Illustration of people tending a tree of entrepreneurship

Credit: Michelle Pereira

For the greater good

For nearly a decade, the Johns Hopkins Social Innovation Lab has nurtured a generation of mission-driven companies

In the spring of 2015, Jamye Wooten took a reverend from Ferguson, Missouri, on a tour through Baltimore. It was several weeks after Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old Black man, died while in police custody. The city was in turmoil after protests over police brutality led to an uprising that captured the nation's attention and resulted in National Guard tanks mobilized in the streets for the first time since Martin Luther King Jr. was shot in 1968. Wooten had helped community members process and organize after Gray's death. His guest, who came from the city where Michael Brown had been shot by police several months earlier, was visiting to train fellow clergy in peaceful protest strategies. While driving through one part of town, they passed boarded-up houses, abandoned ball fields, and burned-out buildings.

"Did the uprising happen over here, too?" the reverend asked.

Wooten shook his head. "No, this neighborhood has been boarded up like this for the last 20 years," he said.

Seeing the city fresh through the eyes of an outsider jolted Wooten. His colleague was "looking at parts of Baltimore as if they were the result of the uprising," Wooten says. "But the destruction was really from years of structural violence and disinvestment in Black neighborhoods."

Wooten describes himself, in no particular order, as an activist, digital strategist, and social entrepreneur. He founded a consulting firm for faith-based and nonprofit outfits, and has organized and documented social movements from across the United States, United Kingdom, and Africa. These days, Wooten mostly thinks about the financial burdens of being Black. He grew up in Baltimore and has made it his life's mission to support Black lives and businesses. For three years, he worked as program director with the faith-based Collective Banking Group to help finance Black organizations.

"There's a lack of access to investment and capital in Black communities in Baltimore," Wooten told me by phone this summer. It is "a system that has historically marginalized people, that has underpaid people, that has not given them access to loans that they need to build their own communities."

It's a problem that is well documented. A 2016 study by the Kauffman Foundation found that Black entrepreneurs rely mostly on personal savings and credit cards because banks and foundations disproportionately underfund minority enterprises. Black-run startups are also three times as likely as white-owned businesses to have their profitability and longevity hurt by a dearth of outside capital.

If entrepreneurs, at their best, solve problems and provide new and valuable goods and services, social entrepreneurs apply that same approach to fixing entrenched societal concerns.

A few months after that car ride, Wooten was among a handful of activists invited by the Obama administration to meet with senior adviser Valerie Jarrett. "I went to the White House to say my piece," he says. "I was tired of the conversation only being around police reform and training when we still don't get the type of investment needed to build stronger, safer communities. We were moving from hashtag to hashtag, we were raising up Black death instead of Black life, but we weren't creating a new ecosystem to help support change. I wanted to do something about it."

Last year, Wooten did. He launched a new organization called CLLCTIVLY, a tool to foster collaboration, increase social impact, and amplify the voices of Black-led organizations in Greater Baltimore. Wooten brought years of experience to his new business, but he needed help to make it grow. That's why in the fall of 2019, Wooten applied to be a part of the Johns Hopkins Social Innovation Lab.

SIL is housed within Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures, the university's business incubator that was formed to turn ideas and discoveries into products and services that benefit society. Each academic year, SIL offers a select cohort of social entrepreneurs like Wooten the funding, mentorship, office space, and training to develop a sustainable business model.

If entrepreneurs, at their best, solve problems and provide new and valuable goods and services, social entrepreneurs apply that same approach to fixing entrenched societal concerns. In Wooten's case, redress decades of unfair economic practices in order to grow Black organizations. Social innovation, Wooten explains, "puts people, planet, and principles before profit."

Capitalism, however, isn't built on benevolence, and founding a venture aimed at helping people can be uniquely difficult. "There is a lot of uncertainty in this kind of work, and we encourage people to embrace that," says Alex Riehm, who was SIL's director from 2017 until June of this year.

