The first category of transformation we think about in CovEnterprises is Opportunity. We live in a world full of brick walls, particularly for folks who experience life on the social margins or who live in communities of generational poverty etc. Opportunity is often created through networks of support who have access to pathways (or who can create pathways) for an individual, family, or neighborhood to thrive. Very often, those pathways get blocked because of structural, cultural, geographic etc. barriers. This is the case in a variety of ways (think of educational opportunity in low income neighborhoods) but in our case we are thinking specifically of economic opportunity.
When we say economic opportunity, we DON’T mean economic opportunism, or the capacity to capitalize on a change to make a profit. For us, economic opportunity is an issue of access to the pathway for folks to flourish. Because we live in a world that blocks that opportunity for many folks, the work of social enterprise is fundamentally about creating new pathways for folks to find the opportunity to a flourishing life (more on that in a few weeks).
Very often, the work of creating opportunity through social enterprise will center on creating the opportunity for sustainable employment. Social enterprises can create job opportunities for folks who might need them. One social enterprise in the ECC, Fleurish Ecoscapes, creates employment opportunities primarily for men coming out of incarceration. This is a prime example of this kind of job creation opportunity.
But there are more ways to create opportunity alongside of job creation itself. Because social enterprises have a double bottom line of seeking transformation of people and place WHILE trying to run a successful business, in most cases creating sustainable employment over the long haul for folks will be very challenging. In those cases, social enterprises can create a job opportunity in a short term sense while advocating for folks as they seek long term employment in outside companies. This is an important work because opportunity comes through networks of support. Social enterprise practitioners should see this kind of networking advocacy as a critical element of their work. For example, finding local employers who are willing to hire folks who might have a background that others might use as an excuse not to hire them would be an incredibly valuable investment of time. Sometimes opportunity looks like finding a hole in the brick wall folks are running into.
In my community, there is currently a lot of work going into launching economic incubators and empowering entrepreneurs. However, a large percentage of that work is going toward high tech startups which function to exclude a lot of folks in my neighborhood who might jump at a good opportunity. There are two more ways we think about creating opportunity that engage this problem.
First, we can do social enterprise WITHOUT necessarily starting a business ourselves. Instead, we might focus on job skill development to build the necessary capacities for folks to compete in a changing world. This could look like coding or robotics programs for youth; but it could also look like skilled trade certification programs in collaboration with a local tech school or contractor. In both cases, we are creating space for folks to develop their skills which opens the opportunity to long term employment. This widens a pathway by developing a pipeline of vocational skill development.
Secondly, we can create pathways for entrepreneurs who aren’t in the field of view of investors looking for the next big start up. We can ask the question, who is getting missed by those start up programs and how can we create ways for those entrepreneurs to start their businesses. Here in South Bend, our social enterprise Jubilee Ventures, is aiming to do just that. In partnership with a local business development center (working primarily with small scale neighborhood businesses) Jubilee is developing a community entrepreneur fund where folks can find access to start up capital they might not find through a local bank or investor. This is one way we can push toward a more inclusive form of opportunity in the community.
Beyond this, thinking about opportunity relates to other issues that impact individual, family, and neighborhood opportunity. It forces us to ask more questions about tangential topics and pay attention to ways we might advocate and partner in community. For instance, is stable and affordable housing an issue in the neighborhood? How does a lack of housing impact people’s ability to make the most of an opportunity if they have one. Are there predatory lenders in the neighborhood locking people into debt cycles that prevent them from getting some sense of economic stability? Do people have alternative ways of saving/investing/borrowing (maybe a community credit union option) that encourage, or incentivize, habits that resist the predatory lending option? These are conversations the question of opportunity will bring up and provide a wealth of ways to partner with others in the neighborhood to seek God’s shalom for individuals and families.
So, as you are thinking about a social enterprise, how might your work create opportunity for those who encounter a world of brick walls? How will you know if you are being successful? This is a good starting point as you think about the impact you want to make through your social enterprise work.