Beards BeCAUSE: A growing movement against domestic violence

Each day, people like you have ideas on how to make the world a better place, but don’t know how to put their ideas into action. To help you take the first step, we’re profiling social entrepreneurs who are tackling issues that are important to them, one step at a time.

The idea

I’m of the belief that every man, if their follicles allow it, benefits from a beard. So I was thrilled to discover Beards BeCAUSE, a volunteer-run nonprofit in Charlotte, NC that encourages men to put their razors away during the last few months of the year to raise money to end domestic violence.


From left: Scott, Wendy, and Jared.

Founded by Jared Yerg, Scott Doerr and Wendy Shanahan in 2007, the charity keeps with the city’s tradition of throwing epic philanthropy parties, but appeals to scruffier donors who can’t afford $90 plates.

“We wanted to do something that was more blue collar,” Jared says. “We wanted to host affordable gatherings for people who wanted to come out, have a good time, and get a little educated about domestic violence here in Charlotte and abroad.”

The idea came to Jared and Scott while they were sitting in a wine bar one Sunday afternoon. A guy with a beard walked in, and the two friends started one-upping another about who could grow a better one. Soon the idea morphed into a city-wide competition. With the Charlotte police receiving close to 32,000 calls about domestic violence per year, adding the charitable layer seemed a no-brainer.

“As a masculine effort we wanted it to be for a feminine cause,” he says.

Now in its sixth year, the rising popularity of beards hasn’t deterred the organization in the least. The number of participants – called growers – remains steady each year, women can now participate, and more importantly, Beards BeCAUSE has become an integral go-to resource in the domestic violence community.

“The beard is less shocking now so it’s one of those things where we can concentrate and focus on the advocacy more,” Jared says.


Within 45 minutes of writing their idea down on a napkin, Jared and Scott had the name, what they wanted to do, and how they wanted to do it. They arranged a meeting with the Community Relations Director of Safe Alliance, a local shelter. One week later they serendipitously met Wendy, their design, IT and PR woman, at a beer stand at Oktoberfest and set up a website shortly after.

Jared is a self-professed connector type who by day is a contract specialist for an energy company, and by night is involved in the arts and music scene. He knows a lot of people. Despite the help, he and the team still faced some challenges making Beards BeCAUSE a viable and long-lasting charity.

Obstacle: Comfort when talking about domestic violence
Solution: At the beginning of each fundraising season they bring in speakers from shelters, the police department, and more for an educational night. They also give growers business cards that explain what they’re doing and why, and buttons that say “Ask me.”

“One of the biggest things that scared me our first year was that someone was going to come up to one of our growers and ask them why they were doing this. And they’d say, ‘Well I don’t have to shave for two months and they have awesome parties,” Jared says.

Obstacle: Maintaining momentum
Solution: Awesome parties, of course. The Clean Shaven event in October gives growers the resources they need to talk comfortably and intelligently about the issue. The 5 O’clock Shadow event in November makes sure things are going smoothly, and helps create camaraderie between growers. Throughout the month, which coincides with No Shave November and Movember, the growers themselves also host their own small fundraisers at happy hours or hockey nights.

The finale is in December at a local music venue. There are bands, beauticians from local salons doing creative trimming, a silent auction featuring donated items from local businesses, and an awards ceremony.

Obstacle: Staying relevant
Solution: Making sure there is always something going on that keeps their charity in the forefront of people’s minds. During the other ten months of the year, they organize things like the No Laughing Matter comedy night and a fashion show featuring burgeoning designers and models wearing prosthetic beards. It’s a win-win: they raise additional money, and every time someone sees facial hair they think of Beards BeCAUSE.



Jared and Scott start clean.

The organization has raised $214,000 to date. The money goes to Safe Alliance’s supplemental needs, taxi fare for a child staying at the shelter to get to school, for example, or replacement textbooks.

In recent years, they’ve tested the Beards BeCAUSE model in Atlanta, Pittsburgh, and Woodstock. Despite meeting with mixed success, they’d love to see the concept work nationally. And if only ends up being just Jared, well that’s fine, too.

“I can honestly say if in 10 years it’s just me, growing a beard for two months and raising $200 for the shelter, then that’s what I’m going to continue to do,” he says.

Jared is aware that the fundraiser works so well in Charlotte because of the team’s widespread and far-reaching connections in the community. While this is always an advantage, here are some other tips from Jared about how to make your idea a reality:

  • Tap into local community businesses and venues to help trim costs.
  • Anticipate your technical needs from the start, and know who you can talk to for help.
  • Just ask. You never really know what you’re going to get.
  • Always thanks people, no matter how small the support.
  • Don’t shortchange any idea you have.

