Elevating humanity through business

Tolerance Through Tourism

Florida Blog


Ten years ago, two young men from traditionally-opposing backgrounds shared a common passion: Peacebuilding. Today their Wellington, Florida-based B-Corp, MEJDI Tours, takes people to historically conflict-riddled areas and other destinations across the globe, providing unique perspectives that raise awareness, tolerance, and human dignity. Their original approach has been featured in a popular TED Talk and has led to a coveted contract with National Geographic Expeditions. We sat down with co-founder & CEO Scott Cooper to learn more about this unusual enterprise…

Q: How did MEJDI Tours get started?

I’m American Jewish. My co-founder [Aziz Abu Sarah] is a Palestinian from Jerusalem. The two of us met about 10 years ago, both doing international peacebuilding and development work. Aziz did some really amazing work in Jerusalem between Israelis and Palestinians. He was working with bereaved families, Israeli and Palestinian, who had all lost family members to the conflict, in working for reconciliation in our societies.

He ended up moving to Washington DC, where I was doing a master’s degree in Peacebuilding and Conflict Resolution with a focus on Arab-Jewish peacebuilding efforts. We ended up getting connected.

In our conversations, I found that Aziz did a little bit of Holy Land tourism work on the side to make ends meet. Because many of us in the nonprofit and international development work know that we can do all this social change, but usually it’s not sustainable financially. He was doing this on the side. I was actually working in banking and financial planning, so we had very different backgrounds.

We were brainstorming one day and we thought to ourselves, “What about tourism and travel? What better way to shatter stereotypes and create social change than to connect networks of people across borders, real and imaginary.” That’s essentially what’s happening when you travel.

According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, a billion and a half people travel each year. We looked at that statistic and thought to ourselves, “Well that’s an opportunity. A billion and a half people are traveling every year, we’re doing peace building work… Why don’t we do this a little bit differently? I wonder if we can combine peacebuilding with travel.”

We started looking into it and we noticed that a lot of the people that were doing it would have a very focused effort in what’s called alternative travel, or volunteer tourism. We thought those were fantastic, but one thing that we knew from our backgrounds in social change and peacebuilding work was that that keeps the networks a bit small. We thought to ourselves, “What could we do on a larger scale eventually? Let’s just try and tweak the tourism model a little bit.”

We knew a bunch of Israelis and Palestinians that were friends with each other and we said, “Let’s talk to our friends in universities, churches, synagogues and say, ‘Bring your group to Israel, Palestine, the Holy Land, and we’re going to do it a little differently. We’re going to let you see the sights, we’re going to let you try the food, all this kind of fun stuff that you want to do—but throughout your tour it’s going to be led by an Israeli and Palestinian together. They might disagree on things, but at the end of the day they are friends.'” That’s how we started. We had a small network of pastors, and university professors, and rabbis that were interested in this idea and it really took off from there.

Eventually National Geographic got wind and we ended up becoming National Geographic’s sole provider of Holy Land expeditions, so when folks sign up with National Geographic they travel with us. That’s really an interesting thing from a peacebuilding perspective because through National Geographic, we reach millions of people every year, and the first thing that they see next to the Holy Land expedition is something designed by Arabs and Jews and peacebuilding efforts.

Q: How did you come up with that name?

The name MEJDI means “to honor” in Arabic. The idea of MEJDI Tours is to honor the local people, honor the local culture, and MEJDI was just the way to say that in Arabic.

Q What is the company’s higher purpose?

It’s quite an audacious goal, but we’re trying to create a better world through travel. That’s our higher purpose, and we see that materializing in every destination globally, from our local communities to the Holy Land.

We’ve done trips in Ireland and Northern Ireland. We’ve done trips in Turkey, in Egypt. We were in Syria before the war. We’ve worked in Afghanistan. We’ve taken trips to the Balkans. We’ve translated the model into different destinations, and translated how tourism can number one, meet the needs of the group, but also honor the local community.

In Israel, in Palestine, the Holy Land—that was conducted with two tour guides, Israeli and Palestinian. In some other places it’s really focusing on communities that are less focused on by other tours. We also intentionally try to work with small businesses and family-owned hotels. We try to infuse social change-makers and agents across the tourism supply chain.

We also try very hard to create programs for all types of travelers since this is why we thought ‘alternative travel’ options don’t reach enough people. So for example, a luxury traveler might want to be on the beach one day and have a spa, but then the next day, they can listen to folks in a refugee camp, and then the next day they can see kids working together in a school doing something else. We just try and mix all these things together based on our client needs and goals, so we feel like these values-based items can be infused in any type of trip. Whether it’s just a little bit, or if it’s the whole trip, you feel like every opportunity when you travel can leave a better impact. We feel all travelers – adventure, religious, luxury, educational – are interested in socially conscious travel and one of our strategic objectives is to provide travel options for them.

Q: Describe your company’s culture and how you go about crafting that culture.

We think about everybody working within MEJDI, both full time staff and contractors, and our clients, as friends. When you’re hanging out with your friends you want to have a good time. You want to be respectful. You want to have an environment that you’re enjoying and they’re enjoying. I do my best to make it fun, to tell jokes, to have that informal feel to it.

