I’m going to talk about what I learned about social entrepreneurship through working on the Community Controlled Food Initiative (CCFI). So, there are about a million and one things I’ve learned over the last two years with Kheprw Institute. Some of the basic things I’ve learned learned include the importance of partnerships, the need to spend time thinking constantly about strategies to move an enterprise forward, and to, as you work, always be thinking about who else other than yourself can do various pieces of the work, and then move to train and develop others, building their skills and allowing for more focus on the big picture.
For context, In August 2015, a group of folks came together at the Kheprw Institute to discuss the recent closings of the Double 8 grocery stores – the last source of fresh produce in this neighborhood – and what we could do about it. Several of us decided to continue to meet every two weeks, which turned into every week, to build our own program to bring good healthy food into the community. Paulette Fair, Tysha Ahmad, and Imhotep Adisa were some of the original crew that brought a lot of experience, wisdom, and diligence to the table. Fresh out of school and new to the city but filled with passion and ready to contribute, I cautiously agreed to take notes and facilitate meetings, not wanting to over commit myself in a new town of unknown possibilities.
We began by having each of us share our vision for what we wanted to build. This was important as it established a collective foundation for acting and working together. And after gaining this understanding, the pace picked up. We found and explored a model from Louisville called Fresh Stops. We went down to meet their organizers and had them come up to Indy and asked many questions. Their system of purchasing local food directly from farmers as a community and bringing it to town for distribution, celebration, and community building resonated with us.
By December 2015, the project had accelerated. The CCFI team was reaching out to local farmers in the city and from the state and applying to accept SNAP/EBT benefits. We were working with KI NuMedia to build our website and market the programing, as well as hosting our first monthly Good Food Feast – a healthy cooking demonstration, community potluck, and space for celebrating and organizing around good food. At this point, I was heavily involved in building and executing the program. We like to joke that I was “duped” into becoming a CCFI leader. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into, but I definitely knew it was a beautiful and special thing.
By July 2016, CCFI had our first collective food purchase and distribution with 36 community members investing in a food share bag. By January 2017, we were still going strong, having connected with local farmers who were able to supply us with fresh produce through the winter. On June 10th, we threw a Good Food Festival to mark our first year anniversary!
In the first year of organizing our monthly collective food purchases from local farmers to our community, we brought in over 6,000 lbs of food, served over 75 individuals and families, and built and strengthened countless relationships. Most importantly, we built a program from the ground up that demonstrates community agency and we did this through harnessing the resources that already exist in our community (knowledge, wisdom, skills, talents, time, energy, commitment, and dollars). We turned a crisis into an opportunity to build community and design our own solutions that meet our needs and create the reality we wish to inhabit.
This journey has blessed me with a wealth of new information, meaningful work, and community bonds. There is so much I could share about it all, but I would specifically like to say more about seven pieces that seem especially critical when thinking about social entrepreneurship:
I believe it is essential to have guidance from others who have more experience than you. Folks who have experience in the work have a lot of wisdom to provide. Mentorship can also be received from folks who bring other value to your work, like imaginative and creative young people and people with different thought processes and patterns. Whoever your mentors are, find someone whose opinions you truly respect and value that can consistently help guide you in navigating the challenging world of social entrepreneurship.
Start with Opportunities, Not Barriers
As I became more immersed in this work and thought through ideas, Imhotep, one of my mentors, would stop me mid-sentence and say “No, no. I don’t want to hear about those barriers and all the things that could potentially get in the way. Don’t start there. What is the opportunity here? What is the potential?”
He helped me see something I didn’t know about myself, something I started to recognize not only in my thinking, but also in many other people and the culture I live in. Someone proposes an idea, and thinking that you are moving into operational planning about how to do it, you begin by “trouble-shooting” with a brainstorm of all the roadblocks there might be. This can be a fatal mistake, leading to missed opportunities and actually the creation of issues that don’t exist and self-fulfilling prophecies of failure.
An effective entrepreneur will start with the question: What is the opportunity? Envision it. Play it out in your mind to an ideal outcome or goal. Once you have that picture and a focus on what could be achieved given the idea or person that has been presented, later you can come back and navigate the barriers – they will come up, but you will overcome them more successfully when you start with a clear vision of the opportunity.
Processes and Infrastructure for Decision Making and Operations
Process. Infrastructure. Systems Thinking.
I can’t repeat it enough. You need to design, record for referencing later, and implement processes for how basic elements of your enterprise will function, and also how decisions will be made as you create and grow your program/organization. What people are involved in making decisions about what “departments” of the work? Factors to consider include whose input is needed, how do people feel about being included or not, how much time do you have to make the decision. Sometimes you won’t have the capacity to include all the people you want to, but you can create systems for decision making and communication that help you involve those who need to be present as efficiently as possible.
