Newsmakers


Southwest Florida's Social Entrepreneurs

Meet some local entrepreneurs whose missions also aim to achieve social good in the community.

 

The economy has long been split into two separate and distinct entities: the for-profits and the not-for-profits. In the space between, another model has emerged: social ventures—for-profit businesses that are as mission-driven as a charity and as financially savvy as a corporation. These are companies that structure missions around and siphon revenues into some sort of social good, from humanitarian causes to environmental activism.

“Social ventures,” says the University of Florida’s Kristin Joos, Ph.D., the director of Social Impact & Sustainability Initiatives, “are just like other businesses—the difference is that they have an integrated bottom line. … Meaning that not only are they concerned about their economic impact, they also care deeply about their impact on the environment and society; they care just as much about people and the planet as they do about profit.” Finances nevertheless remain critical; social entrepreneurs recognize that the more revenue they generate, the more they can support their objectives. In fact, Joos says, more and more philanthropic-minded people are starting businesses because doing so “may be the most impactful and/or scalable way to make positive change.”

The industry forefathers are firms like Ben & Jerry’s, TOMS Shoes and Seventh Generation, whose successes have inspired a fast-growing cadre of other like-minded entrepreneurs around the globe. Southwest Florida is no exception. Gulfshore Life has found several startups that are using business to enhance the common good and capitalism to create change. Meet some of the region’s social entrepreneurs.

 

No one goes hungry

At 6 a.m. on a Thursday morning, downtown Fort Myers is dark, but the lights shine through the window of Gwendolyn’s Cafe. The little restaurant won’t open for another 90 minutes, but the owner, Gwendolyn Howard-Powell, is hosting an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. At 7 a.m. that the meeting adjourns and another group emerges, some on foot, some on bicycles, nearly all lugging bags and backpacks. They are homeless. Two employees have hot breakfast sandwiches, coffee and bottled water ready for them.

Howard-Powell had enjoyed a good managerial career in the hospitality industry, but she had not intended to be a restaurant owner, and she certainly had not intended to wade into the realm of social services. But she sees her circumstance as a “God thing,” and a chance to redeem past mistakes, and lets it go at that.

“I made awful choices,” Howard-Powell says of her earlier life. (She’s in recovery herself.) “I have been on the street for a quick minute here, a quick minute there, and it sucks.”

In order to provide for the needy, she uses her profits, the sale of cafe T-shirts and the generosity of her customers, who participate in a “Suspended Coffee” program that encourages them to buy extra drinks or meals for those in need.

“Feeding the homeless started with this old, cranky guy four or five years ago. … I’m stopped at the stoplight, and there’s a little old man who is literally in the garbage. I put my window down and I say, ‘Hey, hey, are you OK? He turned around and looked at me with his sun-wrinkled self, and the way he said it, ‘I am so hungry,’ I never want to hear somebody say that again.” And so the breakfast program was born. Howard-Powell and her staff go beyond filling bellies—that morning, her employee Tanesha pauses to have a pep talk with a young man, newly out of jail. Howard-Powell pulls aside a tired-looking woman named Martha to coax her into visiting the county human services department. “You want me to go with you? How ’bout we go today after work?”

She’s similarly generous with staff, gravitating toward people in recovery and coping with other challenges. “I wanted to be around people who had wanted to change, who have made that decision,” she says. She’d taken a chance on Tanesha, hiring her upon her release from prison because “there was just something about her energy.” The man behind the counter, Mack, was once a homeless guest. He had made himself so useful that Howard-Powell ultimately hired him. “He’s like the boss. He feels such ownership.” Mack one day opened his hand and showed Howard-Powell the key to his new apartment. “That was the most beautiful thing, that key.”

 

‘There’s no competition, no ego and no judgment.’

With those words, yoga instructor Lauren Fox begins to guide her students, six of them on this particular morning, through the “asanas,” various poses to strengthen, stretch and energize.

Lauren Fox is paid in donations—then pays it forward.