“If you have an idea, just run with it,” he finally says. “We started with an idea on bar napkin and here were are six years later. You never know what you’re going to be able to do until you try.”

Inspired to adapt the Beards BeCAUSE model to end domestic violence where you live? Reach out to Jared for advice:

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How one company is bringing the farmers market to you

Each day, people like you have ideas on how to make the world a better place, but don’t know how to put their ideas into action. To help you take the first step, we’re profiling social entrepreneurs who are tackling issues that are important to them, one step at a time.

The idea

Here in Portland, Oregon, farmers markets are as common as bearded guys on bikes. I know I’m lucky, and I try to go to the one nearby my house every Sunday. Sometimes it doesn’t happen. So I end up buying produce at my local supermarket. And almost always, the tomatoes and peppers I buy are pricier, and just not as fresh.

Screenshot of an online farmers market.

But what if I could get what I needed delivered to the Idealist office every week?

That’s the idea behind Farmigo, a startup that’s disrupting the traditional industrial food complex as we know it.

It works like this: you, or someone else, starts a food community at a workplace, school, community center, or anywhere you visit daily. As a member of that community, you go online to the Farmigo website and choose what seasonal items from local farmers you’d like to buy: meat, fish, vegetables, baked goods, coffee, and more. The farmers then deliver the goods on a designated pick-up day. No chemicals, no handling, no middleman – and your dinner is as fresh as a chicken’s egg.

“For the person who understands the value of eating healthy but is not able to access enough healthy food, Farmigo just made it easier,” says founder Benzi Ronen. “For the folks who have wanted to get involved and become part of the solution, Farmigo provides concrete steps to take action.”

For the farmers, logistics aren’t as worrisome anymore. “Traditionally farmers are good at growing food, and sometimes we need help with marketing, sales, information management, and more,” says Nick Papadopoulos from California’s Bloomfield Farms Organics. “Farmigo is helping alleviate a whole host of pain points for us.”

Since becoming a part of Farmigo six months ago, Bloomfield Farms Organics has been able to connect with a whole new audience both online and offline  — more people have been attending their U-Pick Sundays, for example — as well as fostered collaborations with other farmers. When Nick meets with other farmers in the state, he asks questions, shares best practices, and bonds over the shared Farmigo identity.

This all sounds good and all but you might be thinking, What about the other food systems out there?

“Farmigo complements the farmers markets and CSAs by appealing to a segment of the population that were looking for fresh-from-harvest food in a more convenient fashion. Farmigo stands on the shoulders of giants; farmers markets and CSAs,”  says Benzi.


A couple years ago, Benzi, a decade-long Internet entrepreneur and executive, was about to start a family. “I started thinking, What kind of food did we want to have in the house to feed our baby?” he says.

Between awareness about eating healthier on the rise, the Internet reaching a tipping point where almost everyone is connected, including farmers, and social networks empowering people to influence one another, it seemed the perfect time to launch such a company.

Still, Benzi had challenges getting Farmigo up and running:

Obstacle: Lack of knowledge about farming
Solution: While Benzi’s previous experience included building software for CSAs, he admittedly didn’t know the first thing about harvesting crops. So he went around the country to 100’s of farms and spent countless hours talking with farmers about their challenges and issues. He then created technical solutions based on those conversations.

“I’m not a fan of working in an ivory tower. I believe in quick iterations. I interviewed 20 farmers, created mock-ups, interviewed 20 more, created more mock-ups, interviewed the next 20, got more feedback. Now we are taking the same approach to figure out the best possible experience for the consumer,” he says.

Fresh seasonal produce from Monkshood Nursery in NY, a local Farmigo farm.

Obstacle: Setting up food communities
Solution: Not a fan of cold calling, Benzi’s strategy is to instead find and coach hyperlocal food evangelists who are willing to kickstart a community where they are.

He’s met with success, as companies have started to use Farmigo as a way to show staff appreciation. Brooklyn-based social media agency Carrot Creative, for example, sponsors $10 toward each Farmigo purchase as a wellness benefit. Microfinance organization Kiva orders office snacks from Farmigo, and gives credit on the site as a work incentive.

Obstacle: Cultural attitudes about online ordering
Solution: Nowadays most of us order almost everything online from books to plane tickets to flowers. But produce is still lagging, despite services like FreshDirect and Peapod.

“The way we’re tackling this is not trying to get whole world to shift and buy online. We’re focusing on gaining widespread adoption within many small communities,” says Benzi.