At the same time, since what we’re doing is a very serious thing, both in terms of social change and customer service, [I try] to also create the culture that we work as hard as we can.

We treat each other the way we like to be treated. We treat our customers and our partners and our stakeholders the way we would like to be treated. It’s fun. It’s hardworking.

In addition to that, I like to create a culture in which the folks working within and in partnership with MEJDI feel empowered to make decisions, because I think that’s critically important. For example, if there’s a major decision that needs to happen, say in an Israeli or a Palestinian city, I don’t want to make that decision. I want my local partners to make those decisions. And this comes from the peacebuilding point of view.

Q: How can people get in touch with you?

People can feel free to email me. Also, if they live in South Florida and want to get involved, we’re looking for interns from local tourism and business schools, but all are welcome!

Listen here to the full audio interview with Scott Cooper.

Mission-Based Business Helps People with Disabilities

Florida Blog


More than Just Business

When companies need to dispose of their office computers, certain that sensitive data is first wiped clean, they send those old PCs to ARC Broward I.T. Asset Recovery. In doing so, they’re not just protecting their client’s privacy; they’re also providing training and employment opportunities for people with learning and other disabilities.

In addition to data security (scrubbing digital info), this mission-based enterprise provides asset recovery — selling used I.T. equipment to vetted commercial buyers; and e-commerce, selling electronics through their online store. It also provides electronics recycling which, according to Julie Price, Vice President of Program Services, “really was the roots of where we started; we’ve grown into these other business lines because the industry has changed so much.”

Origin Story

I.T. Asset Recovery is one of three social enterprises spawned by ARC Broward since the umbrella organization was founded in the mid-1950s. That’s when families of children with disabilities formed the grassroots organization to keep their kids out of institutions and give them a good education.

Julie says, “As they grew older…we just continued to expand our service model and our service delivery so that we could continue to meet the employment, housing, social, recreational, medical, and other needs that individuals with disabilities have.” ARC Broward now operates in 10 locations providing 21 programs to more than 1200 individuals and their families throughout Broward County, Florida each year.

Today the organization encompasses ARC Broward Learning Institute and Culinary Institute as well as I.T. Asset Recovery, which was started in 2000. “Our mission and overarching purpose is to transform the community by providing opportunities for people with disabilities and other life challenges to realize their full potential,” Julie says.

Lessons Learned

Based on her 16-year journey establishing the I.T. Asset Recovery business under the ARC Broward nonprofit, Julie offers valuable lessons learned. “It really is about not letting the nonprofit culture get in the way of the business,” she says. “Any nonprofit that hopes to become entrepreneurial… really has to take a step back and undergo a radical set of changes.”

1. Be willing to take risks. While entrepreneurs are generally assumed to be risk takers, “That’s not how nonprofits and nonprofit boards of directors generally function,” Julie says. “They tend to be more risk averse, and for good reason: Because a board is the steward of scarce resources, primarily resources that are coming from donors, governmental entities, foundations and that kind of thing.” As a result, nonprofits shy away from initiatives until they can guarantee success, which, Julie says, is “completely opposite of entrepreneurship. Nonprofit entrepreneurs need to enter the game with a willingness to take risks and fail.” Julie likes to remind decision-makers of a quote by Ben & Jerry’s’ Ben Cohen: “To stumble is not to fail; it’s a way of moving ahead more quickly.”

2. Choose staff members wisely. “Running a nonprofit is very different than entrepreneurship, and not everyone understands that right away, so make decisions about who in your organization is really best to move this business forward. It may not always seem to be the most obvious person, but it needs to be someone who has a gut and a stomach for entrepreneurship,” says Julie. She recommends choosing staff with business knowledge such as marketing, sales and efficiencies of operations.

3. Relinquish control. “Too many layers just tend to bog things down and entrepreneurship moves quickly,” Julie says. “You’ve got to learn to be a little more nimble and flexible, and that’s hard for any organization, particularly a larger one that does have lots of layers.”

4. Understand your market. “Making sure you understand who your customers are, and thinking about customers in a business, is very different than thinking about customers in a social service context,” Julie says. She explains that donors who support their services for persons with disabilities are very different from customers who purchase computers. Another market-minded caution: “We tend to sell ourselves short [as] a nonprofit and we don’t price aggressively enough as for-profits do.”

5. Play well or don’t play at all. “When Jack Welch took over as CEO of General Electric in 1981, he asked Peter Drucker to tell him the single most important thing he could do to improve the company,” Julie says. “Drucker’s answer was really pretty simple: If your products or services are not number one or number two in the market, kill them. In other words, just stop trying to be all things to all people. He repeatedly urges nonprofits to do the same, and he refers to this as ‘organized abandonment.’

“Although it’s not easy to stop doing some things — particularly those that are really important to board members, funders, and long term employees — you’ve got to stay the course and be in it, take risks, invest where you can, and be able to make some really hard decisions. That’s contrary to a lot of what and how [nonprofits] think.”