In the background, waves lap at the shoreline and birds pass overhead. The class takes place at Lowermilk Park, one of the community locations where this roving instructor unfolds her mat and shares this practice of movement and meditation—and her love of philanthropy.

Fox is the founder of Donation Yoga Naples. She does not charge a fee for her classes, asking instead for a donation, based on one’s ability to pay (or for volunteerism, such as cleaning the beach, if unable to contribute otherwise). She splits her proceeds 50/50 with community nonprofits, ranging from the Shy Wolf Sanctuary to Habitat for Humanity.

“Teaching Donation Yoga has been incredible,” says Fox, who established her program three years ago.

She was driven by a desire to give—both money and knowledge. Yoga, says Fox, has become too expensive, too exclusive. Too many people who long for it and could benefit from it are priced out.

Fox’s love of yoga was born several years ago. The Naples native had been a dancer growing up, thriving on the competition circuit and winning a scholarship for advanced studies at a studio in Colorado. But a dancer’s life is a hard one, and Fox ultimately gravitated to the non-competitive, non-judgmental culture of yoga. She became a certified instructor and was invited to teach at studios in Naples. She says she encountered lots of people interested in yoga but unable to afford the tuition.

“I asked myself, ‘Could I afford yoga if I wasn’t teaching here?’ And the answer was ‘no.’ It’s a car payment a month,” she says.

The finances don’t favor instructors, either. Fox says she couldn’t make a living based on the rates that studios paid instructors. She says she makes far more now—even after giving away half of her proceeds. 

She teaches some 20 to 25 hours a week, on the beach, at special events, at businesses, at a studio she shares with Open Mind Zen, a Buddhist nonprofit. She’ll teach however many—or however few—people show up.

“I’ve taught yoga privates for $5. But that’s how it goes. I’m happy to be there, and you never know how that one hour might change someone’s life. I’m not doing this to become a millionaire. I’m doing it to be happy,” she says. “I wake up every day, and I get to do what I love. Sometimes, it’s unreal.”

 

Can a toothbrush save the planet?

Well, not exactly, but the team behind WooBamboo, the maker of eco-friendly toothbrushes, floss and soon-to-be host of related products, believe it’s is a darn good place to start.

The Cape Coral-based company sprung from a stray comment uttered by an 80-something-year-old Australian woman to her son, Steve Hyde, while joking about her other son’s never-ending quest to build a bamboo bicycle.

Tom Burt, Christopher Fous and Steve Hyde founded WooBamboo.

“(Steve’s) mom goes, ‘You should do something with bamboo, like a toothbrush or something,’” recalls Hyde’s friend and business partner, Christopher Fous. Something about that clicked. Hyde took to Google, checking to see if such a product existed, found almost nothing and then called Fous, who responded, “That’s dumb.”

But then Fous, whose background is in media and design, started looking around. “I’m at Publix and I see this sea of toothbrushes … and then I realize, none of these would be our competition because all I see is plastic. Everything is plastic—future garbage. Every toothbrush that you’ve ever used and I’ve ever used in our entire lives is still sitting somewhere. It hit me—that eureka moment.”

Fous and Hyde roped in a third friend, Tom Burt, and the trio launched WooBamboo on Earth Day 2013, handing out 10,000 toothbrushes on the streets of New York. “People were freaking out. You would think we were handing out iPads. It was weird. We looked at each other and thought maybe we’re on to more than we thought,” Fous says.

As of last summer, WooBamboo had produced its millionth toothbrush, tallied 8,000 retail stores worldwide (including biggies like Target and CVS), developed a biodegradable silk floss and was close to launching a line of all-natural toothpastes with funky flavors: sweet cinnamon, vanilla mint, toasted marshmallow. Not bad for a trio of guys who had no knowledge of oral hygiene, no experience in international trade, no training in distribution channels.

“I think the fact we didn’t have any experience actually worked to our advantage because we didn’t know any better,” Burt says.

“If you don’t know the limitations,” Fous adds, “sometimes there aren’t limitations.”

The founding trio is meticulous in its sourcing and deliberate in the company’s growth.

