Posted: March 14th, 2016 | By: Zach Linsey and Daniel Balke
Zach Linsey (JD ’12) is the founder of Building with Beans, a Washington, D.C., non-profit coffee company with a focus on providing economic opportunities to disadvantaged D.C. residents. He recently authored the following op-ed, “D.C. Businesses Should Help Their Communities,” originally published in The Washington Post on March 11, 2016.
The D.C. Council’s proposed Made in D.C. Program Establishment Act of 2015 has great potential to further cultivate the District’s thriving small-business community. But, as drafted, it misses an opportunity to specifically address the structural inequities that afflict our city. To fulfill its promise, the bill should include a “social impact” provision that encourages businesses drawing on its support to consciously reinvest in the neighborhoods in which they work by providing residents with training, jobs and other support they need to lift themselves out of poverty.
Cultivating innovation in the District through small business is a laudable idea, and it was initially crafted by Think Local First DC. As a community, we want a trendy start-up presence and hip arts culture. Such a culture increases quality of life through intellectual stimulation and local economic growth. It’s why many of us love the District. A city developed to administer the federal government has mutated into a thriving hub of arts, ideas and creation.
The D.C. Council recognizes the value of a local creative economy. Through the Made in D.C. legislation, it would support a marketing campaign to promote local products and innovation. The legislation calls for an innovation studio and marketplace to support the local arts, craft and maker community. The legislation seeks to grow the District’s budding entrepreneurial and arts community through government-sponsored initiatives.
As people in the process of launching local start-ups, we’re excited to know the government wants to help us succeed. The District’s regulatory system includes unnecessary market barriers and exorbitant business licensing and real estate costs. The private market has adjusted to overcome some of these barriers. The food and business incubators Union Kitchen and Mess Hall are succeeding by providing discounted operating space and business development for local entrepreneurs. Each houses a bevy of local businesses that have not needed the city government’s financial support. Union Kitchen boasts that its members have a 95 percent success rate.
But the legislation should specifically address the District’s problems deeply rooted in social injustices. Our communities suffer from the generational effects of structural poverty, such as nation-leading unemployment, rampant incarceration, food insecurity and high infant mortality.
The Made in D.C. bill could address these injustices through innovative support for inclusive entrepreneurialism. What if provisions were added to the legislation that encouraged entrepreneurs to adopt successful business models with mission-driven practices? Andy Shallal of Busboys and Poets has become the gold standard of D.C. entrepreneurial success. He’s done that by merging bottom-line motivations with community needs: targeted minority hiring, an emphasis on the arts and creating a space where the intersection of race and culture is an encouraged line of discussion.
Another example of mission-driven success is Ace Hardware owner Gina Schaefer, who committed to hiring underprivileged community members and providing a structured training program to ensure their success. The result? Schaefer has grown Ace Hardware into an $11 million D.C. business while concentrating economic opportunity on those most in need.
More recent entrepreneurs are following in Shallal and Schaefer’s path. Misfit Juicery, a Mess Hall occupant, is dedicated to “fight[ing] food waste one cold pressed juice at a time.” Additionally, Clean Decisions, run by our friends, arose from the need to reduce recidivism rates through employment of formerly incarcerated citizens. The company can clean your restaurant’s commercial kitchen, landscape your entry or provide security.
Innovative entrepreneurs have sprouted up across the District and are thriving. The Made in D.C. legislation admirably offers an opportunity to reduce stifling market barriers. In return, D.C. entrepreneurs should keep in mind our city’s devastating social problems and adopt business practices that address these issues. Instead of “Made in D.C.” appealing primarily to our sense of what’s cool, let’s add a caveat: The “Made in D.C.” stamp also identifies what’s right: a business that plans to succeed by thoughtfully making the District a better place to live for all residents.
That’s the District we want to live in, and, for start-ups looking to call gentrifying D.C. neighborhoods their home, we think this is the price of admission, especially when asking for the city’s financial support.