6. Know your tax laws. To operate a mission-based enterprise under 501 (c)(3) nonprofit status, Julie says, “be really careful about ‘unrelated business activities.’ She explains that nonprofit organizations should develop business ventures that are “closely aligned with their core competencies, their strengths — really a derivative of their mission. From an IRS perspective, that’s tremendously important” so a nonprofit doesn’t “threaten or compromise the organization’s tax-exempt status.”

7. Don’t underestimate the amount of time and money you need to reach goals. “Depending on the type of enterprise, [profit] ebbs and flows,” Julie says. “This business in particular, I.T. asset recovery is a fickle business; it’s a fragile business. There are some years it goes better than others. You’ve got to stay the course, but you’ve got to have money to do it.”

Julie cites an MIT study which found that, for most companies, significant revenue doesn’t usually flow until the seventh year of operation. “We saw that in our world,” she says. “There are lots of market variables that hit us as social enterprises and you’ve got to just make sure you have the funds and the cash flow to do what you need to do.”

8. Learn how to play in the sandbox with competitors. “In the nonprofit world, we don’t look at competitors, we look at collaborators — other organizations in our community who do the same or nearly the same types of things we do,” Julie says. “We’re friendly, and we share things so readily — and that’s not how a lot of business works. So it’s getting a different layer and thickness of skin that puts you in the game a little differently.”

9. Market and brand the business’ social mission. “The only other real tactical area that we learned the hard way to really address is the area of marketing, branding the business. That’s a very different way of thinking,” Julie says. “It took us a little while to get our messaging together. You’re not just a business; you’ve got a mission component.

Oftentimes I will say, ‘I work at ARC Broward,’ and they’ll ask me what my relationship is with the organization and I’ll explain it to them. And they’ll say, ‘that’s fantastic, our business just dropped off all our computers to you.’ Or ‘I purchased something from your retail operations’ — without any context to the fact that we serve and support people with disabilities.

“You walk away and you’re like, that’s fantastic. That was really cool that there was a different touch point in the community and more people know of us because of this enterprise. But what they don’t know is the core of what we do. And so you’re always, always sharpening your message, making sure you don’t have missed opportunities.

“Any business that’s working with us really should be working with us, because, number one, the quality of what we do is great, our pricing is competitive. But first and foremost it’s supporting an organization that is serving children and adults with disabilities and other life challenges. That really is the feather in the cap, in our mind.”

Read or listen to the full interview with Julie Price, including a success story about one of IT Asset Recovery’s trainees, at www.socialimpactuniverse.com/blog

Opportunity, Education and Empathy Take Fashion ‘Beyond Fair Trade’

Florida Blog

Social enterprise advocate and a champion of education for women globally, Debbie Farah never expected to be known for either. However, her love of fashion and a rare job offer as a young Arab girl, that afforded her the chance to go to college, set her on a path to impact countless lives around the world. Farah launched Bajalia International Group (BIG) on HSN March 8th 2011 – the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day.

BIG is a Fair Trade retail and wholesale provider of home, fashion and jewelry goods handmade by artisans in underdeveloped economies. BIG “gives women a voice around the world through jobs” and distributes through major retailers. We’re “changing the world while shopping the world,” says Farah. With manufacturing workgroups in 28 countries including India, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Haiti, “we work in some of the places where it’s hardest to be a woman in the world.”

Farah sees BIG’s purpose as “beyond fair trade” – where in addition to ensuring living wages and workplaces free of exploitation, it is imperative to ensure that girls stay in school. Farah understands the life-changing and community building impact of educating girls. She also knows that while developing economies require outside investment – only “trade over aide” will provide long-term sustained success.

With a successful career as creative director for Neiman Marcus, Farah had established herself in the high-end fashion industry. After accepting a volunteer opportunity to photograph non-profits working with women overseas, Farah began spending an increasing amount of time exploring sustainable solutions to the challenges girls faced. Her own opportunity to work at just 14 years old provided her a voice and pathway to college. Education had made all the difference.

Farah brought together her love of fashion and desire to help empower women by creating BIG as a social enterprise. The idea began as a non-profit, allowing Farah to test and experiment before launching the for-profit initiative. Today the non-profit focuses on the development of training and helping to scale the artisan work groups. BIG avoids owning the operations on the ground, preferring instead to facilitate the connection of NGOs in support of their empowerment training and life skills education mission. “Social enterprise has a much bigger meaning then ever before,” says Farah, who has been honored by the U.S. Department of State (US-DOS), for providing opportunities to global artisans. The US-DOS recognizes that in communities where money is put in the hands of women, guns are taken out of the hands of children.

Back in Orlando BIG is a diverse company of people “looking for a career that matters,” says Farah. The company often recruits from top fashion schools and has a staff that spans generations and ethnicities, providing a conscious culture of respect and creativity. For her team and in her interaction with social entrepreneurship students at UCF and Rollins College, Farah emphasizes that success is dependent on “showing up everyday and persevering and being preset everyday.” The skill most important in today’s economy? “Strategic problem solving,” says Farah. “How well do you persevere through problems.”