“Before we even did business with (a Chinese manufacturer), we sent a friend of mine over that speaks fluent Mandarin but didn’t tell them he speaks fluent Mandarin, just to make sure they are on the up-and-up. We want to rise up, but not by stepping on anybody else,” Fous says. Hyde has twice paid follow-up visits.

Ostensibly, WooBamboo is a toothbrush company, but its core mission runs much deeper. The founders want the twice-daily habit of brushing teeth to remind WooBamboo users that small individual changes can amount to a big collective impact. They also hope switching to a biodegradable toothbrush triggers changes in other habits: food choices, energy use, purchasing decisions.

“I know we’re not a toothbrush company because toothbrushes are not what I’m obsessed about,” Fous says. “Floss doesn’t keep me up at night. But I’m obsessed with this idea of inspiring the world. Everything we do is geared toward that.

“Everyone can make a difference with the products they buy. Endorsing a product is like casting a vote. Every dollar you spend is a vote cast.”

 

Selling shirts—and social good

Sam Lewis’ WTF moment hit one night about a year before his University of Florida graduation, as he was tossing and turning and pondering his next step.

Don’t be crass. WTF is WearTheFund, a custom apparel company born out of an epiphany that night.

Sam Lewis sells Ts and gives away a portion of proceeds.

Lewis had long harbored an interest in philanthropy; a finance professor with whom he had consulted reminded him that before he could give money away he needed to make some.

“Why can’t you do both at the same time?” Lewis wondered.

And thus emerged WearTheFund, a company founded by this self-described “T-shirt guy” seeking a way to do good. 

Lewis taught himself to screen print using YouTube tutorials, bought some starter equipment and practiced in his childhood garage in Fort Myers. In time, he was ready to go commercial, first in the garage, and then in the central Fort Myers warehouse where the company now resides, staffed by a handful of friends and family members who’ve embraced the cause.

Lewis donates 5 percent of the purchase price to one of the company’s partnering nonprofits, standing at 45 and counting. Clients choose where they’d like to direct the money. As of last summer, the young company had given more than $100,000 to various causes.

Let’s be clear: This is $100,000 off of Lewis’ bottom line in an industry with little financial wiggle room—a 5 to 10 percent profit margin is generally considered good for a small manufacturer like him.

“The industry we’re in is hyper-competitive,” Lewis says. Because of that, he can’t inflate his prices to offset the charitable giving. “It is truly coming off of our bottom line.”

But Lewis, 26, is anxious to be a part of a movement that he predicts will sweep through American consumerism, particularly as millennials like him start making their marks.

“I do believe there’s a tipping point for business as we know it. I think it will become more common to see businesses that have a direct cause behind their sales,” he says, citing companies such as the Patagonia, which uses business to advance environmental issues, or TOMS shoes, which directs proceeds to global causes such as clean water and safe births.

“It’s a paradigm shift not only for business owners, but for consumers. It’s a matter of weaning ourselves off of the Wal-Mart culture,” he says.

Lewis has far-reaching goals, hoping to eventually add a retail division that features WTF’s own line of sustainably made shirts.

“It’s a long battle and a long journey, but we’re glad to be part of the movement,” he says.

 

Cooking up young leaders

Taste of Immokalee produces salsa, sauces and spice rubs using local crops. But the real output is of the human variety—the development of young leaders, carefully cultivated from the rocky soil of poverty and its limitations.

The company was the brainchild of 16 Immokalee High School students who three years ago decided to use their community’s bounty to celebrate its cultures and to give students an opportunity to learn entrepreneurship firsthand. Education was everything to these teens, mostly immigrants or first-generation Americans whose parents toiled in fields and packinghouses so that their children might enjoy more prosperous futures.

The student-run Taste of Immokalee celebrates local culture.

The Immokalee-based One by One Leadership Foundation provides funding with the expectation that the company eventually will become a self-sustaining, for-profit firm anchored by its social mission. The Tamiami Angel Investment Fund, in a first for its investors, recently set up a funding mechanism through the Community Foundation of Collier County to support the students’ leadership development.

