A New Way to Give Back
In some ways, the ideas of capitalism and altruism seem to be at odds with each other. While the objective of business is often to make a profit, for a growing number of entrepreneurs, this isn’t the only objective.
Many businesses have long included a desire to give back to their communities in their mission statements. But more business owners are now launching their companies with purely altruistic motives. In fact, the state of California recently established a new corporate entity called a benefit corporation, which is reserved for businesses that consider a public benefit, whether social or environmental, as one of its main goals.
Here are the stories of six women who started companies that define success not only in financial terms, but also in terms of helping others and making the world a better place.
Ruksana Azhu Valappil, 41, San Jose, California
Her cause: Ruksana Azhu Valappil has always been passionate about social justice and financial independence for all, especially women. “In many parts of the world, even in this day and age, the female half of the population still faces discrimination and has little access to a reasonable livelihood,” she says.
Her company: As a clinical research scientist studying Parkinson’s disease, Valappil had always planned to spend her retirement actively contributing to the empowerment of women around the world. But each year, she became more aggravated about the lack of progress in social and economic issues facing women and the poor in developing countries. Last year at age 40, Valappil decided there was no better time than the present to act on her passion for social and economic justice. She left the career she loved and launched Uchit, which means “fair/just” in Hindi, as a California Benefit Corporation.
Uchit partners with artisan cooperatives, the majority of whose members are women, to market their fair trade, hand-woven textile goods made with earth-friendly fibers and dyes. “Our partnership with the cooperatives ensures a steady job with livable wages for these artisans, ensuring that they can practice their skills and produce beautiful woven goods and do not need to resort to being a day laborer for their livelihoods,” Valappil says. “Since Uchit is a social enterprise that exists for the purpose of empowering women, most profits flow back to these and other communities to improve their living, working and social conditions.”
How she defines success: As a social enterprise aimed at women’s empowerment, Uchit’s primary goal is financial independence and social justice for more women, and that goal influences Valappil’s definition of success. “A critical measure is the number of individuals or artisans we are able to provide a steady job with livable wages,” she says. “Revenue is also a critical measure of success, as there is a direct correlation between it and the additional social impact we aim to achieve by funding projects aimed at financial and social justice for women. In the coming years, as more data is collected, we are looking into additional ways of quantitatively assessing our social impact.”
Terry Grahl, 45, Taylor, Michigan
Her cause: Seven years ago, Terry Grahl was a decorator with her own business when an event coordinator at a Detroit homeless shelter called and asked if she would visit the shelter to make a few small improvements to the deteriorated physical space. When she made that visit, Grahl immediately saw that “the issues went well beyond paint and bedspreads,” she says. She learned that the environments of most long-term stay homeless shelter environments work against their programs and positive outcomes.
“When women and children rebuilding their lives enter a shelter that has a depressing environment, is broken and full of items other people discarded as trash, it reflects their feelings of brokenness,” Grahl says. “It becomes nearly impossible to successfully complete programs or hope for a better future.”
Her company: When Grahl realized the dire circumstances facing women and children living in shelters, she decided to close her for-profit decorating business and reopen it as a nonprofit, Enchanted Makeovers, which works to transform homeless shelters for women and children into places that inspire behavioral and psychological change. Grahl said she had to do something because the need was so great to help shelter residents “see, touch and feel another world, a world filled with dignity, hope, creativity, beauty and a message that we all hold the ‘golden ticket.’”
Most homeless mothers and children have never lived in a nurturing environment or been cared for by a supportive family unit, Grahl says. “Behavioral and psychological studies have shown that a stable nurturing environment leads to better outcomes in physical/mental health, developmental milestones, academic performance and overall well-being,” Grahl says. “With each shelter project, Enchanted Makeovers is shattering the belief that women and children who live in homeless shelters are only entitled to the bare necessities and basic needs. We believe everyone is worthy of hope, dignity and respect. As a result, a stronger foundation is created in the shelter system that may help improve overall outcomes.”