Retailers see value in social enterprise and are interested in better stories themselves. BIG works with retailers to be “their bridge to social enterprise,” says Farah, “to take the things they are doing and make them more valuable.” “Social mission must be authentic to be effective,” says Farah, who notes that Bill Drayton, CEO and founder of Ashoka, expects that within 15 years we will cease to use the words social enterprise. That corporations without a social mission will simply cease to exist. Similarly, practitioners of Conscious Capitalism envision a future where capitalism as a whole matures and the default model for business is to balance the needs of all stakeholders. Farah believes this future is possible and that global businesses like BIG are making significant contributions to bring this vision into focus.

Corporate Philanthropy with an Exponential Twist

Florida Blog

While it’s not uncommon for companies to donate to charities, Gold Coast Coffee, which equips and supplies office breakrooms throughout South Florida, is scaling up the concept. In a new initiative, CEO-founder Tim Myette is offering to donate 10 percent of each client’s invoice to the client’s charity of choice in that client’s name. He also plans to enlist his distributors of office breakroom products across the U.S. to implement the same program. In this way, he envisions hundreds, and potentially thousands, of companies large and small giving up to 10 percent of their income to charity.

“The government is not going to be able to solve all the problems of everyone but as Americans we are very much a giving nation and giving people,” says Tim, who serves on the board of directors of two South Florida nonprofits. “So Gold Coast Coffee has decided that we are going to get much more involved in the community, not just physically but financially. We see that as the future of helping our neighbors and helping the community which will again make our country strong.”

What would prompt such benevolence now, after 35 years of business success? A deathbed conversation with his mentor. “I’d been thinking about the idea for about five years when I had a very dear friend, a local pioneer-father of the area, pass away,” Tim says, “But before he passed away I had the greatest opportunity to sit and talk with him about many things. I asked him many, many questions about this [idea] and he inspired me. With my burning desire to do something, and the answers to some of the questions I asked him, it even made it more powerful to me to go forward and decide that this is something that Gold Coast Coffee just has to do.

“My mother used to have a great statement: ‘Remember that the hearse doesn’t have a trailer hitch.’ No matter what you do you can’t take it with you. So if you’re going to do anything good you better do it while you have the opportunity to do it. That’s part of my decision.”

With an urgent resolve to propel his idea forward, Tim hired Diane Singh, former Executive Director of the Florida Association of Nonprofits, to serve as his new Senior Director of Nonprofit Outreach. “She’s already reaching out to her many contacts, and the response has been phenomenal,” Tim says. “I have had the privilege of going with her to a very small account and the next thing I know they’re not even talking about coffee; they’re talking about children and about what are we going to do for this and what are we going to do for that. It’s awe-inspiring to me to see the client get involved — and passionately!”

What inspired Diane to take on this new role? “My passion for nonprofits,” she says. “I see how hard the nonprofits work and where their desires are and what they’re trying to do in the community… They have a lot of need and this could be an Innovative way for them to have some of those needs met.” Diane says she wants the company to be seen “as a coffee service that gives back, supporting nonprofits with every cup.”

Tim sees dramatic potential in this program, especially if it were to be adopted by the greater business community. “I think we’ve hit a nerve,” he says. I think we’re just tapping into something that is probably going to be quite large. I would suggest to you that we’re probably looking at a multitude of dollars, perhaps into, not only the high millions, but even the billions. I think that money is going to be made readily available to bona-fide [nonprofit] organizations.”

Tim hopes to inspire other companies to follow Gold Coast Coffee’s lead. “Maybe we can wake up a company that makes, I don’t know, plastic boats, or fire extinguishers, or chairs. …All these companies, they’re not as big and bad as everybody would like to think businesses are. I think we have to be educating people that there are a lot of good companies out there doing a lot of dynamite things.

“I think you guys [at Conscious Capitalism Florida] have a lot of responsibility,” Tim adds. “You’ve got to get the word out there. I hope you can get more companies involved….We should have meetings with businesses to talk about things that we can do. The Chamber of Commerce is not going to take up the gauntlet for that — not that they don’t do some good things, they certainly do…but their objective is not the same as my objective. My objective is to give out money.”

Through Design, Landscape Architect Improves Community and Business

Florida Blog

When Rebecca Bradley and Gage Couch left the corporate world in 2010 to open the landscape architecture firm Cadence in downtown Fort Lauderdale, they wanted to do business in a way that reflected their values. So, they adopted a “triple bottom line” business model. As they work with public and private clients to design outdoor spaces, they approach each project through a People-Planet-Profit lens.

3-P Approach

Explaining first the “planet” part of the equation, Rebecca says, “We’re trying to constantly measure how a project performs environmentally—how it responds in context with the local vegetation, how it minimizes storm water runoff, reduces water use, reduces the heat island effect. Then socially, [we ask], how does it benefit the client’s quality of life? How does our design solution improve the local community? Economically, how does it improve property values? And then, of course, how does it improve our business? That’s how we’re trying to make sure that we’re hitting the principles of Conscious Capitalism.”