In March, Wooten and his fellow cohort members had to embrace an unprecedented level of uncertainty. The onset of the novel coronavirus forced them to go remote, and to alter in-person events and product launches. Many had to reassess the plans they'd been working hard to formalize. Starting a business is a challenge in the best of times, let alone during a pandemic and as protests mushroomed across the country in response to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. SIL's goal has always been to offer its trainees the foundational skills necessary to be resilient, no matter the circumstances. Today, when the work of organizations like Wooten's is needed more than ever, SIL is doing its part to make sure social innovators have a fighting chance.

The Social Innovation Lab is akin to a business boot camp where a new concept is both questioned and championed. Each year, through a competitive application process open to Baltimore-area residents and Johns Hopkins University students, faculty, and staff members, SIL selects a handful of teams to take part in an intensive six-month training to incubate early-stage ideas. Groups often start with the germ of an idea and leave with a well-honed plan of attack.

Kunal Parikh, who came to Hopkins to pursue a PhD in biomedical engineering, became the founding director of SIL in 2012. "There was a group of students interested in social enterprise, and we'd meet up to talk about it," he says. "You have some of the smartest people in the world at Hopkins, but what we felt was missing was the ecosystem to connect ideas to resources, mentorship, and the process of starting a business. That led to a discussion one evening about how we might build out an accelerator that could turn ideas and concepts and intentions into things that would have a tangible impact."

Parikh had a friend who had gone through Y Combinator, a seed-money startup accelerator based in California known for launching companies like Dropbox and Airbnb, and this inspired their plan. "We built out our own program where we could take teams from customer discovery to creating a business plan to fundraising."

Today, Parikh is a faculty member in the Center for Nanomedicine at the Wilmer Eye Institute and he remains on the program's advisory board. "Very quickly we found a lot of support at Hopkins and in the broader community."

Since its founding, SIL has supported nearly 100 ventures addressing everything from urban redevelopment and education to food security and global health care. These ventures have secured more than $67 million in funding from Hopkins as well as outside foundations and organizations. While it began as a student-led organization, SIL has trained more than 500 individuals including many, like Wooten, who come from outside the Hopkins community. With each session, one venture is selected to earn an additional $25,000 Cohort Prize, as voted upon by the teams.

All the cohorts aim to solve a societal problem using methods that are "better than what's already out there," Riehm says. "The value of this process, and the ventures that come out of it, is that the benefits accrue to society rather than an individual."

Rather than starting with solutions, SIL emphasizes the people being served. Groups often come in believing they know who their audience is and what they might need, but by having them interview as many as 40 potential customers, the teams end up considering things that they never would have on their own.

SIL teams have developed products like Aquatas, an efficient and affordable water purification system that addresses the global clean water shortage; technologies such as Infinite Focus Schools, a mindfulness app for young people; and services such as PIVOT, an organization that helps women break the cycle of incarceration and rebuild their lives. Bree Jones left her finance job on Wall Street to found Parity, an equitable development company that plans to rehab 96 vacant row houses in West Baltimore to create affordable homeownership opportunities.

The term "social innovation" dates back to the 1960s with novel fiscal concepts like microfinancing, an alternative to traditional revenue streams to help the disenfranchised fund their work and move out of poverty. One can see the ethos of social innovation in the Fair Trade movement, and stores like Ten Thousand Villages that work directly with individual artisans to pay a living wage. In recent years, social innovation has been adopted by individuals, institutions, governments, and companies looking to improve civil society, and you can see it in developments like the open source software movement meant to support the free exchange of ideas.

When Riehm took over as director of SIL, he refined a curriculum to put relationships at the center. Riehm had worked for years at the federal government's Development Innovation Ventures, part of the United States Agency for International Development. At DIV, Riehm helped manage relationships with social innovation ventures in 30 different countries. Among those efforts was KoeKoeTech, an app that helps women in Myanmar access maternal and child health care. "We funded new ideas and used rigorous testing to determine whether, and to what extent, those ideas worked. If you could demonstrate that an idea was successful, there was then money to scale your venture."

