The Better Business Bureau

Five Philadelphia benefit corporations you should know

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By Grid Staff

Benefit corporations, which incorporate in a way that requires owners to consider community and environmental impact as well as their bottom line, are still relatively rare. But of the approximately 50 benefit corporations in Pennsylvania, half are located in Philadelphia, and they all go through a rigorous third-party certification with the nonprofit that started the certification, B Lab, via it’s B Impact Assessment tool. So when you’re about to look for goods or services, check out the list of companies at bcorporation.net to support enterprises that are committed to supporting you back. We wish we had room to list them all, but here are a few to get you started.

MIO

What They Do:
Provide design services and U.S.-made furnishings and lifestyle products with an eye on environmentally friendly materials, life-cycle analysis and end-of-life considerations for the products—even on a budget.

Why They Do It:
“As designers and entrepreneurs, we learnt early on that our moral grounding is an asset in business. Sustainability and social responsibility are a commonsense approach to business. Products are about people and experiences, so our focus is on our customers, how our products are made, used and those who make them.

“Back when we started MIO, making products in the U.S. seemed counterintuitive to most. To this day our material choices and our creative designs cause surprise. We strive to shift paradigms and bring sustainable products and stories to life.

“Our model is far from perfect! Staying true to our moral compass in business is a delicate art that even the most successful companies struggle with (just read or listen to Yvon Chouinard talk about Patagonia). These challenges make us a better company, but more importantly they make us better humans.”

Jaime Salm, creative director, MIO

mioculture.com

Vault + Vine

What They Do:
This full-service florist is a design studio, retail space and community center wrapped into one. The staff specializes in using seasonal, locally grown flowers and ethically sourced materials and products.

Why They Do It:
“Being a B corp is important because it provides us with a way to measure accountability in our actions as a business. Without this type of accountability, there’s no real way for consumers to know what and how we’re making a difference with our business. I also choose to certify as a B corp because a lot of people still hear sustainability and think ‘100% organic’ and ‘100% local’—both of which are important, but still just part of the equation. When it comes to ‘people, planet and profit,’ what we do best as a business is support our people: giving back to our community with time and money, hiring locally, buying locally and providing as many benefits to our employees as possible. From there, we use the B Impact Assessment to determine next steps for continuing to grow and improve ourselves as a business. Is it hard? Yes. Is it worthwhile? Absolutely!”

Peicha Chang, owner, Vault + Vine

vaultandvine.co

Organic Planet LLC

What They Do:
Organic Planet LLC offers personal chef services for people with unique dietary needs, with a focus on organic and healthful meals. It also offers value-chain coordination to benefit small farmers, as well as food safety education.

Why They Do It:
“The way I choose to do business really comes down to self-interest and common  sense. If I treat my colleagues, customers and suppliers with kindness and respect, I am more likely to receive the same in return. If I source from local food producers who are passionate and responsible in their methods, I get incredible food that inspires me to be a better cook, which helps my clients to be happy and healthy,  and keeps me in business. If I pay farmers fair prices and support them in their efforts to sell to the wholesale marketplace, they are more likely to stay in business. This means more agricultural land in sustainable production and a diverse and regenerative foodshed. I feel privileged to do this work and provide these services. I would be a fool to poison the living web that sustains me. Bottom line: It’s much more fun this way!”

Lindsay Gilmour, owner, Organic Planet LLC

lindsaygilmour@comcast.net

Houwzer

What They Do:
Houwzer is a full-service, tech--enabled residential real estate brokerage. It is the industry’s first commission-free listing model for home -sellers, and it pays realtors a salary rather than
through commission. 