To get people in the habit of buying kale with the click of a button, the Farmigo team helps communities host cooking classes, recipe contests, nutritional speakers, and more, continually directing them to the online component. With farmers, it’s proving to be the reverse.

“We’re seeing that farming is now becoming the new cool profession. College graduates are excited to plow the earth but they also want to be entrepreneurs and have control of their business” he says. “These young farmers are Internet savvy and know how to use online media, social networks, and mobile applications to connect directly with their consumers. They’re pushing us to build better technological solutions for their needs.”

Obstacle: Making time for family
Solution: Benzi has one daughter, with another child on the way. “A lot of people think starting a family and raising kids are obstacles. It’s not an excuse. If you’re passionate about something, then go out and do it,” he says. It helps that he has an understanding wife who is as entrepreneurial as he is, and he’s careful not to schedule meetings during his daughter’s bathtimes or mealtimes.



Farmigo food community delivery in action.

While only in NY and CA for now, the Farmigo family is ever-growing. Soon, they’ll be expanding to other U.S. cities and releasing a knowledge hub for farmers.

A seasoned entrepreneur, here’s how Benzi thinks you can move forward on your idea:

  1. Since entrepreneurs are naturally optimistic, have a naysayer on board. “Make sure you have a co-founder or life partner who is critical of your ideas and pushes you to tests assumptions,” says Benzi.
  2. If you have a critical component to your success, it’s important to have multiple alternatives. If you have a partner who is absolutely crucial, have a back-up. Have two customers? Have a third ready. “It makes you much stronger. Because things will always go wrong,” he says.
  3. Enjoy the process. With Benzi’s other ventures, it was all about the end goal of creating a company. “In my last start-up there were long periods of time that weren’t fun. It sounds cliché, but this time around it’s about the journey itself,” he says.

“Farmigo’s mission is about making healthy food accessible to all households – this is something that has a benefit for society,” he finally says. “We hire our team members based on passion for our mission. This is a long and hard journey and we need people who are inspired to pour their hearts into this every day.”


Ready to kickstart a Farmigo community of your own at your workplace, school, or community center? Get started here

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How one nonprofit pub is giving back, one pint at a time

Each day, people like you have ideas on how to make the world a better place, but don’t know how to put their ideas into action. To help you take the first step, we’re profiling budding social entrepreneurs who are tackling issues that are important to them, one step at a time.

The idea

Photo of Ryan from ©Neighborhood Notes in Portland, Oregon:

Ryan Saari, an Oregon native, knows that Portlanders love their beer as much as they love helping others. But given the amount of nonprofits that already exist in the city, Ryan realized that another nonprofit, while wonderful, may not be needed. “Instead we thought, what can we do to partner with the existing nonprofits?” he says.

Three years ago what started off as a discussion between Ryan and his friends about what good they could do in their communities turned into something bigger: The Oregon Public House—a soon-to-open nonprofit pub that will serve local beer and seasonal, locally sourced food, pay employees fair wages, and donate all its profit to charities.

Ryan foresees The Oregon Public House growing and hopes after a year or two of running successfully they can open another in Portland, eventually with plans to brew their own beer and sell six packs in stores where 100% of the money goes to a charity.


Ryan’s first step was to bring a team on board and find a building to set up the brew pub. To buy an already existing business, the team would need a minimum of $200,000. Instead, they found a fix it up rental attached to a ballroom that was still used as an event space.

Now that they had the building, they took the next steps toward owning the first brew pub of it’s kind. Here are some of the many obstacles they encountered over the past few years to get this unique nonprofit up and running:

Obstacle: Community push back
Solution: Worried about bringing a bar into a community, Ryan didn’t want to contribute to the already existing problem of people abusing alcohol. “At first people questioned what we were doing. People wanted to change the idea into a coffee shop, or take the idea and brew craft root beer instead,” he says. He knew it was important to establish the nonprofit as a public house and not a bar, a place where friends and family can come together to enjoy a beer and food in a friendly environment.

Obstacle: Never been done before
Solution: Without a model to learn from, Ryan knew trust was key when opening a nonprofit like this, which is the first of its kind in the country. “Customers need to know where the money is going,” Ryan says. Their books are public so customers can see where the profits go to help combat any skepticism. With the idea to one day expand and turn the pub into a brewery, The Oregon Public House is continually aware of maintaining the balance between giving to local charities and the operational costs for the pub.

The ballroom. (Photo from ©Neighborhood Notes.)

Obstacle: Opening without debt
Solution: With the largest donation only being $2,500, there needed to be other ways to raise funds. One way was to start a ‘Founders’ program, where people give to the nonprofit and in return receive a free beer each day, or week, depending on their contribution level.