Rebecca admits the balanced business model is not always easy to maintain. “You’re constantly having to retool how you do things to make sure that you’re still hitting on these principles. It’s a constant challenge but it’s one that we truly believe in. The more landscape architects that are doing great work…the more livable cities will become.”

Choosing Clients

“One of the main reasons we wanted to start our own business was so that we could really try to do business with like-minded people,” Rebecca says about the firm’s client base. “They are out there. A lot of times when a client comes to us and they’re prospecting us, we’re prospecting them just as much, to see if that’s the right type of project for us to work on and the right type of client. You really have to try to find the folks that either already believe in those principles, or are open minded and are interested in collaborating with you.”

Making Short-Term Sacrifices 

Being selective has come with some sacrifice. You have to be so patient,” Rebecca says. ‘We probably could have grown faster, both in the number of projects and in profits, if we were just taking on everything that came to us. But when you look at it in a sustainable way, what makes sense to us is making sure that each project we take on makes our portfolio even stronger and builds this reputation that we have. At times we probably slowed growth but…it’s not just short-term, knee-jerk decisions. You’re trying to look at what make sense over a long period of time.”

Pleasing Purposeful Employees

In addition to balancing client and project interests, Rebecca says, “We are also trying to make sure there’s a balance to the quality of life employees have when they’re working—being cognizant of time and time management—so that employees are enjoying their work life; enjoying their personal life.” Rebecca says her staff takes pride and ownership in their work because they can see how the spaces they design are improving their community.

Engaging the Community

Intentionally located in the Flagler Art & Technology area of Fort Lauderdale, otherwise known as the FATVillage Art District, Cadence gets involved in the community’s monthly art walk by hosting a free Saturday evening open house. “We feature different educational exhibits, different emerging artists; sometimes we feature our own work for public projects that we’re working on,” Rebecca says.

Over the years, Cadence has done several “tactical urbanism” projects to contribute to the community and demonstrate how neighborhoods can be improved. One such project is Parking Day, which takes place worldwide once a year. “It’s where city meter parking spots are turned into parks for the day,” Rebecca says.

In 2012 the firm conducted a large-scale tactical urbanism project as part of the Better Block Movement. “We did a one-day makeover of an entire city block [to show] what it could be like if there were better designed sidewalks, if the parking lot were more organized, if there were trees and landscaping, seating—and that was all done with our donated time.”

Seeing the Impact

The firm’s involvement in these and many similar projects seems to be making a positive impact. “It’s generating the public to understand the importance of these things in their neighborhood and in our city, and they become advocates and they become engaged,” Rebecca says. “We see conversations changing, and developers and cities wanting to do different things and in better ways because these sorts of things are happening. It’s exciting to see. It doesn’t happen instantaneously, but over time you see that it was worth those efforts.”

Raising Awareness

To continue building awareness, the firm showcases client projects on social media in a way that educates followers on the benefits well-designed outdoor spaces can have on people’s well-being, on businesses and on the economy.  In addition, Rebecca and Gage speak at conferences about topics such as the livability of cities, the art of landscape architecture, and the importance of art in the public realm.

“Those are all things we are passionate about and that we built into the model of our business,” Rebecca says. “We don’t just write out a check to charities at the end of the year [as the way to] give back to the community. Engaging in a more personal way is really more helpful and quite honestly makes more sense for a business of our size.”

Growing Conscious Capitalism in Florida

Regarding the current state of Conscious Capitalism in Florida, Rebecca says, “In our state, especially in South Florida, doing business in this way is very much still on the periphery… but I would say since the inception of our business in 2010, I do see a change for sure here in 2016. It’s becoming much more talked about, and you’re not seen as such an oddball if you’re trying to go about doing business in that way.

“For both myself and my business partner, it is the way we think business should be done, and we’re proving that it could be done that way. Any type of business you start, it’s not going to be easy; you’re always going to have challenges, but this was just a good fit for us to create a business model like this—and it’s working!

“You already have beautiful weather, you live in a coastal landscape, and people are already wanting to come here,” Rebecca says. “It’s this [conscious business] part of it—if that could just improve, you elevate and make this even more of a desirable location for people to travel, for people to live year-round, and for businesses to invest in.”

Nola’s podcast interview with Rebecca is available here.

Recycler with Purpose Finds Many Rewards in Social Enterprise

Florida Blog

For Tony Selvaggio business has “always been a search for purpose.” So when he started eSmart Recycling in February 2014 as commercial metal recycling company he found that the industry’s emphasis on price over loyalty left him feeling empty. The company, founded as Scrap On Spot, was quickly profitable but Selvaggio, like many social entrepreneurs believed that evolving the business to provide a social benefit would be an important and rewarding challenge.

His breakthrough moment came when a woman brought a large number of cell phones to recycle. Being from Venezuela, Selvaggio understood the value and potential of these “old to us” devices in developing countries where people get mugged and killed for them. “We are literally throwing away stuff that could mean something much more” says Selvaggio, about how this batch of phones inspired him take a deep look at electronics recycling.