Why They Do It:
“Houwzer was created to reimagine the home-buying and -selling experience for members in our communities. Our vision is to be the best real estate company in the world—enriching the lives of our clients and agents, while supporting our communities. Saving sellers half the cost on the sale of their home and providing buyers with trusted, salaried realtors was vital work toward our vision. Yet we wanted to take our commitment to the community a step further by ensuring our company values were carried out. Thus, Houwzer became the country’s first B corp residential real estate brokerage. Like our business model, Houwzer has approached social entrepreneurship uniquely. We like to call it the Rule of 10: giving back 2.5 percent of profits to charitable partners, spending 2.5 percent of our time volunteering, and allowing for at least 5 percent employee ownership. As we work to change the broken residential real estate industry, the B Impact Assessment will continue to ensure we are using business as a force for good.”

Mike Maher, co-founder & CEO

houwzer.com

EcoInnovate

What They Do:
This B corporation offers management solutions to companies that will create environmentally friendly workplaces. By instituting simple in-house changes to organizational behavior practices, EcoInnovate helps clients reduce waste, conserve energy and save money.

Why They Do It:
“Unfortunately, we cannot rely on political leadership and regulatory standards to drive the needed changes to protect our environment in our communities, states or country. A market-driven approach to change is important. We are proud to be a member of the growing B corp movement that supports and promotes environmental sustainability, social justice, transparency and accountability, while advancing its mission to help businesses implement positive changes in its processes.”

Allen Hall, director & partner

ecoinnovate.co

Navigating Reentry After Prison? There's an App For That

Hackathon brings together parolees, technologists and journalists to create tech prototypes for the greater good

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By Belinda Sharr

Reentering society after spending time in jail or prison can be challenging. Finding a job with a criminal record isn’t easy, and without money to purchase clothing and secure housing, it proves doubly challenging, as many employers require an address on an application. And then there’s reconnecting with family and finding support, which adds to the challenge.

Code for Philly (a community of civic technologists) and the Reentry Project (a collaboration of 15 newsrooms dedicated to solving issues of prisoner reentry) decided to meet this issue head-on—they hosted a “hackathon” event in October as an opportunity for journalists, technologists and reentering individuals to work together to create technology that will improve the lives of those reintegrating into society after paying their debt through a prison term. According to the Economy League, 44,000 Philadelphians return each year.

Robert Hudson was a hackathon attendee who has experienced the challenges of reentering the workforce. His team’s project, an app and website that connects mentors and mentees, was already in the works by the time the hackathon took place, and he continues to work on it to this day. 

Hudson was affiliated with Code for Philly, which helped him start his project, Mentor Philly (visit mentorphilly.com or text 215.515.9696). The app can be used by people who are out of the system and looking for a mentor, and also for those who would like to mentor others. 

“Mentors and mentees can use it to communicate without having to utilize traditional reentry services,” Hudson said. “The idea was modeled behind my progress and how I utilize my own mentors.” 

According to Jean Friedman-Rudovsky, project editor for the Reentry Project, the idea for the event was conceived from a few different places—but namely it was created with the recognition that there is a desperate need for technological innovation in the reentry space. 

After painstakingly laying the groundwork for the event, the hackathon culminated in a Friday night kickoff with about 50 people, and a Saturday team-building day. At the end, four impressive prototypes were debuted: Hudson’s mentor app; an SMS texting system to help people find Wi-Fi locations near them; a bilingual English and Spanish language website with resources on housing and employment; and a family needs assessment app that helps families create a profile of a returning family member along with a list of needs. 

“I think the event turned out great—it far surpassed expectations, because we didn’t want to give people the impression that at the end you would come out with fully designed apps or websites,” Friedman-Rudovsky said. “Our goals were to bring together these different groups—journalists, those from the criminal justice system and technologists. I was pleasantly surprised to see the energy and enthusiasm that came out of it.” 

“The collaboration was fantastic. One of the goals of the hackathon was to build a community and spaces for collaboration; and seeing this problem [of reentry] being met,” said Dawn McDougall, executive director of Code for Philly. “There was a spirit and energy at the event. That like-mindedness is going a long way.”

Hudson thought that the hackathon created a positive environment, and that it shed light on the issues surrounding the reentry process, as well as the stigma. 