Another way they stayed debt-free was not building until the money was available, a strategy they plan on continuing. While they received a grant from the city of Portland for the store front, they also didn’t take out any loans.

They likewise relied on volunteers to help reconstruct the building: pour the cement, paint the walls, and do whatever they could to help. Opening with zero debt will allow them to immediately begin donating the profits to worthwhile charities and to positively influence the community around them.

Obstacle: Staying profitable
Solution: Ryan says there are lots of questions about how to make a public house a viable business while giving away most of the earnings. He and his team pay rent by renting out the event space attached to their brew pub location for weddings, movie screenings, and more. “An event space is extremely profitable,” he says. They also plan on having the leadership all-volunteer run, with paid staff to cut down costs.



Future home of The Oregon Public House. (Photo from ©Neighborhood Notes.)

After two years of countless hours from 100 volunteers, The Oregon Public House is in the final stages of officially opening it’s doors to the community.

“We’ve received emails from people all over the country saying they’ve had the same idea, and asking how they can do this where they are to help their own city,” says Ryan. “We want people to steal this idea.”

Whether or not you plan on opening your own brew pub for charity, here’s how Ryan thinks you can move forward on your idea:

  • Don’t be afraid to share your ideas, even if they seem silly.
  • Take it one step-by-step, and don’t worry about the time it takes you. People will still be invested in your idea.
  • Be cautious with money. Debt-free is the way to be.
  • Take initiative. Helping the community you live in isn’t as hard as you think.

“Make a living,” Ryan finally says. “But instead of pocketing the extra cash, why not give back to your city?”


Want to steal this idea? Feel free to reach out to Ryan at

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How one woman is connecting all of Chicago

Each day, people like you have ideas on how to make the world a better place, but don’t know how to put their ideas into action. To help you take the first step, we’re profiling budding social entrepreneurs who are tackling issues that are important to them, one step at a time.

The idea

I’m horrible at improv comedy. If someone were to tell me that I should sign up for a class by myself, with a bunch of random strangers, and perform to a crowd of 700 plus people at the end, I’d tell them they were crazy.

Which is why I probably need to do it. Saya Hillman from Chicago-based Mac ‘n Cheese Productions agrees. After she convinced friends who didn’t know each other to dance a hip-hop routine on stage with her so she could check it off her life to-do list, she saw the immediate bonding that came with shared vulnerability. Fear Experiment, where you perform an art form that terrifies you, was thus born.

Dancers from the first Fear Experiment show at Park West Theater in April 2010. (Photo via Rich Chapman:

There’s no one succinct way to describe Mac ‘n Cheese Productions. Besides Fear Experiment, other offerings include: minglers, an ideas salon, meetups, dinner parties, events for women entrepreneurs, a newsletter of referrals for local businesses, and most recently, retreats. Her long-term dream, though? A summer camp for adults.

“It can be awkward to go to stuff. I try to remove all the “ick” factors in traditional ways of meeting people and getting out there so to speak,” she says.

Saya is also big on giving back. Fear Experiment participants volunteer as pen pals and teachers to an underserved population, and the students are treated to dinner and the show. Folks from her network, called Cheese-Its, also regularly sponsor a Rwandan boy’s education, and she started a Chicago chapter of BC Cares, the volunteering arm of Boston College alum.

Whether it’s providing opportunities for community service or confronting your own perceived limitations, Saya is all about getting others to “Live a life of yes!”

“I’m trying to help people not be paralyzed by fear and low self-esteem. It’s really hard for people to see the positives in themselves often,” she says. “I hope I’m able to bring that out in themselves. And not only recognize it, but to own it and do something good with it as well.”


Eight years ago Saya got laid off from her job as a video producer. She had no plans of being an entrepreneur; the only thing she knew was she didn’t want “boss” in her vocabulary anymore.

Motivated by having to pay rent and the possibility of being forced to move back home, Saya’s first step was to figure out how long $300 in savings and unemployment checks would last. Turns out not long; Saya had to just jump and figure it out along the way.

Here are some of the challenges she faced:

Obstacle: Plan or no plan?
Solution: Saya started out wanting to create her own video company for special events. She didn’t know the first thing about running a business, and people advised to have a plan. But while she loves lists, having a plan wasn’t her thing. So she researched other companies. Shadowed videographers. Contacted a local business development center. Used collaborative tech tools like Creative Cow.

A year into being self-employed Saya was continuing  with her tradition of throwing dinner parties for friends who didn’t know each other when strangers began wanting in. It was then Saya realized she could make it into a business. Mac ‘n Cheese soon morphed from a media company to a people connector company. “I didn’t imagine any of it, but that’s what I love about it. There’s always something new and exciting,” she says.

