Social Entrepreneurs Blend Business and Charity

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At the offices of Streetwise in Chicago, half a dozen women and men – many of whom have been homeless at one time in their life – are being paid to create one-of-a-kind picture frames decorated with pieces of used CTA transit cards and ticket stubs. The products are sold at local stores, including Andersonville Galleria, Shop Columbia, Flourish Studios and online.

The eco-friendly endeavor is the brainchild of Christine Hutchison, a former financial services executive who launched Five Accessories five years ago with a mission to empower economically-disadvantaged persons in Chicago, and in other countries, by learning workplace skills while earning income. With a small group of contract employees and college interns, Ms. Hutchison effectively runs the operation from a home office, but spends significant time attending tradeshows, visiting boutiques and meeting with various business partners.

Though her company makes a small profit, her real motivation is to help make the world a better place. “I knew I wanted to start and run a socially-conscious business that would both empower and employ people while providing a fashion forward product,” she says. Over the last 10 years, there has been an explosion of socially conscious businesses like Five Accessories. These companies use a market-driven business model to address key social or environmental issues.

For the growing number of social entrepreneurs, the social mission is fundamental to the business, and they don’t let lack of resources limit the pursuit of their goals. Business owners find that the concept resonates with consumers, who increasingly want to know where and by whom a product was made before they buy.

Kim Holstein, co-founder of Kim & Scott’s Gourmet Pretzels, is another social entrepreneur who’s doing well by doing good. “From the beginning, we believed that good must come from every pretzel we made,” says Ms. Holstein, who carries the title of president and chief inspiration officer. From day one, the company established Pretzels with a Purpose as their charitable endeavor. Among their many undertakings, Pretzels with a Purpose provides mentoring to students at inner-city schools. Their latest effort is giving away 100,000 chocolate-covered pretzel rods to area schools – no strings attached – as a way for the schools to raise funds.

At the national level, they run a Pretzel Dough program and have committed to donating $1 for every Kim & Scott’s box top returned to the company to schools across the country. Among their other initiatives is a Pretzels for Peace campaign, a company-wide commitment to fight all forms of bigotry and discrimination, educate children on diversity issues and work to promote peace in the community.

The tangible business benefits to a socially conscious enterprise are increased visibility, sales, customer loyalty and, often, media coverage. The programs are typically a win-win for both the company and the charities or the causes it partners with, who essentially become brand ambassadors for each other.

Five Accessories now sources eco-friendly and fair-trade products from five locations, part of the inspiration for the name. In addition to partnering with Streetwise, Five Accessories has also partnered with fair-trade cooperatives to sell stylish and unique eco-friendly products on its website and in over 100 stores nationwide. The artisans in developing countries like Cambodia, Bali, Honduras and India are paid a living wage and have a safe working environment. They also have a voice in the working operations and contribute to the design of the product.

While both Ms. Hutchison and Ms. Holstein have won awards for their entrepreneurial achievements, they both affirm that it’s the act of positively impacting an individual’s life and making a difference that matters the most to them.

Pictured: Kim and Scott Holstein of Kim & Scott’s Gourmet Pretzels

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About Hedy M. Ratner

Hedy M. Ratner is founder and co-president of the Women's Business Development Center, the largest, oldest and most comprehensive and successful women's business assistance center in the U.S. She blogs about entrepreneurship, working women, success stories, small business and more in “Windows to Business Success.”