'Green' business in the inner city

May 16, 1994|By Skip Maner

IT'S NOT easy buying green.

Media tell us about a growing awareness of so-called "green" issues, the social and environmental effects a business has on its community and environment.

But as an entrepreneur, I know that traditional business practice does not mirror the social and environmental trends that are getting so much media coverage these days.

Too many business people believe that business cannot be profitable and socially responsible at the same time. Frankly, when it comes to addressing the problems of the inner city -- appalling crime, hopelessness, joblessness -- charity alone is boring. But all too often, business people equate any kind of social responsibility with charity.

But this doesn't have to be the case. Take my business partner, Baltimore resident Charles Spann, for example.

Mr. Spann is president of TICO Enterprises, a company in the Inner Harbor that manufactures products from recycled materials, including wooden soap dishes and tool boxes, that are marketed internationally in retail stores. Mr. Spann runs the shop floor, oversees production and quality control, has helped develop and float a prospectus and produces the company's financial statements.

Exceptional? Perhaps not, until you consider that he is 19 years old. He is one of those people defined as a minority "at-risk youth" from the inner city. His background says he is not supposed to make it. I am one of those people described as fortunate, an MBA student and a business owner from the suburbs. Charles Spann and his associates make the products. I do the marketing. The Living Classrooms Foundation, a Baltimore program that teaches job skills to people like Charles, brought us together.

Today, Charles Spann supervises four other young men, all 18 and 19, all from troubled neighborhoods in Baltimore. They make the business decisions. We are a sort of business odd couple (or odd family). Some of my fellow MBAs think it is very odd to make money this way. There are more conventional ways to profit, and to profit more quickly. The free-market enterprise we practice is a way to make ideals tangible in a way that government programs or charities find it difficult, if not impossible, to do.

Like most business people, I believe in community. A community is a marketplace. Business cannot survive in a weak marketplace or in a weak community; each must help the other. Our approach is purely practical and opportunistic.

Like most business people, my primary concern is with the bottom line. But there is a second bottom line, the effect a company has on every single stakeholder in the enterprise: investors, stockholders, employees, customers, the community and the business and physical environment. Our endeavor takes this into account, and it is profitable. In other words, customers buy our products and allow us to profit because our products have this added value.

My company employs productive, ambitious young men who, without opportunity in the free market, might have no other alternative but to depend on welfare or, much worse, crime. A young African-American man in Baltimore today, for example, has a 55 percent chance of becoming part of the criminal justice system. That is unacceptable.

Traditional government programs are important. But like most business people, I see them as a starting point, not an end solution. With its new attitude toward enterprise zones and low-interest loans, Washington has stressed the critical need to provide assets and capital to the inner city. But as business people, it is our job to further address the even more critical challenge of providing markets there.

Simply stated, money follows the ability to make money. Markets are the keystone to hold any successful business venture together. My goal is to create markets by linking the energy and courage of profit-minded urban youth with consumers who can afford to buy what they have to offer. That is where the real money will come from to provide jobs, income and hope in the inner city. Showing that markets are there -- nationally and internationally -- will attract capital to Baltimore and elsewhere.

But the challenges to "buying green" are daunting at both ends. First, when a business comes into the inner city, there is understandable suspicion. There is a stigma attached to profit coming out of troubled neighborhoods. Second, it is hard to change old habits and thinking. They won't shift overnight; it will take a generation or more.

But whether it is the manufacturers, marketers, investors or consumers, desire is the one emotion that foments change. Like most business people, I believe that capital and free enterprise are the solution, not the problem. By providing the fundamentals of a true marketplace, with no favorites and no enemies, we can start to build a framework of self-sufficiency in inner-city America.

Skip Maner, 26, is president of Hoka-Hai Enterprises. He is an MBA student at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

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