From left Jeff Harrington (blue shirt), Caitlin Gipson and Megan Ortiz give a pitch for their social enterprise, Serve Reedley, aimed at providing employment opportunities to teenage mothers. Serve Reedley was one of eight teams to graduate from the Social Enterprise Academy, created by Fresno Pacific University’s Center for Community Transformation. Photo by Donald A. Promnitz

published on April 12, 2018 - 2:24 PM
Written by Donald A. Promnitz

Eight new businesses — ranging from events and food services to a music school — have been launched through a new program started by Fresno Pacific University.

The businesses are all part of the Social Enterprise Academy, a project set up by the university’s Center for Community Transformation. The academy’s goal is to help start social businesses and enterprises — profitable and self-sustaining businesses that are aimed at enacting social change in their communities.

“I think what separates a social enterprise from a charity is that in order to survive, you have be competitive,” said Anthony “AP” Armour, the executive director of the social business Neighborhood Industries. “You have to pay the same rents as everybody else — we’re paying the same payroll, the same taxes, same fuel expenses, same truck expenses as everyone else. And so in order to do that, you have to be a good business.”

Students were subjected to four classes, held at Bitwise Industries in downtown Fresno, where they went from concepts to new companies.

“We start at zero with what is a true social enterprise, and why do social enterprise versus just another nonprofit?” Randy White, director of the Center for Center of Community Transformation said of the program. “So we start there, but then from the get-go, we’re talking about business, models, business tools…we even created some of the business tools that they’re going to be using as they build their businesses. And then we show them models.”

One business to emerge from the Academy was Serve Reedley, a coffee shop/café aimed at providing employment to teenage mothers.

“I’ve done this for a while, but I do things in a very intuitive way and not necessarily very systematic,” said Jeff Harrington, who took the class to get Serve Reedley off the ground. “And with what we’re doing, we need to be systematic. So there’s some things that come naturally as far as collaboration, but the way these forms have been given to us — working out cost and that they do need to be specific — those things have been huge pieces for me.”

Despite the short amount of time in which the businesses have launched, White said he is confident of their success.

“The first reason is the actual content of the training was spectacular,” White said. “We just gave them the best of the best.”

The second reason for White’s assurance was the assignment of mentors in the community. These include not only fellow social entrepreneurs, but experienced business owners. Among them is Brian Feil, CEO of Lanna Coffee, Co. Located in Downtown Fresno, Lanna donates 25 percent of its earnings to clean water projects in Northern Thailand, where their beans are grown.

“It’s easy to give things out for free. It takes a little more resourcefulness and entrepreneurial skill to create an enterprise around that same goal,” Feil said. “And it’s hard when you’re working with individuals who don’t have funds to necessarily pay for services.”

Feil spoke of the business he mentored, Community Music Center. Started by Erik and Sheena Leung, their social enterprise is aimed at providing music lessons to the economically disadvantaged. While Erik Leung said that they have already graduated their first student — a music major — Sheena said that their success meant that they had to work to avoid becoming a “toxic charity” that spends all of its own money.

Breaking this habit was a difficult thing for them to do, but became one of their biggest takeaways.

“I came in very stubborn, like: ‘No, I’m not charging our students. They can’t afford it, they can’t do it,’” Sheena Leung said. “But now I’m like: ‘A dollar for rehearsal is not that bad to maybe be asking for the students.’”

Alongside quality classes and mentorship, White concluded that spiritual matters would also play a part in the social enterprises that have graduated.

“Many of these folks are connected to communities of faith, so this provides a customer base instantly — and resources,” White said. “So they’ve got resources and people that form an instant customer and service base.”

The Social Enterprise Academy originated in the “Spark Tank,” an annual pitchfest held at Bitwise to generate ideas for social businesses.

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