SIL often receives more than 100 applications in a year for just 10 available slots. When deciding whom to select, Riehm, along with the advisory board, looks at four criteria: the commitment of the team, the promise of their idea, the potential for impact on the market they hope to help, and the applicant's statement about what they want to achieve while in the program. "We're looking for some initial traction, something to show that you have an idea you're already spending time on, and you have goals in mind for what you want to achieve in your six months at SIL," Riehm says.

To date, the cohorts selected to participate in SIL have had an uncanny capacity for presaging future needs. One example is ClearMask, created by Allysa Dittmar, A&S '14, SPH '17 (MHS), and Aaron Hsu, A&S '14, SPH '15 (MHS). Dittmar is deaf and relies on lip reading and sign language to communicate. In 2015, she had to undergo surgery and found herself in the pre-op room unable to understand her doctors or nursing staff because the sterile masks obscured their mouths. She described the moment as terrifying. Afterward, she reached out to Hsu, whom she knew from the Bloomberg School of Public Health, and they created a prototype for a transparent surgical mask. At SIL, they accelerated the launch of their company during the 2017–18 cohort year. Today, as masks have become ubiquitous—and everyone, from doctors to teachers to business leaders, recognizes the need for better communication while wearing protective face coverings—ClearMask fills an urgent need. In August, the company received FDA clearance and became the world's first fully transparent, anti-fog surgical mask.

Once selected in the fall, the cohort teams begin with a series of daylong retreats to prep them for their incubator period, which begins in January. They meet at FastForward U Homewood, a 10,000-square-foot airy and modern space located in the Remington neighborhood of Baltimore. Here they have weekly one-on-ones with SIL's director, use the high-tech breakout rooms to brainstorm, or just take advantage of the free Wi-Fi and community kitchen. Wooten says he often popped in for a cup of coffee to catch up with his fellow entrepreneurs.

The curriculum focuses on three main milestones: customer identification and data collection, refinement of mission and goals, and peer-to-peer learning. Rather than starting with solutions, SIL emphasizes the people being served. Groups often come in believing they know who their audience is and what they might need, Riehm says, but by having them interview as many as 40 potential customers, the teams end up considering things that they never would have on their own.

"The curriculum prioritizes empathy, listening, and humility so that participants can hear what the markets are telling them, versus what they assume the solutions should be," Riehm says.

In Wooten's case, he interviewed friends and strangers and sent out surveys to over 100 nonprofits and organizations to better understand how a business like CLLCTIVLY could better support them. "Much of what I am doing with CLLCTIVLY is based on years of conversations and work in the community, and I found out through this research that those things that were anecdotal from my years of doing the work, were accurate," Wooten says. "This process underscored what I was doing and I felt like I was on the right track."

He heard that the main concerns for Black-led organizations in the city were securing loans, finding investors, and getting better skills training and networking opportunities, particularly with other organizations. This led Wooten to create, among other things, an online asset map directory of Black-led organizations organized by neighborhood and area of focus, and a microgrant program (up to $1,000) to help fund their work. Future plans include a multimedia project called Amplify to highlight the voices of business leaders.

The customer discovery stage can often change the value of what a team provides, Riehm says, and key to that is a willingness to let an initial idea evolve.

"Entrepreneurs are often hard-charging, tenacious people, and this is the inherent tension in our curriculum," Riehm says. "You have to change your idea to better help the people you're serving. If there's too much ego, if you are intending to build what you came in with, that's where you can falter. I tell the cohorts that if you don't change the idea while you're in this program, that's not a success."