In addition to making over shelters, Enchanted Makeovers produces a number of mentoring programs that share life skills and coping skills with women and children living in shelters. For instance, the Sacred Sewing Room program “does not just set up sewing rooms full of fabric, patterns and machines,” Grahl says. “This program shares the life skill of sewing that also serves as an important coping skill.” Volunteer sewing instructors hold ongoing sewing classes, empowering women with new skills that will enable them to sew for their families and may open doors to securing employment or earning money by selling their handmade products. Enchanted Makeovers will eventually open sewing centers that manufacture inspirational products and offer job opportunities for women who have completed Enchanted Makeovers’ program at a shelter.
How she defines success: Grahl measures her success by the lives that have been changed, including the women and children living at shelters as well as the volunteers and community. As the CEO of a nonprofit organization, Grahl relies on the generosity of donors and volunteers to carry out her mission. This summer, Enchanted Makeovers will open its national headquarters in Taylor, Mich., and Grahl plans to continue growing the infrastructure to increase the organization’s national reach and try to make a positive impact on the lives of women and children living in a homeless shelter across America.
Nancy Irwin, 58, Los Angeles, California
Her cause: As a stand-up comedian, Nancy Irwin only worked at night. “So I was bored and began volunteering in my community at a shelter for sexually abused teens,” she says. “I absolutely fell in love with it. Working with the girls showed me there is a whole other world out there filled with people who need help. The healer in me was awakened, and this experience also allowed me to begin to heal myself from my own adolescent clergy abuse.”
Her company: Her work with sexually abused teens led Irwin to return to school, earning her Ph.D. in psychology at age 44. She trained to become a therapist, concentrating in the field of sexual abuse prevention and recovery.
Her goal “is to help people heal themselves,” she says. “And I couldn't be more fulfilled or content.” Irwin has also published a book, “You-Turn: Changing Direction in Midlife,” to inspire others that it is never too late to live a life you love.
How she defines success: Irwin says her definition of success focuses more on helping people than on earning profits. “I am well-paid, but I invest a lot in training, retraining, continuing education, always seeking to improve my skills and services,” she says. “I personally do not measure success in dollars. I measure it in meaning.”
Tami Goldstein, 53, Janesville, Wisconsin
Her cause: A decade ago, Tami Goldstein’s youngest child, 12-year-old Heather, was diagnosed with high-functioning autism. Heather had been suffering from 40 seizures a day, debilitating obsessive-compulsive disorder and high anxiety and produced life-threatening levels of adrenal stress hormones. After the diagnosis, Goldstein quit her job as a travel agent to help Heather.
When an occupational therapist introduced the Goldsteins to craniosacral therapy (CST) and they saw significant results, Goldstein was intrigued. “Heather’s response to CST made me look closer at it,” she says. “The first session, she got off the therapy table and hugged and kissed me on the cheek and thanked me for getting her help. I realized then that I had not felt Heather’s cheek on my cheek since she was a baby. She was so sensitive on her face I had learned early on to kiss her hairline. Heather slept for about 20 hours after that first session, but the girl who woke up was different. She was focused, she could make eye contact, she was not defensive if you touched her, she was engaged and articulate. We saw for the first time in years a glimmer of the woman trapped inside that autism mind. CST would become a regular part of our multidisciplinary approach to get Heather to functioning recovery.”
Her company: After Heather’s success with CST, Goldstein couldn’t understand why the therapy was not being provided for more children. She returned to school to become certified in CST to make it more accessible to other families. Goldstein started her business in 2004 with a focus on craniosacral therapy for children on the autism spectrum and with sensory processing disorders. She has since published a book on the journey to functioning autism recovery and now teaches craniosacral therapy and speaks about autism.
Goldstein is a contributing author in the 2014 edition of “Cutting Edge Therapy & Treatment for Autism.” Her course, “Massage, Bodywork & Autism,” is being offered by the International Alliance of Health Care Educators.
How she defines success: Goldstein says she has seen children with failure to potty train or chronic bedwetting become trained or stop bedwetting after therapy. She has seen children exhibit skills after therapy that their parents or teachers have been working on for months. She has even had nonverbal children begin to speak after going through CST.