Obstacle: Financial insecurity
Solution: From buying video equipment to coordinating events, Saya continually opted for the most economical ways to get things done. She was careful not to get herself into situations that would cause a huge debt to hang over her head.

She would also occasionally do pro-bono video jobs, and anytime she has given something away for free or low-cost, it has always come back to her in a positive way. “More often than not people say ‘yes’ to my outlandish requests and go above and beyond what I was expecting,” she says.

Obstacle: Working solo
Solution: Saya knew not having co-workers to bounce ideas off of was going to be hard for her, so she immediately started reaching out to her networks. She kept with this trend, and a few years later, began going to events in the city by herself as part of an experiment called the “The Solo Life.

The amount of people she knew in Chicago increased exponentially, and now connecting and collaborating with people from all walks of life is her bread and butter. “When you go into situations where you’re meeting people, I learned the power of listening, and the power of not going into something just thinking about what you need out of the situation,” she says.


Saya is thrilled that she was fired all those years ago. From meeting her fiancé to inspiring a woman to start a dog walking business, the amount of friendships, partnerships, and startups she has encouraged through her events are numerous and far-ranging.

“I love infecting people with ED, entrepreneurial disease,” Saya says. “It’s the best thing in the world.”

Saya introducing Fear Experiment. (Photo via Rich Chapman.)

Here’s how she thinks you can move forward on your idea:

Starting out

  • When you can’t find something that you want, create it. Or attempt to create it at least.
  • Make lists. What would you love to get paid for no matter how crazy it sounds, what your ideal job looks like, super-connectors you know, skills you have.
  • Ask. Once you have your lists, email the super-connectors. “People won’t know how to help you if they don’t know you need help.”
  • Steal ideas. “When you’re designing your own life of yes, there are a lot of smart people who’ve already created a lot of amazing things.”
  • Figure out what your priorities are. Know what you can and cannot sacrifice, because you’re not going to do or have everything you want in the beginning.
  • Don’t worry so much about money. “If you can find other things that you do have, such as a skill, people are really willing to trade and barter these days.”

For the ladies

  • Refer, refer, refer. “Word of mouth is something women are really good at. This will come back to benefit you ten-fold, as it’s usually win-win-win.”
  • Don’t be afraid to self-promote. It’s totally fine to boast.
  • View others as collaborators, not competitors. There’s always an opportunity to work with someone new.

Staying motivated

  • Meet people without expectations. “If you go to a networking event with the idea that you want to get three new clients, it will be a total disaster.”
  • Don’t wait for the perfect time. Stop coming up with excuses; it’s never going to feel like the right time.
  • Take the leap. What’s the worst that can happen?

“You have to figure out what’s good advice and what’s bad advice. What’s good for someone else might not be good for you,” Saya finally says. “Trust your gut.”


Want to live your own life of yes? Feel free to chat with Saya about entrepreneurism and self-employment through @sayahillman on Twitter. She is also available for speaking engagements.

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How one business is helping female entrepreneurship grow

Each day, people like you have ideas on how to make the world a better place, but don’t know how to put their ideas into action. To help you take the first step, we’re profiling budding social entrepreneurs who are tackling issues that are important to them, one step at a time.

The idea

Chris Baker first traveled to the Himalayas when he was 18, and hasn’t stopped going back ever since.


Chris Baker spending a day at the office in Nepal. (Photo via Chris Baker.)

In college, Chris researched rock carvings in the area surrounding Mt. Everest, and held the position of President of the Yale Mountaineering Club. Shortly after graduating he became a Kiva fellow in Nepal, working closely with Patan Business and Professional Women (BPW Patan), a micro credit program that provides women with business development resources.

From his experience in Nepal, Chris saw a real opportunity in linking the mindful traveler with local communities and entrepreneurs. Combining his passion for social enterprise and the mountains, he created OneSeed Expeditions.

OneSeed invests 10 cents of every incoming dollar directly into microfinance initiatives that provide capital to women entrepreneurs in Nepal. You take an amazing trip to Everest Base Camp; a local woman launches or expands her business.


Chris’s first step was laying the groundwork. As a teacher with Teach for America, Chris would spend his summers off in Nepal getting to know the people and land even more.

But as with any idea, Chris ran into a few challenges along the way:

Obstacle: Committing to the idea
Solution: After things started rolling, every founder had to make the decision to commit full time, which meant quitting jobs and possibly moving. Once everyone did there was no turning away from OneSeed.  “It’s easy to waver and and find reason not to do something, but at a certain point you have to commit and do it wholeheartedly,” Chris says. “There’s a level of momentum that comes with that complete commitment.”