That willingness to adapt continues to help the entrepreneurs once they leave the program. Christian De Paco, Bus '15 (MBA), and J.J. Reidy, Bus '15 (MBA), met while at the Carey Business School in 2013, and they incubated an idea for a commercial-scale urban vertical farming system while at SIL in 2015. Their mission was to create farms that could grow crops like lettuce, cucumbers, and tomatoes on minimal land using high-tech hydroponics. It's a mostly indoor method of growing with roots dropped directly into water, not soil, and LED lights in place of the sun. The farms would aim to supply a living wage for the people who worked them, while also addressing food insecurity in cities like Baltimore, where many go hungry and lack fresh, healthy produce.

De Paco and Reidy were given the runway to explore their idea and to create a business plan while at SIL. Once they were out in the world testing their idea, Reidy says they realized that the economics of a high-tech hydroponic farming system wasn't viable for their intended goals. "We operated our farm for two years, but at the scale we were able to do it, the revenues were insignificant. It wouldn't generate enough money to support an employment model, and that was what was really important," Reidy says.

They adjusted their Baltimore-based company, called Urban Pastoral Collective, to instead create an array of business models capable of generating revenue and supporting one another. This included job skills and entrepreneurial training within city schools, where they helped start a farm and build a 4,000-square-foot hydroponic greenhouse at the public charter school Green Street Academy. They also created dozens of jobs by opening two new Baltimore restaurants, Stall 11 and Molina at R. House food hall in Remington. Urban Pastoral Collective is now in the process of transforming a historic warehouse in Baltimore into a mixed-use hub with a community market and office space.

After the cohorts identify the needs of their markets, they partner with students from the Maryland Institute College of Art's Center for Social Design and Carey Business School to help take data they gleaned from their customer interviews and refine their plans. Each team also sits down individually with SIL staff to commit to a business plan and to discuss how best the incubator can support them in their mission goals. Riehm would periodically meet with teams for a status check, which Wooten called therapy sessions.

"And I'm not the only one who thought of it that way," Wooten says. "We would come into Alex's office and just let it all out. It was a moment to slow down and take a deep breath amid all the work you were juggling. Mostly, I talked about how busy I was, and he was a thoughtful listener who held space for me. He asked just the right questions."

The program's final component is building a strong network of support that includes mentors from previous cohort groups, as well as business and foundation leaders in the community. When coronavirus hit, and the cohorts moved their weekly sessions online, Wooten says they missed being in person but really looked forward to checking in. "These are 10 amazing organizations and we have been helping each other keep to our timetables and our goals even as things got crazy. That sense of community is very important."

Wooten had been working on developing several in-person events as a part of his plan for CLLCTIVLY, but the virus changed all that. He quickly realized that the needs of his constituency had also changed. "We did a survey early on in response to COVID in Black-led organizations and we heard back from folks who said they had to cancel programming and they were losing streams of revenue," Wooten says. In response, he launched the Baltimore Black-Led Solidarity Fund, which offers cash microgrants to help sustain organizations such as Baltimore Ceasefire, which works to stem gun violence.

Few businesses have been immune to the forces of the pandemic, as the founders of the Mera Kitchen Collective discovered. Mera is a community-driven collaborative that welcomes chefs from around the world living in Baltimore and builds relationships over food. The name, according to co-founder Aishah Alfadhalah, who moved to the U.S. from Kuwait, is derived from the Greek meraki, which means "to do something so passionately you leave some of yourself in it."

When Alfadhalah moved to Baltimore five years ago, she found that a shared meal was a powerful way to communicate, particularly among the non-English-speaking women in her neighborhood. Mera began by hosting small pop-up dinners featuring different chefs who told their unique story, such as Mera co-founder Iman Alshehab, who cooked at the Four Seasons Hotel in Damascus before coming to America in 2016.

Mera created a unique business model aimed at fundamentally rethinking the food service industry, one that too often takes advantage of its employees through low wages and few benefits. In the beginning, according to co-founder Emily Lerman, SPH '15 (MPH), Mera was set up as a for-profit. "We always wanted it to be a worker cooperative business, where people have a share in the decision making and can be owners or be on a path to ownership if that's what they want," Lerman says.

