I remember once having a conversation with someone during which I said that, other than God, I believed that business has the most power to change the world.
The person I was talking to challenged me on this, pointing out that business in general has a relatively bad reputation in that area. In fact, business in general has a pretty well-known reputation for doing just the opposite in a lot of ways.
But, I pointed out, the past doesn’t have to dictate the future, and the world is experiencing a shift in the way that younger entrepreneurs and their companies, as well as older, more-established companies that are now being run by younger individuals, are shaping the world in a good way.
The Latitude creative services firm in Minneapolis, which donates 50 percent of its profit to self-sustainable programs providing food, water, education and micro-loans in countries throughout the world;
Newman’s Own, which contributes all of its profit to large numbers of charities around the world; and
Well-established Walgreen’s, through its “Get a Shot. Give a Shot.” collaboration, which has provided more than 50 million life-saving vaccines to children in developing countries.
In my view, businesses that have decided to put people over profit are changing the world in ways that I want to be a part of. For me, the cornerstone of everything that we do is that there is no greater joy in this world than helping others – especially those who are in extreme need.
Before I started our company, I found that I had ideas floating around in my head about how powerful it would be to have a business that prioritized giving back to the world. I then quickly realized that when you start a business, there isn’t all that much money left over to give.
So, as a substitute, I decided that we were going to give of our time locally by serving those less fortunate. This soon grew into a stronger desire to also give back financially.
“That will come soon,” I thought to myself, “once we’ve made it and can contribute enough to really make a difference.”
Then one day I was challenged by a fellow business owner whom I admire and respect. He said, “There are two types of business owners when it comes to giving. First, are the ones that give when they have become successful, and, second, are the ones who give along the way. Which one do you feel led to be?”
In that moment, I realized who I wanted us to be.
This started my attempt to find a nonprofit that would actually be open to partnering with a debt collection agency and associate its brand with ours. My search led me to Feed My Starving Children, a non-profit that coordinates the packaging and distribution of food to people in over 70 developing nations around the world.
At first, and starting small, we donated one meal for every account that we collected. We found this to be a small but manageable donation for a new business of our size. Then, as we grew, we eventually reached a financial position where we could donate 10 meals for every account placed, 10 meals for every account collected and 10 meals for every day that a non-collector works, including me.
I have been to Haiti numerous times. I have prepared and distributed food in its slums. I have shared food with children who are usually eating their only meal for that day. Please believe me when I say that connecting what you do for work to saving the lives of children is far more powerful than you can possibly imagine – in more ways than you probably realize.
It is my belief that there is something deeply embedded in people. Something that calls them to help those who are in need. But it is also my belief that those same people often either feel ill-equipped to help or just frankly don’t know how to start. For these people, here is what I have learned:
Start somewhere. Anywhere. Just do something. And be open to doing more of it as it becomes possible to do so.
In an extremely competitive and saturated industry, where the number of companies has shrunk by over 20 percent in the last 10 years, and regulations have all but eliminated the ability to survive as a small player, our business has been able to flourish. I attribute our growth and success in no small part to our decision to start giving small and being open to giving more.
So as not to be either missed or understated, I want to emphasize that this perspective has had a deep and penetrating effect on our corporate culture. Our team cares about doing its best, not only because of what the result will be for themselves, but also because of the far greater impact the result will have on others. This has also spilled over into our relationships with our clients, with many being energized by becoming part of a relationship that means making the world a better place for children.
Our team also cares about how their daily efforts affect the people they deal with over the phone and in writing, since negative publicity about us will negatively affect our ability to help children around the world.
In an industry that has earned a reputation for awful working conditions and questionable morals, the people in our company all agree that, with hundreds of combined years in collections, they have never had this experience before. For the first time in their careers, they find that the success of the people to their left and right is, literally, connected not only to their own success but also to saving the lives of children.
How much of an effect has this had so far? We’re fast approaching having fed 100,000 children in the last 2.5 years. We have not stopped there, though:
Our team is also driven to saving children from slavery in Haiti. We have been able, through our Legal Path program, to partner with Restavek Freedom in Cincinnati, OH, which has the goal of ending child slavery in Haiti in our lifetime.
2019 was also our first year of funding an advocate’s salary in Haiti. This advocate works in and around Port au Prince, where there are an estimated 300,000 child slaves, and this local advocacy model has been found to be most effective to locate child slaves, or Restaveks, with the help of schools, churches and communities, assess their situation, and provide necessary training, oversight or removal based on what each individual situation warrants.
We will also fund 10 to 15 micro loans in 2019 through our partnership with Elevate Micro Loans.
I have personally joined the board of Cradle of Hope, which helped over 3,000 new mothers in 2019 in Minnesota by providing financial aid to women and babies in crisis.
Of course, at the end of the day, all of this sounds great on paper, but the most important thing to me remains the children like Jenika Francois, who inspired me to launch the Minnesota-based Jenika Francois Foundation. This foundation is dedicated to freeing children from slavery, getting them proper medical attention, getting them the food they need to survive, and giving them and their families the opportunity to become self-sufficient. That one girl, and all the other children like her, are the most important things.
Every parent knows that nothing else in the world matters if their child isn’t safe.
So, what is my conclusion? Put simply, I believe that, other than God, business has the most power to change the world. I believe that success is always a byproduct of chasing significance, but significance is not always a byproduct of chasing success. Our mission, quite honestly, is not about how much money we can make, or how big can we get, but rather about how many children can we save in this world by doing the very best that we can in our role.
To me, there is no greater purpose we could have than to help those who cannot help themselves.
Article originally appearing in NEFA Newsline January February Issue, pages 27-28