Obstacle: Getting on the same page
Solution: When starting the social enterprise, the other two founding members were from Nepal. It was important to be clear and figure out what OneSeed’s core values were right away. It helped cause less confusion when communicating about the details over many Skype calls and to this day, Chris and his team are careful not to lose sight of their original principles. “The conversations and connections that come from sitting around a stove and drinking tea form the foundation of our company,” he says.

Obstacle: Fear of the unknown
Solution:  “It’s easy to be blinded by optimism,” Chris says of being an entrepreneur.  He had to become a true realist and take a self-assessment of the projections, which meant sitting down and asking himself and the team if they were going to meet their targets and goals. Once they evaluated their chances of success, Chris said they just had to jump. “When you’re making your idea a reality there is always a high risk and reward,” he says. He now has a thriving social enterprise that’s expanding, and everyday he loves his job. “I get to spend time in beautiful places with amazing people and we do a little bit of good along the way.”


Discovering the Annapurna trail in Nepal. (Photo via Chris Baker.)

Chris is now busy bringing the OneSeed name to Chile, offering expeditions in Patagonia beginning in January 2013. To date, OneSeed has raised over $16,000 for women entrepreneurs, and has trained and hired more than 30 local guides in Nepal and Chile.

Chris is of the belief that making a plan can’t be overstated enough. “Ideas are plentiful; execution is rare,” he says. “Some things wind up easier than you think.”

Specifically, here’s how he encourages you to move forward on your idea:

  • Know your limits of what you can and cannot do.
  • Be aware when you need to bring in other team members to collaborate.
  • Draw upon your networks to find true experts.
  • Recombine and link ideas across contexts e.g. travel and microfinance.
  • Ask a lot of questions.

Finally, Chris advocates for acting on your idea no matter what.  “Remember you’re always going to have people warning you of the constraints, challenges, and impossibles,” he says. “But if you’re willing to follow through, you find that you can do things that seem out of reach.”


Starting your own social enterprise and need some advice? Feel free to reach out to Chris:



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How one group is making a community in Brooklyn safer

Each day, people like you have ideas on how to make the world a better place, but don’t know how to put their ideas into action. To help you take the first step, we’re profiling budding social entrepreneurs who are tackling issues that are important to them, one step at a time.

The idea

In 2011, a series of sexual assaults occurred in Brooklyn’s Park Slope and surrounding neighborhoods. Sensing a general feeling of vulnerability and disillusionment, a group of neighbors stepped up to create a safety alternative.

“I just felt like something more had to be done,” says Jessica Silk. “Having the police on every block isn’t going to help. It’s a community long-term effort that is going to make the community safer.”

Safe Slope was thus born. In addition to escorting female and LGBTQ-identified locals home at night, the all-volunteer group promotes anti-violence education and advocacy, as well as partners with local organizations and coalitions such as New Yorkers for Safer Transit. “Getting people to be aware and feel they can take action is our big picture goal,” Jessica says.


Jessica’s first step was to ask around the community to gauge interest. After hosting a meeting to get the ball rolling, Jessica spoke to the executive director of RightRides, who happened to live in the neighborhood. She had volunteered with RightRides previously and knew that although the focus was driving people home rather than walking, it was a model the group could learn from.

Armed with good advice and knowledge about everything from dispatch systems to volunteer vests, Jessica and her neighbors started getting more of the community on board. Still, they encountered challenges:

Obstacle: Volunteer burnout
Solution: A lot of volunteers signed up at first in the spirit of helping neighbors, but then the number declined. Jessica thinks a big reason for this was because volunteers had to stay up late waiting for a call, which often didn’t come. A longer-term solution they created was a reservation system where people can call in advance so volunteers know if they are expected ahead of time.

After marching through the streets of Brooklyn, Jessica Silk and other members of Safe Slope welcome the community to a rally featuring speeches from local advocates, activists, and elected officials. (Photo via Jessica Silk.)

Obstacle: Ensuring safety for everyone
Solution: The initial screening process weeds out potentially violent vigilantes and/or disrespectful volunteers through extensive essay questions. The volunteers also walk in pairs, and the group is working on obtaining a grant that would give volunteers money for a cab home at the end of the night.

Obstacle: Establishing legitimacy
Solution: People hesitated calling because they were unsure of how the system worked, and collaborators were leery about engaging with such a grassroots group. Wanting to advertise their program and build general anti-violence awareness, they organized a neighborhood rally that thousands of people attended. It garnered Safe Slope widespread media attention but more importantly, embedded them at a local level. “We were able to meet some people who were doing anti-violence work for a long time,” says Jessica. “It was good to be connected to a larger movement but also to realize that there are already so many people doing amazing things in our community.”

