NEW YORK -- As famous for his side-buckle shoes as for his work combining the political and sartorial, designer Kenneth Cole on Friday announced his latest effort to promote activism and engagement at the community level.
Awearness, Cole's philanthropic foundation, has pledged $500,000 to the nonprofit group Compass Partners, launching a partnership to support and mentor college-aged entrepreneurs aiming to develop the next generation of socially-conscious businesses.
The effort is not Cole's first foray into the world of social activism: he serves as chairman of the American Foundation for AIDS Research and has supported similar community engagement programs at Columbia and Emory universities. Awearness' support for the two-year Compass Fellowship, presently on offer at nine schools, will help the organization to expand its training and mentoring program to 15 universities by year's end.
Describing what initially attracted him to Compass, Cole said, "I was overwhelmed by the extent of their understanding, and the opportunity to affect a generation of individuals who still have a genuine sense of social justice. They want to and are inspired to maintain and create a meaningful and sustainable difference. They also want to do it globally."
Compass Partners, a 2-year-old nonprofit founded by onetime fair-trade tea dealer Neil Shah and would-be farmer's market delivery-service entrepreneur Arthur Woods, began as a project at Georgetown University while both Shah and Woods were still undergraduates (their other respective businesses ultimately shuttered). Sensing the need for greater support and training for socially-conscious businesses, the Compass Incubator gave way to the Compass Fellowship, which Awearness will support.
Shah and Woods first contacted Cole after reading about his involvement with similar programs at Columbia and Emory. Describing their first encounter in New York, Shah said, "We didn't know what to expect, but we explained what we were doing, and Kenneth said, 'Let me know how I can help, give me a pitch.' And it just blossomed into this relationship."
Cole, for his part, said he understands the need for greater resources for young, socially-minded entrepreneurs. "They've got a great sense of content, but not context," he said. "They're not taught how to do it -- the skills of doing business."
Speaking to the importance of reaching college-aged students specifically, Cole said, "It's so much easier to connect with people at that right point in their lives, when they believe that social justice is everyone's right. While they're students, they're far more inclined to launch and experiment with new opportunities. In the real world, you don't have the luxury of figuring it out along the way."