Community of food entrepreneurs encourages each other’s success.
It’s not just the bottom line; it’s the triple bottom line. And according to a growing movement of young Detroit business entrepreneurs, it’s a way to be idealistic and realistic at the same time.
John Elkington, the founder of the British organization SustainAbility, coined the phrase triple bottom line (TBL) in 1994. He posited that companies should be preparing three different (and, according to The Economist, quite separate) bottom lines — the financial, social and environmental performance of a corporation over a period of time.
During a lunch-and-learn session at the Isaac Agree Detroit Synagogue on Nov. 5, Blair Nosan, chair of the Education and Social Action Committee, introduced Jess Daniel, founder of FoodLab Detroit, a TBL “community of practice” of food entrepreneurs that supports the development, growth and cooperation of locally owned, socially and environmentally responsible food enterprises.
“What we’re talking about is attaching economic development and business to values,” Nosan said. “We are in a covenantal relationship with God where we are just as responsible for being stewards of justice and Godliness, and God is being good to us in return.”
FoodLab has grown into something that is a really exciting model for how we can be connecting values to business in a modern context, Nosan said, but this differs from the social, anti-business activism of the 1960s and ’70s.
“Social entrepreneurs are less focused on reactive activism and are more focused on pragmatic approaches to change,” said Nosan of Detroit. “Values-based business is considered a mechanism by which social/environmental values can create change within an existing capitalist system, which is markedly different from choosing to work outside that system.”
Financially supported by the nonprofit Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice and a small stipend as a graduate student at Michigan State University, Daniel’s FoodLab Detroit operates under the assumption that not everyone in business is looking only to maximize profits. Some of these people have jobs and are doing it as supplemental income — running a sustainable business that makes a profit, but not enough for them to subsist. It’s providing ancillary social benefits, she said.
“For instance, somebody is making ginger tea in the basement of a kitchen in a church on the east side. It may employ five people, but what she’s really trying to do is give the kids an idea of what it looks like to run a business because a lot of time they haven’t seen anybody who looks like her who does something like that,” Daniel said.
Many of the people she has met are underground — they operate from their home kitchen under Michigan’s Cottage Food Law that allows a person to make up to $15,000 in profit for baked goods, jams or other dry products without regulators getting in the way.
FoodLab is set up to help those people get to the next level, Daniel said, and the learning curve is much steeper for some.
“There is a dominant dialogue around entrepreneurism that tends to feature young, white, highly educated folks who have recently moved back to the city,” she said. “Entrepreneurs who are all in one social network; they’re all kind of tightly bubbled in the middle. They know one another, they trust one another, and they help one another. We have a group of jam makers who go in together to purchase jars; we have people sharing kitchen space.
“And there are also lots of people who live in the city, who have lived in the city for a very long time, in all sorts of neighborhoods, and they have been hustling, especially in the food business,” Daniel added. “They have been underground for a long time. They’re making money and supplementing their family income, but they’d like to take it to the next level. But when you’re not in that social network, you tend to be of color and from a different income level,” she said.
“It’s not just about access to capital or access to health insurance. It’s not just about transportation. It’s also about these social networks. Are people even able to imagine all the possibilities of their business? We’re really trying to find those folks and invite them in.”
Daniel said they provide childcare and make sure the meetings are rotating in different areas of the city so that people can attend a meeting in their neighborhood without having to travel so far.
“We have city and state regulators who are really trying to help us get these people licensed and above ground,” she said. “It’s very difficult, especially for entrepreneurs, to have the time to maintain relationships with city and state inspectors. We help become the conduit of that relationship.”
FoodLab started around the kitchen table with seven people in January 2011, and has grown to 190 businesses on its listserv and more than 80 businesses that have attended their workshops. They hold monthly meetings where about 30 businesses have come to teach tactical business practices, like crowd sourcing, the use of online platforms to start a campaign to purchase equipment.
“We have lots of people in our group, and there’s a digital divide, people who don’t have Internet access or are not comfortable putting together a video and posting it on the Internet. Even if they did, they don’t have a network of friends on the Internet who are going to have the expendable income to finance that sort of campaign,” she said.
Marty Baum, a semi-retired attorney from Detroit, was intrigued by the subject, although he found it a bit “amorphous.”
“I think it has a lot of potential, and the social value sounds really good — giving [help to] entrepreneurs who have little experience with the business end of their skills,” he said. “That opens up opportunities for volunteerism especially with the professional skills of people who are entering their third stage [retirement].”
by Harry Kirsbaum, Contributing Writer