Selvaggio notes, there are three R’s in recycling and that Recycling itself is “the best worst case scenario” after Reuse and Reduction. With electronics he saw an opportunity to empower people in other parts of the world while making a profit in the process. Selvaggio quickly added electronics recycling to his company’s services, partnering with Hillsborough County, which provided grant money in 2015 to help place community collection bins in convenient locations.

It was during last year that the company rebranded as eSmart Recycling to better position itself as an electronics recycler. While Selvaggio still deals in scrap metals the brand awareness for eSmart Recycling is important for long-term sustainable growth in an expanding industry.

Providing refurbished and donated electronics to low income populations has been a first step for eSmart as well as others in the industry. However, Selvaggio’s approach is different and aims to create sustainable impact on communities. The prime minister of Sri Lanka has invited eSmart to launch a pilot program that will not only supply 100 laptops but also a technology lab, training, and a curriculum. The pilot will be launched at a school in Colombo with two additional schools being evaluated for expansion of the program. Sri Lanka’s growing population has over 300 thousand new children enrolling in school each year.

To capitalize on the market potential with a sustainable program Selvaggio needed local partners on the ground in Venezuela. “We were able to secure a collaboration agreement with one the largest private schools in Venezuela,” says Selvaggio, “The Universidad Bicentenaria de Aragua, my alma mater.” He will travel there in June to set up two technology labs with 25 laptops in a school with over 1,000 students. Selvaggio says, “Their current equipment is over 15 years old, unbelievable!”

Here in Florida, Selvaggio is expanding eSmart and becoming an integral part of Tampa Bay’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. “I’m very passionate about community driven entrepreneurship,” says Selvaggio. “For me it’s always been a search for purpose, more than profit.” That community drive has gotten Selvaggio involved with TechStart Tampa Bay, Tampa Bay WaVE and the Hillsborough Education Foundation among other organizations. Selvaggio’s efforts continue to be recognized by the community with eSmart’s receiving a 2016 Sustainable Business Award from The Sustany Foundation and The University of Tampa Center for Ethics.

Selvaggio’s plans for the future include the growth of his six person team and the establishment of scalable business processes. Creating a sustainable culture will allow him to work “on” eSmart and not become stuck “in” the business – a trap for so many bottom line focused CEOs. For Selvaggio these steps are critical to “building a bridge between being a business and community leader” while being effective at both.

A Cup o’ Conscious Capitalism

Florida Blog

“We wanted to start something that combined coffee and philanthropy,” says Suzanne Bernal, General Manager of Axum Coffee in Winter Garden.  From the day the first shop opened in 2010, she says the intent has always been to give away 100 percent of net profits.  “The owner doesn’t make a dime,” Suzanne says of her friend, Renaut van der Riet, a full-time pastor uninvolved with the shop’s day-to-day operations. “Anything left over goes to charity.”

So far throughout the start-up stage, much of the company’s donations have been made in the form of coffee, food and gift cards for local charities such as Relay for Life. Modest financial proceeds primarily go to Love Made Visible (an outreach of Renaut’s church), which focuses on child-related causes in many areas of the world — including Axum, Ethiopia, a place with “thousands of street children and orphans, and no running water,” according to Suzanne.

Axum, Ethiopia is also where Renaut and his wife, Brooke, adopted four of their eight children — hence the company name. Although Ethiopia may be considered the birthplace of coffee, it’s not actually the source of the company’s main product.

Suzanne admits their philanthropic mission is not the only reason for customer loyalty. “If we had a terrible product, they wouldn’t come back. Our mission is an added bonus,” she says. The mission is, however, a frequent topic of conversation between customers and employees.

Some of her employees have been steaming lattes for the company since the shop first commenced.  “We’ve got a really, really low turnover,” Suzanne says. But she believes it’s not just the social mission that earns their loyalty. “The key part to me is caring for my staff. Taking an interest in their personal lives — not overly chummy, but loving, helping them any way we can,” Suzanne says. “My staff is a huge part of what I do.”

One of Suzanne’s greatest challenges has been to provide socially-responsible coffees. She says she understands why some people only buy Fair Trade coffee, but she is shocked by the amount of political maneuvering and the expense involved in obtaining a Fair Trade or Organic label. “Small farms simply cannot afford to be certified as Fair Trade or Organic.”

Suzanne envisions in the coming years to circumvent the flawed system and develop their own relationship with coffee farmers. “I want to able to say, ‘I know you, I know your family, and I want to pay you a fair wage.’ But for now, I have to trust the suppliers.”

Since the first shop opened in 2010, Suzanne —with the help of her husband, Mathias— has been steadily growing the enterprise:

  • A second shop, Axum Roastery, opened in Winter Garden’s Plant Street Market in April 2015.
  • In February 2016, a branch of Axum Coffee opened in the new Florida Hospital.
  • In March or April of 2016, a new shop will open in conjunction with Orlando Cats Café, where customers can pet a cat (in a separate room) or adopt a cat, for a fee that goes to an animal shelter.
  • In spring 2016 they will launch an Axum Market Café in the Dr. Phillips YMCA.

