July 31, 2017

5 things we learned from social entrepreneurs in New York

Baltimore Corps Elevation Award winners trade ideas with innovators in the Big Apple

As part of its commitment to equity in leadership, Baltimore Corps provides $10,000 in seed funding and additional support to community leaders with community solutions through its Elevation Awards. Too often, these leaders do not have access to the funding and supports necessary to incubate early-stage ideas.

Recently, I had the privilege of accompanying five Elevation Awardees and two Baltimore Corps staff to New York City to meet with fellow social innovators to learn from their successes—and failures.

We met with Made in Brownsville founder and CEO Quardean Lewis-Allen–or “Q,” as he is affectionately known in the community. Q welcomed us to his Brooklyn facility, named after the neighborhood in Brooklyn where he grew up, where the nonprofit provides training and mentorship for young people to learn skills in science, technology, engineering, the arts, and math, or STEAM.

The group also met with Echoing Green, a global nonprofit that provides fellowships, seed-stage funding, and strategic support to social entrepreneurs. CEO Cheryl Dorsey, a Baltimore native, encouraged the awardees to stay focused and keep working hard at developing their “thing.”

Elevation Awardees who attended the learning sessions in New York are, left to right, Kimberly Ellis (Chewmanity), Wendy Camilla Blackwell (Art Power), JaMar Jones (Filmmakers Meetup), Brittany Young (B-360), and Shannon Epps (Loads of Love). Photo courtesy of Baltimore Corps

And on the theme of developing your thing, here are five things we learned:

Follow your passion. In talking with Q, the group quickly learned that his passion is deep rooted and decades old. As a Brownsville native, Q is undeterred by Brownsville’s dire statistics of poverty and lack of opportunity. Q’s determination to shift Brownsville’s narrative to a more promising one helped form the foundation of his nonprofit, which is working to reduce the number of disconnected youth in Brownsville by engaging them through STEAM and opening up professional opportunities in the field.

Hone in on mission. Beware of “mission drift,” in which an organization finds it has unintentionally moved away from its mission. One way to do this: the awardees were advised to prove what they’re really good at and do that well. By setting yourself up to be an expert in your field, knowing what you want to do and who you want to serve becomes clear.

Stay connected to and engaged in the community. As a student of architecture, Q remains fascinated with the structural jewels planted throughout Brownsville and the rich history associated with them. The Made in Brownsville founder emphasized the need to hold on to, rather than completely demolish, assets that are present in the community. Among the many things Q and other community leaders are doing to protect, preserve, and rebuild Brownsville is a campaign that allows the community to tell its own story.

Consider income-generating models. Although Made in Brownsville’s objective is to build civic leaders, that takes resources. As a “youth creative agency and innovation hub,” Made in Brownsville also takes on client-commissioned creative projects as one way for youth to gain marketable skills. Inasmuch as anchor funding may open the door for other funders, diversification of funding streams beyond foundation funding is essential to any organization’s long-term sustainability.

Persevere. Several of those we spoke to during our trip recounted the peaks and valleys, stops and starts of their entrepreneurial and professional journeys. In pressing through the low points, each person was made stronger and better prepared for the role in which they now found themselves.

When we stepped off the elevator at Echoing Green, we were greeted by a quote from Rev. Howard Thurman:

There is in you something that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. Nobody like you has ever been born and no one like you will ever be born again—you are the only one.

How fitting. How appropriate. How beautifully applicable to Baltimore Corps’ intention for our day in New York. We went. We listened. We shared. And it was confirmed over and over again to our Awardees that nobody like them has ever been born and no one like them will ever be born again—they are the only ones.

Mischa Toland

Baltimore Corps

Mischa Toland is a Baltimore Corps faculty team member who also serves as coach to the Elevation Awardees. The application for 2017-18 Elevation Awards is now available.