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Social Enterprise Greenhouse and Tink|Knit strive for innovation

by Teri Minogue, '18

Last Thursday, Women in Business had the opportunity to discuss social enterprise with two successful initiatives based in Providence: Social Enterprise Greenhouse and Brown University’s Tink|Knit.

Cayla Mackey, Social Enterprise Greenhouse’s University Initiative Director, sat down with us on Thursday night in Wilson 205 to give us the low down on what it meant to be a social enterprise, describing it as a business-centered approach to social progress.

“Can you think of a successful social enterprise?”

Going around the room, we all had different views of what made an organization a social enterprise. Most of us agreed on the big ones like Toms and Warby Parker, the types of businesses that use a “one-to-one” model, where for each product sold, one is donated to those in need. Cayla noted the distinction between charities and social enterprises - and how a business-centered approach can allow those being helped to feel more empowered and in charge of their progress.

How long has social enterprise been around?

Only for less than 10 YEARS! This came as a shock to most of us - we all guessed between 20 and 40 years. The term was coined by Muhammad Yunus, an economist who developed microcredit loans as a means to lift poor people out of poverty.

Is a social enterprise a for-profit and nonprofit?

Cayla draws one hand to her left and the other hand to her right. Gesturing with her left hand, Imagine this as a for-profit company, focused mainly on bringing return to their stakeholders through profit, potentially at the cost of transparency.” Now with her right, “and imagine this as a struggling non-profit, trying to sustain a steady stream of revenue.” Drawing her hands together to the middle, she notes, “this is where social enterprise falls.” Social enterprise is interesting in that they are able to forgo profit in order to sustain their mission. Often, social enterprise speaks more to its value than its profit.

Cayla’s overview of social enterprise was a perfect segue to an example on our own campus: Brown University’s own Tink|Knit!

Tink|Knit: Julia Wu, President and Robert Lee, Vice President

Tink|Knit is a student-run social venture initiated by Enactus@Brown that helps single mothers provide income and lead sustaining lives through knitting. Tink|Knit teaches moms how to knit hats, and then sells the hats at the Brown Bookstore - giving half the proceeds and career advice to the mothers.

How did she get started?

Julia Xu, president of Tink|Knit, loves what she does. Tink|Knit has become an integral part of her life: “my hobby is Tink...I knit prototypes just for fun.” She got interested in social entrepreneurship through the Social Enterprise Greenhouse’s annual SEEED Summit and Allan Harlam’s class on social entrepreneurship.

Julia mentioned that she recognized both the intensity of single mothers’ financial needs and the lack of initiatives aimed at assisting them in fulfilling those needs. Any woman in the workplace struggles with a work/family conflict, and being a single mother further exacerbates this issue: day care is often prohibitively expensive and constantly being out at work takes time away from being with their children. After identifying the group she wanted to help - single mothers - Julia hit the ground running and started visiting shelters. She later received funding through Brown Venture Launch Fund.

Julia’s advice:

Once you have an idea, run with it. Julia said the best thing to do when you have an idea is to start making prototypes and working to implement as soon as possible. It’s easy to get lost in the middle of a social venture, especially when you’re trying to balance sustaining revenue and achieving your goals.

Stick to your mission. This isn’t always easy. Making sure that your business decisions are in the best interest of the people you want to help is a daunting task, and there are sometimes unforeseen challenges. Julia noted a small bump in the road even a week or so ago -  should Tink spend extra money on a marketing campaign or give that money to the mothers?” In figuring out the most appropriate solutions to dilemmas like these, Julia has found that cost/benefit analyses are Tink|Knit’s best friend.

Take advantage of the benefits of being a student. Julia notes that without Brown Bookstore, it’s hard to say if Tink|Knit would have been sustainable. The bookstore help them cut a lot of costs - in the beginning they even footed the cost of yarn. Partners such as Capital Good Fund, Brown University CareerLab and a sponsorship from uber to facilitate transportation have helped reduce the barriers to Tink|Knit’s success.

Since starting Tink|Knit about a year ago, Julia’s operation has grown from 10 students to 40, and recently sold out of all their merchandise after family weekend. They are currently expanding operations to RISD and aim to implement this model on other university campuses nationwide. Go Tink!

How can I get involved?

Check out Social Enterprise Greenhouse’s University Initiative that connects students and recent graduates to local social enterprise opportunities. They provide everything from internships, scholarships, events - like their annual SEEED summit on Brown’s campus -  and even participation in their business accelerator program.

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