“I measure my success by how helpful I can be, but I realize how important revenue is,” Goldstein says. “Like life, it’s a balance, but I have been fortunate enough to generate enough revenue that it allows me to continually provide support needed by families raising a child with autism, stay current with training and education and work out arrangements for some families unable to pay. I believe in paying it forward, and it seems every time I take on a family unable to pay, I get another client who can.”
Debbie Blacher, 44, Orlando, Florida
Her cause: A mother of two boys, Debbie Blacher was “fed up and frustrated with the lack of convenient and healthy choices for my family,” she says. With a third baby boy on the way, Blacher was “overwhelmed just thinking of how little time I was going to have with a new baby in the house, a career in human resources and an already chaotic household,” she says. “Cooking from scratch for my family was always a huge priority for me, and as I saw the hours in my day filling up, I became convinced that I needed help to get it all done. Yet no help existed. There was no option in my town to outsource even one family meal a day. There were plenty of processed and fatty options, but few healthy ones.”
With a little research, Blacher learned that 50 percent of Americans are projected to be obese by the year 2030 and 33 percent are projected to have Type II diabetes by 2050. She wanted something different for her children and for the rest of their generation.
Her company: In an effort to solve her own problem and help other health-conscious families, Blacher launched Wholesome Tummies in 2007 to provide healthy, prepared lunches for schoolchildren. Each month, Debbie and her team of nutritionists and chefs develop unique, kid-tested menus, designing recipes with the ideal portions and maximized nutritional content for growing children. While Wholesome Tummies menus are always healthy and cooked from scratch, “they include crowd pleasers like pizza, macaroni and cheese, chicken tenders and baked French toast,” Blacher says.
Wholesome Tummies began franchising in 2010 and has now expanded to more than 20 locations throughout the country, serving more than 100 schools. With fresh foods made daily in local kitchens with only pure, all-natural ingredients, Blacher’s company “helps busy parents everywhere by giving them a convenience they can feel good about,” she says. “Wholesome Tummies helps children learn to explore new foods and be more adventurous in their everyday food choices. Kids eating our foods are consuming nutrient-dense meals that satiate their appetites and increase their ability to learn and focus in school.”
Blacher says her company also helps schools by giving them a high-quality lunch program with sophisticated technology, eliminating the administrative burden of running their own program. Her long-term goals call for 250 locations, 2,000 schools and $200 million in system-wide sales by 2017.
How she defines success: From the beginning, Blacher has focused on the customer experience. Changes to Wholesome Tummies’ menu, software and products have all been direct results of customers’ input and feedback. “Without parents using our service, kids eating our lunches, or schools adopting our program, we would have no business,” Blacher says. “Customer satisfaction is the barometer of success. If you get that right, the rest will follow.”
Whitney Holland, 32, Centerville, Utah
Her cause: When the daughter of a friend was diagnosed with cancer, Whitney Holland and two friends became very interested in the plight of children battling the disease, as well as their families. “We wanted to raise awareness of childhood cancer and to raise funds for kids who are battling the disease,” Holland says.
Her company: Because Holland and her partners love to shop and find “fun, new things for good prices,” they decided to launch PS I Adore You, a daily deals site that donates a portion of its profits to families with children fighting cancer. Each month, PS I Adore You features a child battling cancer, the “Cancer Cutie of the Month,” raising awareness and funds for the child and his or her family.
“Our goal is to put a face to the cause,” Holland says. “We want to tell each child’s story, let the world get to know them, and build support for them.” The company guarantees that a minimum of 10 percent of its monthly profits will be donated to the cancer cutie of the month. So far, the site has been able to raise more than $30,000 in just one year for the featured families.
How she defines success: “It’s about revenue in order to help people,” Holland says. “We’re picking up more steam and growing fast, so we’re hoping to be able to raise more and more money each month in support of these sweet kids.” On several occasions, PS I Adore You has written checks to families for more than 250 percent of its monthly profits. “We obviously want to grow, but the company will always maintain our mission to help these sweet kids who are battling cancer,” Holland adds.
From left to right: PS I Adore You founders: Chelsea Carver, 29, NSL, Utah. Ashley Christensen, 32, Farmington, Utah. Whitney Holland, 32, Centerville, Utah.