In the meantime, Suzanne and her team are experimenting with coffee blends, with the plan to sell branded Axum Coffee wholesale.

Looking through the lens of Conscious Capitalism® at how she runs the business, Suzanne says, “The ‘conscious’ part of it…I try to be really ethical. It’s natural to me.  I want to take care of people.”

Sustainability Makes Tampa Bay Lightning Winners On and Off the Ice

Florida Blog

It is pretty well known in Florida that the Tampa Bay Lightning is an amazing hockey team. Having made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals last season, most of the world also knows. And in Tampa Bay most people know that owner Jeffrey Vinik and the entire organization are an example of how conscious business equals great business and earns great results – far beyond financial.

What most people, even locals don’t know however, is how that conscious culture plays out behind the scenes. Lightning VP of Operations Mary Milne, who has been with the team for 16 years started the team’s first recycling program in 2003. Milne and Amalie Arena General Manager, Darryl Benge, head up the organization’s “Green Team” which oversees all sustainability programs.

Current sustainability efforts include water and energy management, fan experience and employee culture development, various recycling programs, and hydroponic farming. Water management for example, has made Amalie Arena one of the few facilities with all water-free urinals.

Fan experience for season ticket members has been simplified using a single plastic card that eliminates the waste of printed tickets while simultaneously improving security. A key component to a great fan experience is also ensuring a great employee experience. For the Lightning organization, “it’s part of who we are,” says Milne about employee culture. Lightning employees are expected to give 25 hours of community service each year, paid for by the organization, which they do in groups or individually.

The arena is currently undergoing a $25 million renovation where all reclaimed and recycled materials are being tracked. During the $50 million renovation in 2011 leading up to the Republican National Convention, 20 percent of materials were recycled generating $70,000. Additionally, a partnership with Coke prior to the RNC provided a plastic and aluminum baler which remains onsite as part of the facility’s recycling program.

Recycling is a top priority for the Lightning. Milne ticks off the list of materials: “Paper. Cardboard. Lightbulbs. Banners.” The baler has been a huge help. On average, employees create six aluminum and three plastic bales following each game. In 2014 the bales generated $18,000. Half went to the cost of the program. The balance was rewarded as $100 prizes to employees through incentive programs that encourage improvement. Recycling organic food waste is important as well, with 100 percent of all pre-consumer organic food waste avoiding landfill.

Where maintaining an ice hockey arena in Florida requires additional energy resources it also provides a unique win-win opportunity to innovate. Milne recognized that Florida’s growing season is nearly identical to hockey season and decided the organization could capitalize on the climate.

In 2014 they installed the largest commercial hydroponic garden in the Southeast. Built on a deck constructed above the facility’s cooling pipes is a vertical garden with 3,000 growing spots. With fresh cucumbers, tomatoes, arugula, romaine, eggplant, mixed greens, and herbs, the hydroponic garden produces the equivalent to a traditional one acre farm.

The garden is fed by a closed water system that captures excess water, saving 300,000 gallons of water annually. The initial investment was returned after one year of use and the overall effort not only provides healthy fresh organic produce to guests but also removes one delivery truck per week from the facility, further reducing environmental impact.

The garden was recognized by Venues Today this year as a Silver Spoon Award Winner for best sustainability initiative and is eligible for a “Fresh From Florida” designation from the Florida Department of Agriculture. As 2008 recipient of a Sustainable Business Award from the Sustany Foundation, the Tampa Bay Lightning have shown winning consistency both on and off the ice.

Brooksville Company’s ‘Yes we can” Culture Engages All Stakeholders

Florida Blog

Brooksville company Accuform Signs celebrates a culture of “yes we can” and Wayne Johnson describes his family-operated business as “light on rules where we can be” to empower the company’s over 300 employees. Brothers Wayne and Dave Johnson grew up outside of Toronto and relocated to Florida with their family in 1977 after selling their Canadian business a year earlier.

An industry leader, Accuform maintains a family-first environment by offering employees opportunities for engagement, empowerment, and personal growth. This positive employee culture is spread through strong customer, vendor and community relationships ensuring the continued success of the company.

The Johnson’s determined their company’s values early and have maintained those core values as the business has evolved and grown. The company encourages upward mobility for employees by providing Dale Carnegie leadership and motivational training to encourage personal and professional growth. During the hiring process Accuform seeks potential employees who will fit the company’s culture with emphasis placed on those who are not just looking for a job.

Amenities provided by Accuform rival some offerings typically associated with hot Silicon Valley companies. Employees enjoy fresh breakfast and lunch prepared on site in the company’s cafeteria where Internet stations are also available for use during breaks. Meals cost roughly $2.50 each to cover food costs and feature “a good balance of healthy and comfort foods,” says Wayne. A fitness center with showers helps employees maintain healthy exercise routines, and the company regularly awards employees and has monthly anniversary celebrations.

The culture at Accuform extends beyond employees to all stakeholders. Vendors who partner with the company to provide the best solutions possible to customers. Vendors are celebrated each year with an annual awards program.

