Washington D.C.’s entrepreneurial and startup culture is thriving; and with this comes new opportunities. What if every new business that opened in neighborhoods like Brookland, Shaw, H St., and Anacostia committed full-time employment positions and/or on-the-job, paid apprenticeships to the ranks of D.C.’s returning citizens? By providing access to culinary certifications, or training in accounting, marketing, and website management, we’d be setting up our valued community members for well-paying, long-term employment positions.
Of course, this proposal requires a new vision of capitalism. One that fits within the millenial mindset of multiple bottom lines. Instead of squeezing margins and focusing exclusively on profits, D.C. could lead the nation in a new form business: driving profits by aggressively impacting marginalized communities.
Some would call this bad business. We’d call it the price of admission. Together, we can help ensure returning citizens have the tools they need to thrive, giving everyone, regardless of background, the opportunity to succeed.
Building With Beans is a non-profit social enterprise committed to creating a pathway from D.C.’s marginalized communities to the city’s burgeoning coffee industry. Through an on-the-job workforce and development program, Building With Bean Fellows will learn the inner-workings of a coffee company, from roasting to distribution to the art of making a latte. The coffee industry is booming, and Building With Beans is dedicated to ensuring its growth is inclusive. Follow them via Twitter and Instagram
Below is a Q&A with Zach Linsey, founder of Building With Beans
Talk about the inspiration behind starting Building With Beans?
Fundamentally, we think everyone deserves a chance to lead a good life with economic security. Too many people don’t have that chance – because of race, because of poverty, because they made a mistake early in their lives, or even because they have a disability. Economic indicators across the board highlight the widening gap between those who have opportunity and those who do not. We don’t think this is right, and neither does the American public: surveys consistently show that (1) the large majority of people think the economic landscape is unfair; and, (2) consumers are seeking products that are addressing both public and private sector inefficiencies that have caused our unsustainable wealth gap.
In D.C., the lack of equity is a visible dynamic. We lead the nation in many of the worst statistics: homelessness, incarceration, and food insecurity to name a few. While D.C. has experienced recent success in the local business community, the transition hasn’t always resulted in new investment or opportunity for the people who have lived in these communities for decades. This makes our city less inclusive, and less equitable.
With Building With Beans, we’re trying to prove the effectiveness of a business model that offers a premium product while explicitly seeking to provide employment to those who lack it and build inclusiveness and equity in D.C.’s gentrifying communities. Our hypothesis is that businesses can compete on strictly commercial grounds even as they pursue a social mission. If we succeed, as well as others that have adopted similar models, we hope this multiple bottom line approach takes hold among the coffee shops restaurants, and the maker community emerging across the capital. We’d love to see a D.C. where every business adopts a social impact mission. The private market should be a tool used to address government failures. We think that is the way you’ll create large-scale job creation and transformational change in our cities.
Regarding coffee, in addition to our love of coffee and wanting an excuse to drink it all the time, the coffee industry has endless opportunities to teach new skills. From sales to product distribution to everything in between, graduates of Building With Beans workforce and development program will be equipped to earn a living that was once fleeting.
Why did you choose to make Building With Beans a non-profit and not a for profit social enterprise? What elements came into play when making that decision?
We consider ourselves a social enterprise because we’re trying to solve social injustices by selling a product. That said, Building With Beans is a workforce company first; the coffee operation is necessary to maximize our ability to create economic opportunity. In our eyes, success will be determined by the number of people we lift out of poverty, not necessarily by the amount of product we sell. (Though we’d much rather rely on coffee sales than grants and donations!)
Building With Beans hires local disadvantage individuals in the D.C. community. How has the response been within the community about a non-profit coffee company being a place to get a job?
As we’ve gone around building support for BWB, we’ve seen a strong desire, particularly among young people, to reinvest in the neighborhoods they’re moving in to, and to build opportunities for their new neighbors. They love our idea, because it allows them to make this reinvestment while engaging in one of their favorite activities – drinking great coffee.
I think we’ve also tapped something deeper. Frankly, we’ve heard a lingering guilt, or at least a concern, among those moving into D.C.’s gentrifying neighborhoods that they’re changing things without giving anything tangible in return. This feeling is pronounced among Millennials, who have come of age at a time of rising inequality in our nation.
What we’re offering with BWB is a way to ensure their arrival in new communities doesn’t come at the expense of those who’ve lived there for years. On the contrary, it allows them to provide tangible support, in the form of a job that pays a living wage, that can help these neighborhoods thrive in ways they never have before.
What we’ve heard from customers, donators, and friends is that they want to feel like they’re part of a real, inclusive community. People have been so receptive to BWB because building inclusive, equitable communities is at the heart of our business model.
Have you tried to work with local D.C. congressman and women to align yourself with local government support? Has local D.C. government been aligned with your mission thus far?
Yes, very much. We’ve reach out to a number of city councilmen and women, as well as the deputy mayor for economic development. To their credit, these officials and their staffs have been very much willing to meet with us. Where we’ve been less successful – and, as an untested firm, I can’t necessarily blame them – is in getting city leaders to invest in us. Many people love our idea, but they’re a little leery of providing us with seed capital. They want to see results first; the challenge is, to get the results, we need the investment, and that’s where we’d love to see more concrete support from policy makers.
What do local officials say about social enterprise? Are they aware of what it is and the potential for local progress on many fronts including jobs and education?