Obstacle: Fear of being culturally insensitive
Solution: With a large percentage of the Park Slope area Spanish-speaking, the group translated the materials into Spanish for the rally, which is one reason Jessica thinks the event had such diverse attendance. Post-rally, however, they realized they didn’t have the capacity to attend to the full community on a longer-term basis. Currently they are working on recruiting more Spanish-speaking volunteers in addition to the two they have, and continually take into account the varying perspectives on police involvement from culture to culture. Safe Slope also just recently expanded to the Sunset Park area, which means recruiting Mandarin-speaking volunteers, and are hoping to leverage their existing partnerships to counter violence affecting communities of color, such as stop-and-frisk practices by police.


Since Safe Slope has been in existence, attacks have declined and neighbors are constantly on the lookout for one another. The group continues to evolve and always keeps in mind the the most important lesson they learned when first starting out.

“Part of why we were successful is that we were willing to take the risk to do something. We were willing to fail,” Jessica says. “We went in with the attitude that if this is not what the community wants, we won’t do it.”

Besides getting community buy-in, here’s how Jessica thinks you can move forward on your idea:

  • Do your research.
  • Identify the gaps.
  • Partner with others.
  • Honor the legacy of what went before you.

“Be bold. Allow yourself to be the person to start something,” Jessica finally says. “Even if it doesn’t work out, at least you tried.”


Interested in starting a similar program in your community? Feel free to reach out to Jessica for advice:


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How one woman is helping queer religious youth embrace their identity

Each day, people like you have ideas on how to make the world a better place, but don’t know how to put their ideas into action. To help you take the first step, we’re profiling budding social entrepreneurs who are tackling issues that are important to them, one step at a time.

The idea

“When I came out as a queer Christian in my twenties, I went through a lot of bumpy times. It was like going through a second puberty,” says Philadelphia-based singer-songwriter Crystal Cheatham. “On top of it all my church wasn’t there for me — the community I had grown up with as support. I wished someone in my youth had given me information on my identity.”


Crystal stands outside Oklahoma Baptist University in a nonviolent demonstration with Soulforce’s Equality Ride. (Photo via Makenzie Marineau.)

Wanting to fill this gap, Crystal channeled her writing skills into creating Your IDentity Kit: For Queer Christian Youth (Your IDKit) to help youth ages 12-17 feel supported and better understand their identity coming out as a gay Christian or Fundamentalist. The educational kit contains a range of materials including a booklet that guides self-exploration, discovery cards for LGBTQ resources, and an interactive game that challenges stereotypes.

Originally “the kit was to let teens know that God did love them, even though their church, school, and government signals said otherwise.” The idea has since expanded and the kit is a book, teaching tool, and resource on the subject of queer religious identities for anyone engaging with questioning teens.


Crystal’s first step was to write a draft of the Your IDKit and test it out at a workshop for Philly’s William Way Community Center, an LGBTQ nonprofit. After receiving a positive response, Crystal began to focus her time on getting more feedback on the kit, and ultimately, finding some homes for it.

While making her idea a reality, Crystal encountered a few challenges along the way:

Obstacle: Addressing negative stereotypes
Solution: In the kit, Crystal emphasizes that homosexuality is not a choice, freely uses the word queer in a positive way, and shares Bible passages that demonstrate God’s acceptance of all people. In doing so, she hopes that the young people will feel empowered and the religious community will rethink their views on queer youth.

Obstacle: Funding the idea
Solution: After she had the material written, Crystal sold her Volkswagon Bug to fund the first 22 Your IDKit prototypes. She then spent a lot of time pitching the kit to prove her idea was something that could be beneficial. People began to take notice, and individual donors and organizations helped her raise money. Crystal released an eBook through Barnes & Noble this week, with proceeds going to producing more kits and offsetting expenses for workshops.

Inside Your IDKit

Obstacle: Finding additional help
Once Crystal captured people’s interest, she found they were willing to help out where needed: logo design, filming interviews, etc. Queer affirming churches and organizations who used the kit also stepped up to donate their time, space, food, and resources.

Obstacle: Getting buy-in from religious communities
Crystal began pitching the kit to other sources: homeless shelters, youth organizations, charter schools, and anyone who handles teens on a daily basis. “They see that there is a disconnect and that their youth need spiritual affirmation. The need is impeccably raw,” Crystal says. Her hard work paid off: come August she will be hosting weekly Your IDKit workshops at The William Way Community Center, and Soulforce, a nonprofit dedicated to ending the political and spiritual oppression of the LGBTQ community through nonviolent resistance, will also be using the kit as the basis for an educational program.


