By Greg Conderacci
July 22, 2020 – Rev. Chester A. France worked for six years to launch his clerical robes company—only to see it stalled by COVID-19 and its space taken over by another social enterprise cranking out desperately needed face masks and face shields to protect caregivers.
But the 80-year-old minister is philosophical about that. “The Lord works in mysterious and miraculous ways,” he says.
The “miracle” behind both his companies, Lifting Labels Inc., and the personal protection equipment (PPE) effort by Sew Lab USA, is no mystery. It’s traceable to Innovation Works (IW), a one-of-a-kind Jesuit-inspired organization working minor miracles from Baltimore’s scrappy entrepreneurs to hospital executive suites.
In the last two years, the social enterprise development initiative has helped launch or support dozens of small companies, including both Lifting Labels and Sew Lab. IW taps the talent, creativity and energy of people in economically distressed neighborhoods to help rebuild Baltimore—from the inside out.
“The key difference between our entrepreneurs and more mainstream ones is simple: our entrepreneurs often lack resources more readily available for others. So, IW provides the training, hands-on mentoring, financial support and network connections that fill the gap,” says IW President Jay Nwachu.
Although IW usually works quietly at the grassroots level, COVID-19 has showcased the organization’s creative muscle. The pandemic initially idled several of its entrepreneurs, but then IW brought them and others together to make face masks and protective shields at Open Works, a maker’s space closed by the crisis. It was an instant entrepreneurial ecosystem—where some would have seen only shuttered buildings.
“We organized a Tuesday afternoon conference call with the heads of several hospitals, and they all agreed to buy the protective shields,” says IW Founder and Board Chair Frank Knott, a graduate himself of Loyola Blakefield and Loyola College in Maryland. “Now they tell me they prefer our protective shields to the ones they used to buy.”
“This has been truly an impressive project serving a great need,” says Maryland Province Provincial, Fr. Robert Hussey, SJ, who engineered the Jesuit seed money that gave IW its start. “Not only is this outstanding social enterprising, but it’s an opportunity for everyone in the Jesuit family to support what will be a powerful national model.”
Rev. France’s story is more typical of an IW social entrepreneur. “I spent six years spinning my wheels to pursue my God-inspired vision before I discovered Innovation Works,” he explains. Since then, IW has provided him with business development advice, executive mentors and financial support. It even helped him produce a pitch to potential investors. Today, he’s much closer to his vision of a company that provides jobs to returning citizens. “IW made all the difference
in the world,” he says.
On the surface, IW is swift and sleek. “We’re way ahead of where everybody thought we’d be,” says Knott. But “under the hood,” IW boasts a solid, sustainable system based on a methodology pioneered by the Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship at Jesuit Santa Clara University.
The Miller Center approach has been accelerating entrepreneurship in developing countries for almost two decades, all around the world, but never before in the U.S. IW is the “test bed” and perhaps the first of many such programs in American cities.
What makes IW so unique—and promising—is its “in-it-for-the-long-haul” philosophy fueled by Ignatian values, Knott explains. It’s not enough to “start” companies; they have to grow and scale. “Our goal for the next 10 years is to launch 250 sustainable enterprises, attracting $100 million in capital, employing 5,000 people. It’s not a 10-year vision with six months of support. We’re accompanying these entrepreneurs for years.”
To support that effort, IW has already recruited about 50 volunteer mentors—experienced businesspeople who provide advice and support—and plans to recruit hundreds more. IW’s transformative strategy goes beyond helping local leaders build strong companies. “Our work starts in the neighborhoods. By building strong relationships and infrastructure, we are able to honor neighborhood identity, connect and share. Without this, we couldn’t achieve our mission,” Nwachu says.
“The race-based wealth gap is deeply connected to Baltimore’s challenges—we’re helping to address these challenges with sustainable neighborhood economies,” Nwachu adds.
As an example, Nwachu is already planning to reorganize the PPE-making efforts to put it on firmer, longer-term footing to serve the health care sectors’ needs. And that’s just fine with Rev. France. He wants his robe-manufacturing space back.