Addressing Domestic Poverty in Test City, U.S.A.

06/13/2015 04:42 am ET | Updated Jun 12, 2016

Andreas Widmer once described an entrepreneur, "...Like a person who sees an additional color. Everybody sees chaos. An entrepreneur sees patterns."

He must have been talking about me. I am an entrepreneur who has founded half-a-dozen or so companies with different business models and varying degrees of success in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Chicago and now Columbus, Ohio. I see challenges needing a solution as opportunities, and they are in every city, and in all industries.

Though most of my businesses have been built for-profit, I've now entered the gray area. I am a "Social Entrepreneur," which generally means that I am the founder of a for-profit entity that uses the business as a means to both make profit and achieve positive outcomes, or social change, for the community.

Blake Mycoskie of TOMS Shoes is a leading example of a social entrepreneur, pioneering a "One-For-One" business model where for every one pair of shoes purchased, another pair is given to someone in need. According to the TOMS Shoes website, this model has benefitted the gifting of more than 35 million pairs of shoes to those in need. And In 2014, TOMS took on Bain Capital as an investor at a reported $625 million valuation, potentially making Mr. Mycoskie a very rich man. Win-win.

Being a social entrepreneur out to solve a community challenge through a profitable business model is certainly appealing to those that are altruistic and want to impact the world, but it's not easy.

From my experience, barriers specific to social entrepreneurship include business models that are less appealing to investors for a number of reasons: less highly-scalable and validated business models and case-studies to glean insights, a smaller pool of mentors with similar experience, and in general, a more complicated proposition, likely dependent on partnerships with government, NGOs, and the community. Most states are also playing catch-up on state legislation, like Benefit Corporation, that helps add more clarity to the intention of the business.

Despite these challenges, it's worth it. I am based in Columbus, Ohio, a city in the midwest which is known as "Test City, U.S.A." because it is the test market for all of America's consumer products. The lore around here for products is that "If it works here, it'll work everywhere." My hypothesis, then, is if I can narrowly test and optimize a business model which affects poverty, it could then scale to every other city in America. Profitability with a purpose, and a leaner business model sustaining on its own, instead of on grants and donations.

Poverty is on the rise. Though it is rarely discussed, Columbus has an alarmingly high poverty rate of 22.4 percent -- significantly higher than it was in 1999 (based on the U.S. Census Bureau data). This trend is consistent with what is happening throughout the state. In fact, according to the Ohio Poverty Report, "79 of Ohio's 88 counties and the vast majority of its larger cities had significantly higher poverty rates during 2009-2013 than they had in 1999."

Where to start to address domestic poverty here in my hometown? Earlier in the year, I created an event called Startup Storytellers, a TED-style event focusing on entrepreneurs telling their stories. It proved quite successful, selling out tickets weeks before the event, and thanks to ticket sales and sponsorships, yielding more than a 60 percent profit margin. Events are one revenue stream, but building a platform for entrepreneurship storytelling is another, and it's one that scales.

Our intention is to disrupt the cycle of poverty upstream through the demystification of and adoption of entrepreneurship as a life path. That work starts with storytelling, evolves into a curriculum, and brings awareness to an empowering STEM-based education.

Startup Storytellers will collect, create and catalogue inspiring stories from a diverse crew of entrepreneurs and make them easily available and accessible through the web. This summer, we're traveling to nearly a dozen festivals in an Airstream outfitted as a mobile studio to do just that.

We will also identify entrepreneurs willing to go into a classroom to tell their story about entrepreneurship. Then, working with our local elected officials, we'll help craft a Day of Entrepreneurship in Columbus where at least one day a year, every student will be exposed to the path of entrepreneurship.

"If it works here, it'll work everywhere." And that includes putting entrepreneurship in every classroom starting here in Test City, U.S.A. Our hope is to generate more entrepreneurs who will break out of the cycle of poverty and then work to use those resources to help their communities. And every child deserves to learn if she has what it takes to pursue entrepreneurship.

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