Crystal had the most trouble with learning to be patient and understanding success doesn’t happen overnight. Her biggest piece of advice is to keep moving forward.

Here’s how she thinks you can maintain momentum on your idea:

  • Clarify exactly what your idea or product is.
  • Research similar resources, organizations, and projects.
  • Build relationships and network with other professionals.
  • Ask for feedback.
  • Write a business plan to shape the direction you head.

Finally, Crystal strongly believes in trusting your instincts. “There were times when my work led me to a black space,” she says. “All I could comprehend was that I had this burning passion; I knew I was doing the right thing.”

If you’re interested in partnering with Crystal for a workshop and/or would like to support Your IDKit, don’t hesitate to email:

Curious about the LGBTQ community? Crystal would love to share her insight as well as offer advice on how to network and perfect your writing.

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"Operate with humility": The launch of an NGO in Tanzania

Two friends turned their “eureka moment” into a full-fledged organization – and kept local voices at the center of their work.

The idea

After studying African History in college, Caitlin Kelley went to Moshi, Tanzania to volunteer at a women’s group project. It wasn’t long after she arrived that Caitlin grew frustrated. “I saw that, often, former volunteers had started projects or injected some idea that was really well-intentioned but misguided because of a lack of education about what was culturally appropriate,” she says.

One night as she and her friend Jafari Msaki talked about the value of volunteering, Caitlin had a lightbulb moment: a service corps organization (something like AmeriCorps in the U.S.) that would give Tanzanians workplace the skills and contacts they needed to get jobs and, ultimately, ensure they were in control of the development process themselves.

That’s the core philosophy of Africa Volunteer Corps (AVC), now a full-fledged organization co-directed by Caitlin and Jafari, which connects local volunteers to local NGOs.



Caitlin hopes she and Jafari are providing valuable options in Sub-Saharan Africa, where 70% of people are under 30 and increasingly educated. (Photo via Caitlin)

Caitlin’s first step was to find out how to start an NGO in Tanzania. After one of Jafari’s friends laid out the steps one by one, they got to work over the next few years to make the idea a reality. Along the way, Caitlin encountered a few obstacles:

Obstacle: Lack of skills and/or knowledge.
Her solution: Ask for help, and listen.

She asked anyone who had experience with the Peace Corps, United Nations, nonprofits, etc. for advice, and took advantage of all the resources Foundation Center had to offer. She and Jafari worked with other local friends to assemble a team to articulate what they were trying to do. While the path did get muddled from all her research, Caitlin made sure the next steps were locally-driven. AVC’s current advisory board, made up of six Tanzanians and three Americans, reflects this emphasis on local knowledge.

Obstacle: Cultural differences.
Her solution: Stay humble. And learn the local language.

“Listening and asking questions and operating with humility (in other words, not assuming that my way of doing things was always the best way) were also completely vital,” says Caitlin. She also realized that speaking Swahili was the key to everything. It allowed her to speak to people on their own terms, and made it easier to understand the various cultural nuances. (Knowing that it was considered rude to gesticulate too much in professional contexts, for example, helped her navigate meetings.) This skill now helps her translate volunteer stories to post on the AVC blog.

Obstacle: People who lacked faith in her leadership ability.
Her solution: Ignore them.

Folks outside Tanzania were constantly doubting that she could get this organization up and running. Not wanting to get stuck in the huge international NGO system, Caitlin stayed true to her entrepreneurial spirit and trusted the voice in her head that told her she could figure it out. Her persistence paid off: the first group of volunteers from across Tanzania recently started their year-long stint with organizations in the Kilimanjaro region.


“I’m sure there’s a lot of advice on best practices for nonprofits or social media strategy, but to me, that stuff will work itself out,” Caitlin says. “A lot of it is making yourself the best version of yourself:  being the most natural and authentic and genuine and kind and loving and vulnerable person. That’s the kind of person people follow.”

So how does she think you can achieve your big idea?

  • Trust your instincts.
  • Be confident in your abilities.
  • Never stop asking questions.
  • Embrace fear.

“Moving outside your comfort zone is when the magic happens. Love the fear,” she says. “If you have the feeling that you’re jumping out of an airplane, that’s exactly where you’re supposed to be.”

Have an idea for a similar project and need some help? Don’t hesitate to email Caitlin for advice:

Did someone you know find a sensitive, savvy way to turn an idea into reality? Leave a comment to share the story.

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