, Baltimore’s Jesuit Provincial Robert Hussey, S.J., got talking about the persistent and deep injustice and inequality issues that were holding back many Baltimore communities. Such communities were being overlooked by society, which incorrectly saw them as being incapable of generating innovations or insights toward solving social problems.
After a few key meetings, that germ of an idea turned into concrete support for Innovation Works:
- Identification of Miller Center as a proven source of training and support for promising social entrepreneurs.
- A growing board of directors featuring leaders from over a half dozen Jesuit works across Baltimore
- Nearly $2 million in contributions from Jesuit works and Baltimore organizational and individual leaders to capitalize initiatives.
- Creation of four (and counting) IGNITE hubs-—a partnership with existing neighborhood-based organizations that will help identify local business opportunities, partners, or other resources to help reach Innovation Works’ goals
- A growing network of 30 local mentors, of which 10 will be volunteering for the Boost program being led by Innovation Works and Miller Center June 18-20.
“We believe there are ideas germinating from economically distressed neighborhoods worth exploring and investing in, especially with a social enterprise model with an eye for long term sustainability,” said Knott.
“I’m an economist by background,” said Hussey. “And here was a model that could concretely help people on the ground, create economic opportunity, stengthen their own initiatives. It made a lot of sense to me.”
Chester France and the participants in Boost are great examples of the promising businesses Innovation Works seeks to elevate through social entrepreneurship skills building. There are those like France seeking to employ returning citizens; Catholic Charities nonprofits in areas like immigration and housing; an urban farming initiative; a housing services company; hair and skin-care products businesses; some offering youth sports and physical-activity initiatives, and more.
Many hope to turn a reliable profit over time, but also seek partners who understand that social impact is equally important while working toward profitability. That can be a real challenge—as Boost participant Francie Wasser has seen firsthand. Wasser has run FranciePants —a Maryland “benefit corporation” employing disadvantaged residents to make 100% cotton women’s underwear—for two years. She said it’s tough to find your “peeps” as a social entrepreneur in resource-deprived areas.
“One of the many reasons I'm so thrilled to be working with Innovation Works is because there's such a strong alignment between the values and goals of Francie Pants, Innovation Works, and the Boost program. It's not easy to find that,” she said. She added she’s looking forward to getting to know “a community of individuals and investors who share our values, because that's something we're not willing to compromise on.”
Meeting Social Entrepreneurs Where They Are
Murray Dalziel, the dean of the Merrick School of Business at the University of Baltimore —and mentor to Chester France in the Boost program— said one of the reasons he’s hopeful Innovation Works will succeed is that it focuses on listening to and supporting the community it’s helping, not parachuting in like a savior. Such accompaniment is a key tenet of Ignatian spirituality established by the Jesuit founder St. Ignatius—which Dalziel knows very well.
“A key principle is that the projects and problems being addressed emanate from the community itself,” said Dalziel, who is a Catholic and member of a Christian community modeled on Ignatian ideals. “There is no end of people who want to solve problems in Baltimore or any urban center. But you cannot solve these just by having a white middle-class worldview. The promise of this is to encourage people to think about how (solutions and leaders) can emanate from the community.”
“Ignatius would stress that you meet people where they are,” says Hussey. “Ignatius believes fundamentally that God continues to labor in the world and continues to labor in individual people’s spirits... in their ideas, their spiritual longings, and creativity. It’s that fundamental trust in the Lord laboring in these people.”
The Cylburn Arboretum will play host to a unique three-day Innovation Works GSBI® Boost in Baltimore June 18 to 20. Photo courtesy of Flickr Commons