Recently Accuform Signs partnered with the Hernando County School District to launch a school makeover program where large wall graphics installed at district elementary schools include educational and inspirational themes designed to improve student learning environments. The library and cafeteria of Eastside Elementary school was completed last week with all worked performed by, and expenses covered by, Accuform.

The school makeover is a natural evolution for Accuform because of an existing relationship with one Hernando County technical school. Nature Coast High School has been part of a company internship program with some students becoming full time employees after graduation.

Five years ago Accuform began using 100 percent digital printing to avoid the use of toxic inks and dated screen printing methods which has improved capabilities and turnaround time while also being better for the environment and lowering disposal costs.

All of these stakeholder initiatives have positioned Accuform as a regional community asset and this past June the company was recognized by the Sustany Foundation as a recipient of the 2015 Sustainable Business Awards at The University of Tampa. The awards recognize leaders and companies who demonstrate sustainable business practices based on the triple bottom line of – people, planet, and profit.

Ft Lauderdale CEO Raises Wages Up to 50 Percent, Challenges Others

Florida Blog

“We who are in responsible positions need to take a far more vested approach with the people who are working for us,” says Andrew Green, owner and CEO of Ft. Lauderdale-based based multimedia manufacturing company, Green Solutions. The 18-year-old company designs and manufactures printed materials and discs for the educational, religious, fitness, direct response, music and independent film industries, and also provides kitting and fulfillment services.

Andrew carried out his convictions by raising his employees’ wages by 35 to 50 percent.

The seemingly rash decision actually followed a lot of thought, debate and discussion about the role of business in causing and addressing social issues.

“Over the past year it’s been really bothering me,” he says. “The overreach of CEOs, Boards of Directors and executives of companies who are creating hundreds of millions of dollars in benefits and bonuses for themselves — it’s just over-the-top wealth that they don’t even know what to do with. Meanwhile, there are people in their companies who are struggling.

“I’m thinking about all of this income inequality and talking about it with my friends on Facebook, and battling about what can be done about it, what’s the government’s job in all this—or what shouldn’t it be—and then I saw that article about Gravity Payments.”

Andrew had read about Dan Price, CEO of the credit card processing company, who took a 90 percent pay cut to raise the minimum salary at the Seattle-based firm from $50,000 to $75,000 a year. Andrew says, “I looked at that and went, ‘Wow, what a huge thing to do.’”

Inspired by the bold move, and after talking it over with his wife and crunching the numbers, Andrew decided to follow suit.

Some of the employees shed tears when they received the news. One had been living with her daughter and son-in-law because she couldn’t afford the high cost of South Florida housing. The raise gave her greater independence. Each employee has since confessed they had been living hand-to-mouth, but now they can finally save and get ahead.

The raises mean bringing in 12.5 percent less profit, and pushing back some personal purchases, but he feels it was called for. To explain his rationale, Andrew says, “Look at the overall breakdown of a company: You have a CEO, you have your executives and your managers, and you have your workers. We all just have a job in our companies.

“I’m the key sales guy in my company. I’m the guy that goes out there and gets the business. It’s my job to do that.

“My operations person, it’s her job to make sure that every aspect of that job is put in properly and goes through our factories properly. It’s a very important job.

“Our guy in the back, he has to make sure in his particular job that he’s doing the right thing in every single part of it because if there is any breakdown it doesn’t matter how good I am as a CEO, if the job goes in and he doesn’t do the right thing, then the company will fail.

“So I started looking at it and wondered, ‘How is it that I’m paid so much more than everybody? What makes it so correct in our society that my job is so much more important—or a CEOs job is so much more important to a company that a CEO should make 200 to 300 times more?’ There isn’t any reason for that.

“I’m not saying to take away the incentive of a CEO to do a great job, to go out there and provide as much profit to the company as they can, but at a certain point is it the company or is it themselves?  They can’t even spend the money they have. They end up playing with the money and putting it in offshore accounts and hiding it from taxes. It’s irresponsible. It’s inhumane.”

Though he admits “inhumane” seems a harsh accusation, Andrew illustrates:

“It’s inhumane if you’re sitting there and you have people in your company making $35,000 a year and Human Resources is telling them, ‘You’re not due for a raise for another year or two and you should be happy you have this job.’ And then the CEO goes out there and steps in his Maserati or whatever car, because he says, ‘Look, we have to show a level of success in the company or our clients won’t work with us.’ Then it becomes a status thing because success breeds success. Successful people only want to do business with other successful people. Unfortunately, that’s the nature of our business models and our structure.  And I get it. But where does the 80-foot yacht come into play?”

In alignment with Conscious Capitalism’s Stakeholder Orientation, which looks at all of a company’s stakeholders, Andrew believes redirecting corporate profits from exorbitant executive pay to employee wages has a wider economic impact. “Funnel it through your company and through your employees,” he says, “because they’ll actually buy and live locally. It’s actually better for the economy to do it that way.”

“I’m not looking for the government to do this for me, or for us,” Andrew says. “I want other CEOs to step up. I think it’s beyond time.”