Back in 2020, we introduced a Jesuit-sponsored work in Baltimore City, Innovation Works. Then, Innovation Works was just getting started with its mission to bridge the racial wealth gap through social entrepreneurship and impact investing. Innovation Works’ origin ties back to Santa Clara University in California, where the Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship has been operating for 25 years. Innovation Works modeled itself after the Miller Center model and has since expanded its efforts in Baltimore, including launching a social impact investment fund (Ignite Capital) in 2020.
Innovation Works’ unique approach begins with a holistic model for supporting social enterprises and their leaders. A community is built of social change visionaries who Innovation Works envisions will plant roots in historically disinvested neighborhoods to rebuild the local economies. Innovation Works then ensures that these enterprises have access to more mission-oriented capital to lead their efforts and connect them to markets to drive revenue sustainability. With its focus on investing in both entrepreneurs and their communities, Innovation Works has created a mutually beneficial ecosystem for its stakeholders. Innovation Works has become a leading force in the Baltimore social innovation ecosystem as a result of these efforts.
Launched just five years ago, Innovation Works has already made a considerable impact by tapping into a rising interest in social entrepreneurship among a new generation of entrepreneurs. It now actively serves more than 160 social enterprises, has invested well over $3M in a combination of small grants, has invested capital into 23 enterprises, and has helped attract more than $3M from additional co-investors into the 23 enterprises. On average, each enterprise that has received capital has gone on to create four new, livable wage jobs.
Lifting Labels: Stitching Change One Robe at a Time
In the 2020 issue of JESUITS magazine, we introduced you to one of the enterprises, Lifting Labels. Since then Rev. Chester France, Jr. has continued to push beyond the societal stigma associated with incarceration. He perceived potential where others saw predicaments. With a vision to alleviate poverty, he founded Lifting Labels. The enterprise’s tagline, Changing Lives with Each Stitch, isn’t just a slogan—it’s the very essence of its mission. Lifting Labels seeks to ensure that formerly incarcerated men and women, upon their return to Baltimore City, have access to quality, empowering jobs.
The niche they’ve carved out? Manufacturing ceremonial apparel—a segment that sees demand but often lacks a local touch. Their product range includes:
- Church Pulpit Apparel
- Clergy and Choir Robes
- College and University Gowns
- Judicial Robes
Rev. France’s journey with Lifting Labels was catalyzed by his participation in Innovation Works’ Boost and the Accelerator program. His vision and determination were further recognized with funding from Ignite Capital. Since his engagement with Innovation Works, Lifting Labels now leads a manufacturing operation with 10 employees and increased its revenue by over 220% over the last year. This showcases how the right support can propel a socially impactful idea into a thriving enterprise.
Parity: Revitalizing West Baltimore, One Block at a Time
In the realm of urban development, Bree Jones is a name associated with transformation and equity. Through her venture, Parity, she’s set out on a mission to breathe life back into West Baltimore. Parity is acquiring and rehabilitating abandoned properties block by block, creating affordable homeownership opportunities. In essence, it’s not just about construction but community rejuvenation. Jones’ commitment to change didn’t go unnoticed. Her first investment came from Ignite Capital, propelling her vision forward. Engaging with Innovation Works, she participated in their Accelerator program in 2020. Since securing her investment from Ignite Capital, Parity has gone on to begin development of its homes and recently held a ribbon cutting for its first two properties, with a plan to develop several dozen more over the next few years. Her growth journey continued, culminating in her joining the Ignite Capital Board and later ascending to Ignite Capital Investment Committee Chair.
Innovation Works’ focus over the next three years is to grow the number of entrepreneurs it supports, raise and invest more capital, and connect more enterprises to neighborhoods and markets. Lastly, in the spirit of cura personalis, Innovation Works is expanding its consideration and support of the whole person by ensuring social enterprise leaders are able to meet their basic needs while serving others. They plan to explore partnerships and resources to broker whole-person care and support social enterprises with resources to help them better capture and communicate their impact on Baltimore’s communities. Through their targeted programs and funding initiatives, they’re not just supporting social enterprises, they’re transforming the social fabric of Baltimore. With success stories like Lifting Labels and Parity, the message is clear: with the right backing, visionary entrepreneurs can change the world.
As Innovation Works celebrates its five-year Anniversary this fall, we invite you to stay tuned to their progress, their strategic priorities, and find a way to support them or the enterprises they serve. Their mission and efforts deeply embody Ignatian Spirituality and our call to be a person for others.