“I think [events like this] are a positive for folks coming home because it shows that traditional citizens are concerned about the issues in their community. For me, that’s the game changer—when you see people who are different interested in what you’re going through; they see people in their struggle and are interested in solutions,” he said. “The hackathon created a good opportunity for structure and support. It was about an issue in general: How do we support these guys and their road to redemption?”

_____

Four possible tech interventions for easing reentry after prison

1. SMS Text System: Halfway houses don’t allow smartphones or Wi-Fi, so the team created an SMS texting system where the user can text their location and receive information on where they can find spots with internet access. The service also offers assistance on locating food and shelter. 

2. Bilingual Website with Assistance: The website features pages of resources for employment, housing and more. The team also created a text application allowing flip-phone users to text “1” for job assistance or “2” for housing help.

3. Family Profile Needs Assessment App: This prototype was created for families of people who will soon be released. They can go in and make a profile of their returning loved one and detail what they need help with in 18 categories. The needs assessment will allow the person and their family to have a clear understanding of challenges. 

4. Mentoring App and Website: This app and website will connect people who need mentors with those who can help. It allows those who are released crucial access to people who can answer questions and guide them in starting their life again.

Greenbacks and Blue Water

Channeling a passion for clean water into a robust bottom line at United By Blue

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By Justin Klugh

Regardless of where it flows, water brings life. At every depth, from oceans to puddles, it invites all kinds of organism to thrive. When humans started stacking up villages and cities, we did so on riverbanks, coasts and shorelines where food and water were abundant and the currents allowed for pre-industrial transit. But a few eons in, both shallow and deep bodies are choked with man-made waste, threatening the life it sustains.

Brian Linton, 31, CEO of United By Blue, wants to do something about that. 

Through lots of experimentation and experience throughout his career, Linton found that there is no easy way to streamline the conservation process, and he has learned which steps (and in what direction) to take through his business to achieve his goals. United By Blue, an environmentally conscious outdoor apparel brand and café, whose flagship store opened in Old City in November, is where he’s landed. For every purchase, the company facilitates the removal of 1 pound of trash from waterways.

Funding environmental protection and providing durable, sustainably produced clothing costs money. So while it’s understandable for some customers to look at an $80 price tag on a flannel shirt in United By Blue, blink twice and leave the store, Linton has a reason for the costs of his products. When you’re making clothes from sustainable materials such as organic cotton, recycled polyester or bison fiber, it’s easy to burn through somebody’s shopping budget. But Linton wants consumers to feel secure knowing their purchases are coming from a company that shares their sustainable beliefs, right down to the paint on the walls: United By Blue’s newest location in Philadelphia is LEED Platinum certified, the highest rating devised by the U.S. Green Building Council.

“I consider our pricing quite competitive, when all things are considered,” Linton explains. “You also have to think of the full value of a product when you’re making purchasing decisions nowadays, in terms of how it’s made, where it’s made and what it’s made of. For United By Blue, the thing we’ve always focused on is making things as responsibly as we possibly can, and the pricing reflects that. Full value, full price, full picture of a product is not the actual thing you put on your back; it’s everything that goes into it.” 

But Linton’s business isn’t outdoor apparel. It’s the outdoors. With four locations in New York and Pennsylvania, United By Blue stores don’t quite cover 71 percent of the planet: That figure belongs to our planet’s water sources, which is where the real work of United By Blue has begun. 

A lifelong appreciation for water and entrepreneurship

Linton was infatuated with water and the life it breeds as an adolescent, and that passion for water has saturated his entrepreneurial career. Every step he’s taken through his business endeavors has included a component to benefit the conservation of oceans and waterways. 

Linton went to sleep every night during his childhood in Singapore with the humming filters and electric blues of 30 fish tanks as his nightlight. After growing up in Southeast Asia, he made his way across the world, receiving educations formal and informal. He finished his BA in Asian studies at Temple University, where he won a business-plan competition in 2008, and spent the following summer driving from Maine to Florida selling stone necklaces to raise money for water conservation. 

