Roberto Velez used to work nights cleaning jets at JFK Airport. The work was hard, but he didn't have much hope of a better job. He didn't have skills, education or even the self-confidence or know-how to pursue something more promising.
When he heard about a program called Year Up that provides intensive training to young adults followed by an internship, and usually a job offer, he allowed himself to imagine other possibilities for his life. He could afford to dream.
His flawless stint with Year Up landed him a fulltime job on Wall Street with Merrill Lynch where he makes three or four times what he previously earned. And he has a future.
Recently, Velez, now 22, was caught by surprise when a colleague complimented his attire, saying, "You look like you're from a well-groomed family."
"I'm not," Velez says. "To be honest, I don't know my parents. My grandmother, she doesn't speak much English. I haven't seen my mother for about 12 years, and my father, has been in and out of the criminal environment. I haven't had a chance to meet them for more than a couple minutes. I basically came from nothing to something."
Roberto Velez's success results from a growing trend toward social entrepreneurship--a movement employing business acumen and the entrepreneurial spirit to transform society in ways not seen before. Social entrepreneurs aren't focused on profit and return, but rather on doing good--particularly, helping people help themselves, instead of getting handouts.
David Bornstein, author of How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas, says many indicators show a rise in social entrepreneurship--that is, individuals with innovative solutions to society's most pressing social problems. Less than 10 years ago, very few schools taught social entrepreneurship. "Today, there are hundreds just in the U.S. alone," Bornstein says.
When Bornstein today gives talks at major universities, 500 students may crowd together and spill into an overflow room. Contrast that with a decade ago, when maybe 20 showed up. "I'd be like, 'Where is everybody?' Bornstein says.
Lots of factors are driving this rising spirit. "More people today have the freedom, time, wealth, health, exposure, social mobility and confidence to address social problems in bold new ways," Bornstein writes in his book. Plus, communications technologies make global inequities more visible than ever, and there's a growing conviction that governments are failing to solve global problems. So, he writes, "people recognize that change is urgently needed."
Examples of the trend are getting easier to find. "There are so many stories of business people who are really thinking creatively," Bornstein says.
Take Gerald Chertavian, who created the Year Up program that landed Velez on Wall Street. Chertavian was a Big Brother Big Sister volunteer in college, and weekly visited his 8-year-old "little brother" who lived in a distressed neighborhood on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He got to know the boy's family and neighbors, and saw bright people trapped in a certain socio-economic class because of geography and circumstance. It left a big impression.
"I realized there were wonderfully talented young men and boys who didn't have the opportunity to make a successful transition into the mainstream of this country," he recalls. "It struck me as a tremendous waste of human capital."
He was, in short, tired of seeing people's opportunities limited "by their ZIP code, by the bank balance of their parents or the color of their skin," says Chertavian, who has continued to keep in touch with his "little brother" David and helped finance his college education.
Fast forward in time: After Chertavian graduated from Harvard Business School and made a bundle selling a company he co-founded (Conduit Communications), he thought about that Big Brother experience and started Year Up. It intensively trains urban 18-to 24-year-olds in information-technology skills or back-office finance for six months, then lands them a six-month internship, which usually leads to a job offer. Started with just a few students in 2000, it last year trained 650 total in Boston, New York, Washington D.C., and Providence, Rhode Island. And it's opening up in San Francisco and Atlanta. Young folks' salaries at least double from what they'd otherwise earn in service jobs.
"I can't even begin to show my appreciation," Velez says. "I didn't have a bank account. I had no idea how an office environment works. ... Now I have a couple of banking accounts. I'm thinking about my 401(K)."
Chertavian calls it a blessing to see young adults make a positive transition--though don't mistake his brainchild for a charity. "What we're really selling is talented young professionals. What we sell is talent," he says. "If you need talent in your company, we can provide that for you."
Social entrepreneurship has been likened to the Civil Rights movement in its potential for lasting change, Chertavian notes. He likes taking a proactive business approach to solving social challenges. Heeding the call are countless social entrepreneurs. Of course, entrepreneurs need money to change the world.
So there's a whole crop of organizations that identify or financially support social entrepreneurs, including The Skoll Foundation, founded by eBay's first president Jeff Skoll, and Ashoka, founded by the grandfather of social entrepreneurship, Bill Drayton. He famously said social entrepreneurs aren't content with giving a fish or providing a net; they also want to revolutionize the fishing industry.
Dot-com millionaire Paul Brainerd's brainchild, Social Venture Partners, acts as sort of an incubator for philanthropists. With affiliates in 23 cities as diverse as Cleveland, Los Angeles, Denver, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Calgary and Tokyo, partners make an annual contribution of $5,000 to their local SVP. That money is pooled to invest in society-changing nonprofits. Partners can attend seminars where they learn the latest in philanthropy issues.
