The Juggling Act of Building and Sustaining a Mission-Driven For-Profit Business

The popularity of the Social Entrepreneurship movement is at an all time high but there's little available research or proof that it's actually profitable and sustainable. Generations of workers have all wanted to have their cake and eat it too which is the common perception of the social entrepreneur. I get it. Who wouldn't wanna do well by doing good? Who wouldn't want to impact the very people and communities that mean the world to them and earn a great living while doing so?

Well here's a look into my personal journey of becoming a social entrepreneur including all the bumps and bruises along the way with the added bonus of the cliffs that I see directly in front of me. I began my career about as traditional as traditional gets. Fresh out of college, I launched my career as an Engineer jumping from company to company and then pursued an MBA as was the natural progression in my field. I grew in my career into management before reading an article in USA Today that changed my career forever. It ranked the nation's largest 50 school districts by High School graduation rates and not only was my hometown of Detroit dead last but we were nearly twice as bad as the second worst school system in the nation, Baltimore, with their graduation rate at 38 percent and ours at 21 percent. As the young self-righteous person that I was at the time, I called my parents who were both teachers in Detroit Public Schools and in the middle of my rant, like any good mother should say to her son, my mom said to me, "If you're so upset about it then DO something about it!!" That no-nonsense charge chartered my life on a brand new course.

I quickly transitioned from a career in financial services to one in education leading the operations of a school district, then a start up college of education and then one of the nation's largest charter school organizations. Each of these roles were fulfilling in their own right but I struggled to be completely satisfied because I was stuck bringing someone else's vision to fruition. Once again, I was called to action only this time by my wife instead of my mom. In the same tone with an eerily identical inflection, she told me, "If you're not happy with how their helping kids, then DO something about it!!". And again, I listened to yet another brilliant woman in my life and launched Yardstick Learning. It wasn't the most sophisticated launch by any means. I had recently completed my Doctorate, I had run operations for several organizations around the country and I was pretty well connected in the education sector. The first client was a colleague who had recently been named CEO of a charter school organization and he was in desperate need of a COO. The organization was about a fraction of the size of my previous organizations and we were able to negotiate a flexible arrangement that allowed me to build Yardstick while simultaneously serving as his COO.

From that point forward, Yardstick grew our client base along with our team. We grew from charter schools to school districts to universities to even expanding our services to multinational Fortune 500 companies. Over the course of our first three years we grew 200% in both revenue and profit year over year expanding our footprint to nineteen states and six countries. We had begun to really get our stride but the constant struggle of a small consulting firm is that much of our business is project based versus multi-year partnerships which means that the primary focus of our sustainability is our ability to continue to sell our services to new and existing clients. The novelty of being "mission-driven" has now worn off as just about everybody claims to fill that need regardless of their organizational mission. This meant that we needed to enhance the way we would sell our services.

In an effort to learn from the best in the business, I applied to Goldman Sachs' 10,000 small businesses program and was accepted into the national cohort at Babson College. If you're not familiar with Babson, it's THE school for entrepreneurs with ties to literally ALL of the great entrepreneurs of our time. During the program we were tasked with developing a growth plan that would help us figure out which direction to grow our businesses and how to sustain that growth. As mentioned before, Yardstick is a mission-driven organization with the simple goal of building a better world through education and social change. That said, when I wrote our growth plan, I focused it around that mission to specifically enhance the state of the world by helping to ensure the existence of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) as its my firm belief that many of the greatest leaders in the world are alumna of these prestigious institutions. Not to mention that both my wife and I are proud graduates of THE Florida A&M University, the nation's largest HBCU. I completed a needs assessment of the HBCU landscape and my team and I began to target HBCUs as potential clients. We knew that their biggest gap was optimizing their internal operations and that was our organization's sweet spot.

In our efforts to understand the HBCU landscape, we also reached out to the nation's largest HBCU support organizations in hopes of helping us to notify their partners that our services exist. Having experience expanding our line of services, I was well aware of the significant costs associated with gaining credibility in a new sector, building out marketing materials, soliciting new clients, and hiring team members with industry specific expertise. And when I say significant costs, I mean SIGNIFICANT! Fortunately, we landed a partnership with our first HBCU client and boy did we really knock this project outta the park. Or so we thought. The client was thoroughly impressed with our work, so much so that our recommendations were more than they were prepared to handle at the time and the solutions were minimally adopted, if at all. This may not seem like a big deal but the only way to establish credibility in a sector is to be able to reference examples of our work and tout the impact of those efforts to new potential clients. We provided these services nearly at cost so they're failure to implement was a net loss to us as we expanded into this new line of business. We then secured a partnership with a second HBCU client who sang our praises about our services but as we entered into Phase II of our work with them, the state slashed their funding to a point where their very existence was in jeopardy and we were forced to discontinue services. Disheartened, disappointed, and operating a tremendous deficit in a space that I was most passionate about serving, my team and I were forced to rethink our approach to this new line of business and question our internal commitment to meeting the needs of this community. As a small minority owned business, we're already faced with the uphill battle of establishing credibility in the industry as well as the same competition that many other businesses face of working in an extremely competitive space.

This was one of many tests of our commitment to the HBCU community and what we learned about ourselves is that our resolve isn't for the faint of heart. Instead of discontinuing to serve HBCUs and more importantly, their students, we enhanced our Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) line of business and partnered with large corporations as well as nonprofits focused on scaling impactful programs specifically aimed at ensuring that these students and young adults would matriculate through HBCUs and leave their stamp on the world. We offered these services at fair market value and are currently growing our CSR line of business as well as continuing to chart a path directly aimed at partnering with HBCUs to optimize their internal operations and secure their existence for many generations to come. We essentially learned to practice what we preach and developed an innovative solution to stick to our mission, ensure our profitability and to continue our organizational growth. There is still a tremendous amount of uncertainty on where we'll go next but we're certainly focused on expanding from project based services to long term strategic partnerships with our vast array of clients. The journey of the social entrepreneur is an unclear path that's far too adolescent for any real long term data points or recipes for sustainable success. That said, my advice is to stay at the top of your game intellectually, be willing to take HUGE risks, and with a lot of faith and little luck you'll be well on your way. More to come soon...