Howard County social enterprises give back with every sale

Chances are that if you drank a cup of coffee recently at the Bean Hollow Cafe in Ellicott City you sipped that steaming brew from a mug made by Greenbridge Pottery in Dayton.

It feels good to support a local business or two. What feels even better is knowing that every time a mug or a plate or a yarn bowl is purchased directly from Greenbridge Pottery, a portion of the sale helps others in our community and around the world. It’s called social enterprise.

“We were making pottery to make ourselves and our customers happy by trying to make something useful and beautiful. Now it changes how we think about our work, because we know we’re doing something bigger than ourselves,” says Becky Moy Behre, who along with her husband, Evan, has been making nature-inspired pottery in a barn in western Howard County for 25 years.

The couple decided to convert their business to a social enterprise after hearing a popular entrepreneur speak about the subject at a church conference last fall. After much research, they chose eight charities, as close as the Howard County Conservancy in Woodstock and as far as Central Asia, where they support the Three Cups of Tea organization in helping to build schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The Behres are part of a growing paradigm shift in how businesses view wealth.

Traditionally, maximizing wealth was measured by financial assets, says Peter Lorenzi, a professor at Loyola University Maryland’s Sellinger School of Business.

“The social enterprise measures social capital, or intangible wealth,” says Lorenzi, who has taught a course on social entrepreneurship for the past six years. He says that about 120 academic institutions around the world are teaching this concept, including about 10 in the United Kingdom. In addition to Loyola, social enterprise instruction is included in the business schools at Harvard and Stanford universities.

“The hardest thing for a business student is to switch from a financial enterprise model to a social enterprise model,” he says.  

However, “if you search ‘social entrepreneurship’ on YouTube, you get thousands of hits,” says Lorenzi.

“It’s literally a grassroots, or ground-up, endeavor,” he says.

In simple terms, a social enterprise integrates business with a cause. In many cases, that refers to a for-profit venture that routinely donates a percentage of its profits for the public good.

When Dave Carney and Giuli Cox opened The Wine Bin on Main Street in Ellicott City, they structured the business to help people starting the day it opened its doors.

“I like to support the small local charities,” says Carney. His particular passion is Voices for Children, a 21-year-old nonprofit that trains adult volunteers to act as court-appointed advocates and mentors for children in Howard County who are caught in the child welfare system. Carney has volunteered with the Columbia organization for 17 years in a variety of capacities.

The wine shop sells reusable bags to tote wine purchased at the store, with a percentage going to Voices for Children. He’s also created other promotional incentives, such as a summer photo contest of people wearing a Wine Bin hat while on vacation (for every hat sold, $10 gets donated), as well as weekly movie and popcorn nights where all of the popcorn profits are donated.

“We make a huge difference,” says the entrepreneur.

“Grants are drying up. Voices for Children is struggling. My goal is to raise $10,000 a year for them,” says Carney, who uses social media tools and in-store displays to advertise the events.

“My goal is to make money but to give back to the community at the same time,” he says.

There’s more than one way to engage in social enterprise. Instead of donations, some business owners choose to employ the disenfranchised, says Lorenzi, referring to for-profit businesses like Dogwood Cafe, in Baltimore’s Hampden neighborhood. The cafe provides training and paid employment to individuals who are transitioning from addiction, incarceration, homelessness and/or underemployment.

JSR Architects in Ellicott City has a similar mission, using art to help children and adults. The architectural interior design firm on Main Street is owned by Jane Rohde and specializes in senior living communities.

Rohde and her office manager and art consultant, Lauren Erickson, volunteer at The Children’s Home, a residential program helping troubled kids ages 10 to 19 in Catonsville.

“We already had a 20-plus-year volunteer relationship with The Children’s Home,” says Rohde, “and worked closely with them on their Art for Cash program to provide opportunities for their residents to create, display and sell their artwork in our first floor storefront.”

Last year, JSR moved its five employees to the second floor and dedicated its entire first floor to Perspectives Art Gallery to assist local young artists. Paintings, jewelry, scarves and other handmade objects fill the walls and shelves, and a percentage of every sale benefits either The Children’s Home or projects involving handmade arts and crafts in Kenya and Ethiopia. Plus, the gallery exhibits new work about every four months and designates a portion of those sales to a selected charity, such as the Linwood Center in Ellicott City, which provides programs and job training for people with autism, says Erickson, who also manages the gallery.

“As the word about what we are doing grows, the community has embraced the concept. We now have repeat customers that love to come into the gallery and see what is new,” says Rohde.

Social enterprise is not limited to small business, of course.

Large corporations also are realizing the benefits to investing in society, says Lorenzi. Before, they answered only to their shareholders. Now, a new business entity has emerged. It’s called the “B” corporation, or benefit corporation, and Maryland is leading the way in supporting this shift for businesses.

Basically, a benefit corporation can now take into consideration the well-being of its stakeholders, such as employees, the community and the environment, without concern of conflict of interest to shareholders. The Maryland General Assembly passed a law creating this new entity last year but it’s not widely known yet, believes Lorenzi.

“It can be a helpful mechanism in getting people to think about moving from a financial enterprise to a social one,” says Lorenzi.

Big or small, the social enterprise concept is increasing in popularity.

“It’s going to be a primary job-creating source in the next 10 years,” says Lorenzi, “and it won’t stop there.”

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