As for operations, it helps to have an established, consistent, and known method by which people get in touch with your enterprise, buy your products, sell your inventory, and other basic functions your project may require. CCFI has a specific phone number using the Grasshopper service and e-mail address using Google Groups that both route to various members of the organizing team, based on who needs to and is willing to be involved in conversations with those reaching out to our program.
When CCFI started to attract more attention locally, we were getting many calls and messages about public speaking engagements, inquiries about how to purchase and how to get more involved and requests for assistance with other food access projects. My mentors encouraged me to create a spreadsheet that categorized the different types of outreach requests we were receiving and to create a process for how to respond to each one. Public speaking requests get forwarded to Tysha and Paulette. We created a Google Form on our website for folks who want to volunteer. There is a pre-written message for responding in detail to folks who have questions about how and when to purchase, donate, or pick up food. These kinds of systems are what I mean when I say you need to set up processes for the different pieces of your work in order to increase your capacity. Each request could not be dealt with on an individual basis or we would have drowned in them. We are still working on building and sticking to various processes, but even adjusting your thinking to be process-oriented will grease the wheels and allow you to do work more efficiently.
Importance of Team
People power – we can each do much more with a team than on our own. But teams don’t just work because everybody believes in a common vision. You need to intentionally build good relationships and work to develop people’s capacity (skills, knowledge, commitment, etc). This will benefit everybody, increase your team’s output and help you be able to focus on building, and improving and envisioning what’s next.
Balancing Social Mission with Enterprise Sustainability
Hopefully, you started a social enterprise because you want to do good in the world. You also started it as a means to support folks who want to do good work and you want it to last. All of your good intentions and work will not be served if you do not also consider economic sustainability. This doesn’t mean you need to be stacking money piles. Economy can take the form of many mediums – dollars is one, but also relationships, information, and many other elements can truly sustain a project or organization. You truly need folks with business/entrepreneurial knowledge and experience to run a social enterprise that will last.
This was a hard debate and lesson for the bleeding heart, community loving, generous members of the CCFI organizing team. Within a few months, we understood that in order to have a product that is valuable to all our customers so that they will continue to invest in our program, we needed to set limitations on the number of discounted SNAP/EBT and senior food shares we offer each month. Many of us would love to give away all of this food to everybody who wants and needs healthy delicious produce. Maybe one day when we have a million dollars or when things are perfect with the world that will happen. But for now, we have to be conscious of the business aspects of our program, in order to keep it going into the future.
You must always be grounded in and intimately connected to community in order to stay true to your good intentions, but if the numbers don’t add up, your enterprise will close and any more good you could have done through that vehicle is no longer possible. Think long-term sustainability, for the good of everyone who could benefit from your project – now and in the future.
We talk about this crucial concept all the time at Kheprw Institute. So, here I am to preach the gospel of social capital. Social capital is a function of the number of relationships you have with other people and the depth of those relationships. You can get a lot done with no money and lots of social capital, and you will be limited in what you can get done if you have money but no social capital.
We launched the CCFI program with zero dollars, aside from the money community members put in for a bag of food. It was people power, relationships, volunteered time and energy, resourcefulness, skills, and more. In fact, even these initial $600 that we pulled together to buy food from local farmers was a function of the social capital of the Kheprw Institute – most of those people invested in our program because they support our work or were friends of our organizers. Another example is free color printing of our marketing materials. This is an opportunity that came from an organization that has the resources to do so and volunteers to do it. Their support came from the relationship we built with their staff. Communities have been meeting their needs with social capital, in the absence of financial capital, for a long time. It’s not new and it’s often the most significant factor determining how resources really flow in the world.
Valuing the Difference
Our core organizing team is a group composed of a variety of ages (24-84 years old), life experiences, races, skills, stories, world views, and more. In a section of Stephen Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” titled Valuing the Difference, he speaks to the importance of generating wonderful and creative ideas with a diverse group of people. I believe in the power of respecting and valuing diverse perspectives and I’ve seen how it has contributed to the success of our social enterprise.
Last thing I’ll say – the most important thing is building relationships with people. Social enterprises are about people, right? Relationships with other people will enrich our lives and support our goals, but relationships will also keep your life and work moving forward, no matter what happens to your current project in its current form. People will support you when you have strong connections and demonstrate your wish to build a better world and your willingness to put in work to bring it into being. A very high percentage of businesses and enterprises fail in their early years. However, if you go about your work with relationship building and human connections as primary, whatever you do in that time can still be used to start other enterprises, create or pursue more opportunities, and carry forward your vision through other vehicles. Good luck!
Visit us at food.kheprw.org, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 317-329-4803 x 703 to get in touch with the Community Controlled Food Initiative- CCFI!