Back in 2012, a friend invited Birmingham banker Barry Morehead on a trip to Bangalore, India, to advise a group of budding entrepreneurs on how to finance their companies.
He admired their handmade crafts, he says, including the colorful silk yarns they spun from recycled saris, a traditional garment worn by women. Many of the entrepreneurs, he learned, wanted to start businesses to provide fair-paying jobs to impoverished young women in their villages.
“We were so radically moved by the conditions and the marginalization of women, ” says Morehead. “Many young girls were being sold into sex slavery because their poor parents couldn’t afford to keep them. We were working with aspiring entrepreneurs there who had a heart to go back to their villages and stop this travesty from happening by not only providing fair wage work for those who were living in abject poverty, but also to provide an opportunity for these women to earn a fair wage and buy their freedom from their pimps.”
While in India, Morehead started brainstorming ideas with others on how to help the entrepreneurs get their goods into Western markets. From those discussions, Morehead says he began conceiving the idea of an import distribution company in Birmingham that would help the entrepreneurs in developing countries get their products sold in the United States.
After returning to Birmingham, Morehead talked about his idea. Soon, some professors from Samford University’s Brock School of Business heard about his trip to India and contacted him with a proposal — to let a group of students enrolled in the university’s social entrepreneurship program write a business plan for him.
Morehead agreed, and soon he found himself collaborating with five business students to formalize his concept for a company called Work of Worth (WoW) International, an enterprise designed to give the small business owners in India a way to market their handmade yarns in the United States.
Understanding Social Entrepreneurship
Experts generally use the term “social entrepreneurship” for businesses or enterprises that strive to solve specific social problems or bring positive change to the world as their core mission. Samford Professor Jeremy Thornton, Ph.D., who directs the Brock School of Business social entrepreneurship program, has his own definition.
“Social entrepreneurship is thinking about how to operate a business with both social and profit maximization objectives, ” he says. “It’s thinking about how to operate a business that has multiple dimensions.”
What the business model of such a venture actually looks like, however, has been up for debate, he says.
Some famous examples of businesses with doing good as part of their core mission include the retailer Toms, known for its one-for-one business model, in which every purchase by a customer results in a donation of shoes, or medical care and other services to people in need in another part of the world. The eyeglass retailer Warby Parker donates a pair of eyeglasses to its nonprofit partners for every pair purchased.
In Alabama, the founders of the PieLab in rural Greensboro started the business as a way to bring people together to eat pie and brainstorm progressive ideas for stopping poverty and bringing positive change to the area.
Professor Franz Lohrke, Ph.D., chair of the Entrepreneurship, Management and Marketing Department in the Brock School of Business, says that no matter the cause, social entrepreneurs still have to make money, or at least break even, unlike a nonprofit agency that can exist on government grants and donations. He gives the example of someone who opens a bakery with plans to donate the proceeds to support a local homeless shelter.
“The biggest mistake people make, ” he says, “is they assume, ‘Hey, people will come to my bakery because I support a homeless shelter.’ Some people will, but generally, not enough to support your business. Your bakery has to make bakery products and be competitive on its own.”
Lohrke teaches in Samford’s social entrepreneurship program with Thornton. Offered as a concentration, the social entrepreneurship program features courses such as financial management for nonprofits, development economics and “Business and Local Poverty, ” a class that gives insight into the scope and causes of poverty.
As part of their coursework, students also partner with nonprofit organizations and for-profit companies to assist them in enhancing their community outreach efforts.
In 2014, five social entrepreneurship students began working with Morehead on drafting a comprehensive business plan to start WoW. The students included Daniel Denning, Olivia Dunn, Drew Fahrion, Ben Goolsby and Madison Kerns.
Kerns, who at the time was a junior business management and entrepreneurship major, says they assisted Morehead with establishing a mission statement and value proposition for his company and then considered how they would market the yarn in the United States.
“Trying to figure out how to get into those markets that we had not been a part of as students was an interesting hurdle for five 20-year-olds to try to figure out, ” she says.
Ben Goolsby, who was a senior political science major and social entrepreneurship minor, recalls how he and the other students worked to determine the target customers for the yarn.
“It was a lot of market research, ” says Goolsby, “and a lot of industry research. The biggest part of WoW was the mission behind it, and that was to serve and connect women in high-risk situations with gainful employment that had dignity to it. We had to keep that mission at the forefront of everything we did as we worked through the marketing piece.”
Eventually, he says, they settled on a plan to sell the yarn at craft and trade shows.
Later that year, the students entered the WoW business plan in the Richards Barrentine Values and Ventures Business Plan Competition, an international social entrepreneurship contest held annually at Texas Christian University. The Samford group came in fourth, earning an honorable mention and a $2, 500 prize.
Since then, Kerns, who graduated from Samford in 2015, found employment with a Birmingham health care executive recruiting firm, but still volunteers for WoW at some craft shows. Goolsby, who graduated in 2014, later invested in the company and became a partner with Morehead.
“My passion is trying to serve, ” says Goolsby, “and I saw WoW as an incredible opportunity to serve. The mission is trying to employ people who may not have as easy an opportunity for employment as we do. That’s the reason I’m involved.”
WoW has since moved toward selling other merchandise, such as handmade jewelry, scarves, aprons, shoulder bags and artisan soaps, at price points ranging from $5 to $30. The products come from just eight vendors in India, says Morehead, and he vets every one to make sure they produce quality products and pay fair wages to their workers.
Morehead says WoW continues to have booths at craft and trade shows around the South and Southwest like the Christmas Village, held recently at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Center and the Catholic diocese in West Texas.
“The students were especially good at creating a web presence for WoW, ” Morehead says. The company’s website has an online store and a blog. It also features a page highlighting customers with their own curated collections of their favorite WoW pieces.
Morehead says they hope to expand WoW’s reach into other regions of the country.
“We’re always looking for shows, because shows bring awareness to what we’re doing, ” says Morehead, “as well as giving us an opportunity to sell the merchandise and get more money flowing back to India and these businesses.”
Morehead says WoW is making a difference — like the partner business that awarded its first scholarship to an Indian child.
“We’re changing that family, ” says Morehead, “for a generation.”
Gail Allyn Short and Art Meripol are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. They are based in Birmingham.
TEXT By GAIL ALLYN SHORT // photos by art meripol