Taste of Immokalee products are sold at Publix supermarkets throughout Collier, at Wynn’s Market in Naples and online. The Collier County School District uses its hot sauces in school lunch recipes.

“My thesis has always been there is nothing more dangerous on the planet than an 18-year-old kid with no hope. That’s who fights the wars, that’s who commits terror,” says John Slusar, the CEO. “We’re addressing that directly by creating leaders.”

This past summer marked a reboot for the company, which is in a constant churn of incoming and outgoing students. The newest crop of young businesspeople was charged with a number of big tasks, including developing new products and expanding the line beyond Collier County. The adult advisers pushed for a kind of social development, too, inviting for the first time young people from Naples to join their peers in Immokalee. Nine of them did so, and the crew—26 in all—split their time between inland and the coast, a journey spanning culture, geography and class four days a week.

“We come from different cultures, but they’re cool,” student Brenda Ponce of Immokalee says of her new Naples co-workers. “We have the same values.”

“For me, it’s an opportunity to learn about business and to give back at the same time,” says Johanson Vilsaint, who has been with the company for two years and who started at Santa Fe College this year. “We’re known as the second-poorest city in Florida, but we’re not just taking that stat and accepting it. We’re doing something about it.”       

Slusar and Marie Capita, the executive director, are working to write a curriculum that other communities can use to replicate Taste of Immokalee’s approach.

“There are problems in our communities right now, and business can’t solve it. Government can’t solve it. Not-for-profits can’t solve it. The only way they can be solved, in our opinion, is if they work together. We think we have a good model for doing that,” Slusar says. “It has to be a win for taxpayers. It has to be a win for the people that invest.”

 

Going green with Ecomedes

Paul Shahriari is an engineer who specializes in green construction, who has trained upward of 15,000 people in LEED environmentally friendly construction and who founded the first-of-their-kind LEED cost/benefit analysis tool and LEED product documentation tool.

But when he decided to expand and retrofit his Cape Coral home for energy efficiency, even he struggled to identify the most energy-efficient and sustainable products, and to determine what cost savings they might yield.

Paul Shahriari is revolutionizing how we find sustainable products.

“I came to the horrible realization that … if it’s hard for me to do it, I can’t imagine what it’s like for everyone else.”

That experience, along with polling his former clients about their green purchasing habits (or lack thereof) gave rise to Ecomedes, Shahriari’s new, Fort Myers-based venture that could change the way developers, purchasing agents, business owners—and individual homeowners like himself—research, evaluate and choose sustainable products.

The company, whose name was inspired by the Greek scientist Archimedes, offers a database of 50,000 sustainable products and counting. It links users to a trove of data about each product, including the third-party ecolabels and certifications verifying its earth-friendly claims. And, it includes algorithms that track products’ potential cost savings over time, helping users visualize when their pricey purchases will break even and then start paying for themselves in increased efficiency. “Data,” he says. “You can’t make decisions without the data.”

Without the service, trying to identify the most eco-friendly appliance, for example, might “take you 15 or 16 clicks on the Energy Star website before it would give you a 6,000-row spreadsheet with 38 columns to the right as a csv file,” Shahriari says wryly. “It’s too much.”

“We buy a lot, but why aren’t we buying the best stuff?” he adds. “Well, when you go on a scavenger hunt for the data, you might come back with the right answer, but more often than not, you get lost along the 15 clicks.”

The complexity chases developers away from making green purchases; the cost of consulting with a green engineer can eat up a firm’s budget before it buys a single product. Embedded in Ecomedes is the knowledge Shahriari has gleaned over his career—the insights he used to be paid top dollar to share with developers.

The database can be accessed for free; Ecomedes generates profits through customized work for clients (last spring, for example, he was negotiating with a major Las Vegas casino and with the City of San Francisco) and for manufacturers who want tailored sites on his platform.

The revenue supports the cause, and the cause is making sustainability easier, more tangible, more accessible and more financially appealing to the masses.  

“I want to make $100 savings happen for every household in Southwest Florida for free,” he says. “Imagine that family having an extra $100 for groceries. That is life-changing.”