Soon, the kid who had gone to sleep in a bedroom full of fish tanks figured out that his impact could be deeper if he narrowed the channel through which his entrepreneurial instincts rushed.  

“When I started eight years ago… I knew that I wanted to do something for oceans and waterways,” Linton says. “When I was putting down my concepts and ideas, it was everything from stopping shark finning to ocean acidification to coral bleaching… all these different issues associated with our oceans. I couldn’t address them all.” 

Soon, Linton’s business attracted people who shared his enthusiasm for clean water. In January 2016, Kelly Offner, a fellow Temple graduate, took over running United By Blue’s cleanup programs, including one on Oct. 3, during which 123 volunteers cleaned 4,200 pounds of trash off of Pier 68 on the Delaware River Waterfront. Offner has spearheaded United By Blue’s efforts to join an expanding community of environmentally conscious businesses.

“There are a growing number of companies voicing their concerns for the environment and urging their customers and communities to champion for conservation of natural lands and waters,” she says. “Especially in the current political climate, the more companies using their business to drive home positive messages and encouragement for environmental conservation, the better.”

United By Blue now focuses on rallying its 10,000 volunteers who have lifted 1 million pounds of garbage from our waterways. Linton has determined that the company’s best course of action has been to provide opportunities and direction for the masses of people willing to put their environmental values into action. 

“The most tangible thing that we could do as a brand was have a mission that people could get involved in on a tangible, concrete level,” he says. “There are a lot of people out there who want to do something on a Saturday or after work some days. These people don’t necessarily have the follow-through to do it on their own.”

“Our cleanups provide the opportunity for people to participate in what we ‘preach,’” Offner agrees. “People want to support businesses who are taking a stance on the things that matter most to them. The health of our rivers, lakes and oceans affects so many people, and providing a way for people to experience that firsthand is very important.”

That support continued with a second annual celebration of “Blue Friday” this year, an event Linton calls “the anti-Black Friday,” on which United By Blue encourages people to go out the day after Thanksgiving and pick up trash. 

“It might be a river, it might be an ocean, it might be a lake, it might be a park. The idea is to be thankful for the earth—instead of just rushing out to go shopping, take some time do something good for the blue planet that we live on.”

Poised for more growth and more good

Considering the severity of more and more instances of pollution, pushing back requires levels of stamina and tenacity that are more easily reached as a group. Linton, having grown the United By Blue brand to 80 employees in eight years, now sees opportunities for growth everywhere.

“We do encourage the DIY movement as well as joining us to do cleanups,” he says. “Blue Friday is ‘do it yourself’; we sent out bags, we sent out bandanas and gloves and things like that, but on a regular basis, we’re organizing and hosting cleanups across the country. The only way that it’s possible is if you have the diligence and discipline to continue the course that you aspired to at the beginning, and make sure you’re doing everything consistently and authentically. 

“If you don’t stay true to who you are on a personal and a brand level, you can’t build a successful brand,” Linton continues. “I’m proud to say we have been consistent, responsible and good, and we haven’t wavered from our desire to have an impact on oceans and waterways. And as a result, we’ve built a successful business.” 

The hope is that “successful business” can be redefined to mean more than just a line around the corner or a ledger full of black ink. It can mean local businesses using their platform to activate activists. For United By Blue, that means uniting around clean water, a universal need that the team believes is deserving of our collective effort to be sustained. 

“The beautiful thing about United By Blue is we create the format for people to do the good that they aspire to do,” Linton says. “United By Blue is something that’s very much grassroots, attainable, actionable, tangible: ocean conservation that can be done by the brand, as well as the people that support the brand.”

It’s a lesson learned from Linton’s ankle-deep globetrotting and the rousing of thousands of volunteers to the cause of purer waterways: Grassroots grow where clean water flows.