"The core of our philanthropy is engagement," reads a pitch from the Los Angeles SVP. "We give of ourselves--our time, our expertise, and our business contacts--to help our nonprofit investees achieve growth goals that they often thought were impossible. Through this direct involvement, we, too, are strengthened as philanthropists and more personally connected to the larger L.A. community."
Some people get involved after achieving their own professional success, says Paul Shoemaker, founding president of Social Venture Partners International, and executive director of the original SVP in Seattle. "But we increasingly see more and more people seeing this work as part of their success at earlier stages in their careers. Very exciting stuff."
Alan Sorkin, a former housing developer, is jazzed. "I've been in philanthropy my entire life, but I love this model. What it does for me is leverage. [Compared to] what I can do personally, I can do much more by leveraging," says Sorkin, a partner in San Diego SVP and vice chairman of SVP International. The San Diego partners last year leveraged $400,000 in pooled donations to more than $2.58 million in benefits to their community with partners contributing more than 11,000 hours in strategic volunteer time. "SVP is quietly causing accelerated social change with leveraged giving and by changing the way not-for-profits do business," he says. "We grow innovative organizations into highly effective ones."
Marites Villarosa Garcia grew up in a low-income San Diego neighborhood where she heard occasional gunshots. Now she studies science as a freshman at University of California-Santa Barbara in no small part due to Open GATE, a program assisted by SVP. Open GATE provides intellectually stimulating resources for low-income elementary school kids who test in the 99th percentile in second grade. It's run by the Human Development Foundation, which has been spurred along by SVP.
"I'm not sure our organization would even be a success if Social Venture Partners hadn't come along," says Marjorie Fox, HDF president and CEO. For example, SVP developed an online tracking system to help gauge effectiveness of tutoring strategies. That online system, she says, "cost one of the partners over $100,000. That was almost half our budget at the time."
Enthusiasm rippling his voice, Sorkin recalls that he and fellow partners helped grow the very small organization working with 40 children into a program serving 160 children in three school districts five years later. He's proud of the kids, whose test scores are among California's highest. "They outperform students in Beverly Hills."
"These kids are so bright, they're either going to be the student leaders or gang leaders," Sorkin says. "If we can just cherry-pick that upper 1 percent, just think of that brain power we can release."
Ana Villarosa, Marites' Mexican-born mom, says she couldn't believe the luck when an elementary school teacher told her about the program, which, among other things, helped Marites get into a private middle school and high school that otherwise would be too expensive.
"It was something amazing to happen to her and to me, as mother. As a parent, you always want the best for your child," Villarosa says. Marites' high-school-career highlights included running track and being dubbed "the smart one" three years straight by teammates competing in the National Ocean Science Bowl. At her graduation, mom watched proudly. "I was so excited. It was like a dream come true. It was so amazing, seeing her walking, getting her diploma, and do all those great things."
Marites is grateful. "I don't think I would be who I am if I hadn't had the experiences I did," she says. The program has given me many opportunities, which few people with similar backgrounds as mine have. ... I don't think I can ever thank them enough."
Indeed, the payoffs can be huge, even when the investment is relatively small. Microfinance through organizations such as Kiva.org, Prosper.com and PRBC.com, is a way just about anyone can get involved.
Mike Messina works as a paralegal in Des Moines, Iowa, but half a world away he's a partner in a sandwich bar in Azerbaijan. And a medical clinic in Kenya. The list goes on: For as little as $25 he's helped finance a bicycle repair shop in Ecuador and a furniture maker with 12 fulltime workers in Paraguay. Messina has loaned more than $2,000 to small entrepreneurs in developing countries in the past year. So far he has been repaid at least one-third, which he's lent to others.
Through Kiva, anyone can finance little businesses on a global scale. Kiva reports a repayment rate of 99.89 percent since its founding three years ago by then-Tivo engineer Matt Flannery and his wife, Jessica.
"It's an old proverb that if you give a starving man a fish, he can eat that day, but if you give him a fishing pole and teach him how to fish, then he could feed himself from then on,"Messina says.
In the end, Bornstein, the author, predicts more business folks will use their acumen to tackle social issues as the wave of social entrepreneurship rolls on. For some, it provides "a level of fulfillment that they don't get from their business pursuits."
"In some sense," Bornstein says, "this is all about redefining success."
Social entrepreneurship "is all about redefining success."
RELATED ARTICLE: GET INVOLVED GET GIVING
Social Venture Partners International--Join a network of engaged philanthropists in giving money, time, professional skills and creativity to partner with nonprofits in your community. svpi.org
Kiva--Make a loan to an entrepreneur in the developing-world for as little as $25. kiva.org
Year Up--Help empower urban talent to reach their potential through; training, and apprenticeship.yearup.org…