Tackling Poverty through Entrepreneurship




What makes a great entrepreneur? Tenacity, passion, vision, self-belief, flexibility, risk taking. An entrepreneur identifies a problem, market failure or opportunity and sees potential to address itAustin’s entrepreneurship scene is strong and growing, a testament to our city’s eager problem solving mentality. Austin is changing and adapting before our eyes, but not all for the better. We’re also witnessing a growing problem around us: Poverty. The less talked about “top ten” lists Austin happens to be on is #8 in the country for fastest growing poverty rate and #2 fastest growing city for suburban poverty. You can check out Austin-Round Rock metro area poverty data from the Brookings Institute, and the CAN community dashboard is also a great resource.

Charity is Infinitely Inventive

Society of St. Vincent de Paul is a nearly 200 year old organization that established its Austin roots in the 1960s to serve those in need. In addition to doing person to person home visits, the Society operates three thrift stores. Many Austinites are familiar with their flagship store on South Congress.

Here’s what Society saw in the midst of “growth” in our community: low income wage earners moving further away from employment opportunities, robust transportation systems and accessible social services. While Austin’s poverty rate decreased in 2014, all nine contiguous counties saw 5-15% per capita increases. Austin gentrification is at 40% over a 15 year period. This dichotomy is obvious at their South Congress store, surrounded by trendy restaurants, bars and new apartment buildings. Parking is a next to nil now, traffic and congestion is abound. And the very people Society St. Vincent de Paul served no longer live near their store.

The Society references their patron and namesake St. Vincent de Paul in saying “Charity is infinitely inventive.” And that is just what this organization needed to meet the changing demands of their customers: innovation. They saw potential and came to our Social Venture Partners through the Mission Accelerator to help build their business plan to address their new environment.  Their basic idea addressed both the needs of their clients and Austin’s changing preferences and lifestyles: create a mobile thrift truck and develop an earned revenue model to support it.

Mobile Thrift Model Addresses Changing Demographic

Most organizations don’t take advantage of their own capacity for innovation. By participating in the 2015 Accelerator (a model taken from “seed accelerators” in the technology and start-up world), Society of St. Vincent De Paul grew their mobile thrift concept from idea to reality.

By creating an innovative and financially-viable model, they address the needs of their customers while changing the paradigm of serving people in poverty and meeting clients where they are. Their vision was two trucks that will allow them to combine boutique paid events to generate revenue in support of service events to those in poverty, giving them the dignity they seek and deserve. As the Society closes their South Congress location, they are opening a new site off of Braker Lane which allows the physical space to manage the mobile truck program while also equipping the organization to readily serve their loyal thrift vintage shoppers as well as their neighbors in need (whether near the north location or throughout the area).

The Society’s Executive Director Stacy Ehrlich is a perfect example of what drives social innovation and the work of our Social Venture Partners.  Our partners seek high-potential, high-performing organizations with initial success and help them think forward, think differently and think boldly. They work alongside nonprofits like Society of St. Vincent de Paul through the Mission Accelerator and beyond. Manuel Azuara is a Social Venture Partner and lead advisor with Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

“After working with Stacy and several members of their Board, I’ve come to learn they are visionaries with big goals and are risk takers not afraid to try and fail and try again. This organization embraces the entrepreneurial side of charitable business, constantly trying to find ideas for revenue generation that rely less on philanthropy and more on self-sustaining activities,” says Manuel.

Over the next year Social Venture Partners including Manuel will help Stacy and her team execute on their vision. On their agenda:

  • Develop the funding model to purchase a thrift truck.
  • Create key performance indicators for truck outcomes.
  • Provide counsel on scheduling, inventory and mobile logistics support.
  • Identify appropriate go to market strategy for truck launch with roadmap for first 6 months.
  • Evaluate and iterate based on initial success.

Now that’s potential. That’s entrepreneurship. We pivot, adapt, test, create, try, retry. By matching business leaders with enterprising nonprofits, Social Venture Partners share knowledge and provide a thought process, they ask the right questions, push and encourage. No matter the issue big (from building revenue models) or small (searching Craigslist for a thrift van), Social Venture Partners give confidence to social innovators like Stacy, knowing that someone is by their side each step of the way.

The newest Mission Accelerator class was just announced yesterday. These five nonprofits will be taken through a rigorous, thoughtful program to develop, pilot or implement an innovative business model to address a community need. We look forward to seeing where these organizations are just one year from now!

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