A natural component of creating a community like this, according to Alfadhalah, is the ability to take care of people beyond a salary. "It's often impossible for people to pay for their health care and child care and food and rent when they are paid minimum wage in the food industry," she says. "The whole system is inequitable, and since we don't have universal health care or child care in our country, because we don't have sufficient public transportation to get people where they need to be, we're also trying to create something within a system that is failing people."

Profit margins in the food business are slim, however, and Lerman says they knew they could never make enough money as a business to cover other expenses for cooperative members. So Mera formed a hybrid profit/ nonprofit model. After two years of preparing food at pop-ups within other restaurants, Mera began catering and bringing prepared foods to the Baltimore Farmer's Market. "This year was going to be really big for us because we had our biggest catering events yet, we had just done a pop-up at the beginning of March that was really successful, and we had a lot of cool ideas on the table," Lerman says. "And obviously, everything changed."

In mid-March, as the gravity of the pandemic became evident and stay-at-home orders went into place, Mera saw tens of thousands of dollars in future catering revenue evaporate overnight.

"When COVID started, there were women who could not work because of child care," Lerman says. "And we were really fortunate to get a grant and be able to give people cash. That's not a permanent solution, but it's what we needed to be able to do because the larger system was not going to be there to support them."

A group of masked people in a kitchen

Image caption: Mera Kitchen Collective founders and staff from Baltimore’s Alma Cocina Latina with meals bound for various charities. From left: Nahomi Hurtarte, Javier Salvador de Jesus, Aishah Alfadhalah, Iman Alshehab, Emily Lerman, Innocencio Peralta Camillo, David Zamudio, Sara Ordoñez

Image credit: Will Kirk / Johns Hopkins University

The organization also recognized that with work and schools closed, many in Baltimore wouldn't be able to eat. In response to the food insecurity resulting from COVID-19, Mera launched a successful GoFundMe Campaign to distribute community meals. They rented an industrial kitchen from local food business Neopol Savory Smokery, and they partnered with Alma Cocina Latina, a restaurant owned by Venezuelan Irena Stein, to cook and distribute the meals. In May, as citizens took to the streets for Black Lives Matter protests, Mera also supplied food for the Baltimore protesters. This summer, Mera, along with Alma, created the MK Foundation as a way for individuals to make tax-deductible donations and help sustain the community meal program beyond the pandemic. As of August, with the help of funding from World Central Kitchen, the Washington-based non-profit created by chef José Andrés, they had given out more than 65,000 meals.

Moving forward, Lerman and Alfadhalah say they will evolve the business based on the community they serve. "We continue to put people's needs first, we continue to run this organization democratically, and we aim to create a structure where everyone can participate," Lerman says.

And while this is the very definition of social innovation, Alfadhalah says she doesn't consider any of this work to be "innovative."

"This is about basic human rights," she says. "It's how we all should be thinking about business."

As terrible as this moment is, Wooten says that it has also created valuable awareness around those basic human rights in America. The devastation of COVID-19, which disproportionately affects people of color, and the protests around the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, are "pulling back the covers on the gross inequities in this city, in this country," Wooten says.

In August, Wooten hosted a Day of Giving that had originally been planned as an in-person party to raise money for Black-led nonprofits. Instead, it became an intergenerational online event with DJs, yoga, and Black Baltimore Trivia that resulted in over $56,000 in crowdfunded pledges for the organizations that CLLCTIVLY supports. Since COVID-19 began, the organization has raised more than $120,000 through the company's Solidarity Fund and the Day of Giving, and it has distributed over 100 microgrants ranging from $500 to $5,000 to Baltimore businesses. "We've been working hard to mobilize resources, and you know what? People are responding."

Late this summer, just before this publication's deadline, the Social Innovation Lab announced a new director, Madison Marks, who most recently served as program manager for Expo 2020 Dubai. On her first day, in mid-August, she launched the application process for the program's next cohort. The search for the next wave of entrepreneurs to leave their mark on society had officially begun.

Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson is a Baltimore-based freelance writer and editor.