Not your parents' approach to philanthropy

Young entrepreneurs hope, through new group, to remedy urban problems

May 28, 2001|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

While in his 20s, Brian Le Gette and a friend at The Wharton School got the idea to create a pair of earmuffs that wraps around the back of the head, does not mess up a person's hair and has pockets to hold stereo headphones.

Le Gette and his friend managed to turn a profit out of that idea. They co-own Big Bang Products, a Canton-based company that designs, manufactures and markets consumer goods.

Recently, Le Gette, 35, began using his knack for entrepreneurship in another arena - philanthropy. He participates in the city's new Visionary Solutions Group, which consists of about two dozen young business leaders who want to devise new ways to tackle Baltimore's problems.

Started by the Baltimore Giving Project, a program run out of the Association of Baltimore Area Grantmakers that aims to encourage nontraditional types of philanthropy, the group wants to involve young entrepreneurs in charity so that even if they strike gold someday - especially if they strike gold someday - they will remember those less fortunate.

"People give most generously after they've been involved in the community," says Jan C. Rivitz, executive director of the Aaron and Lillie Straus Foundation and chairwoman of the Baltimore Giving Project.

The idea behind the Visionary Solutions Group is not unique. For years, fund-raisers have devised strategies to get "new economy" workers interested not only in making money, but also in giving it away. They hope to find the next Bill Gates while he - or she - is working out of a basement office and make a pitch before there's too much competition.

Visionary Solutions Group planners say their approach differs from others' because they hope not only to get young entrepreneurs involved, but to engage their entrepreneurial talents: Participants are expected to devise new solutions to city problems rather than get involved in projects that exist.

The first group meeting had no agenda, on the theory that the entrepreneurs involved would think better in a less-formatted setting.

"People think in different ways," says member R. Matt Goddard, 30, president of G1440 Baltimore, a Web design firm. "Some prefer an open environment where a lot of ideas flow. ... If you don't have an idea of where you are supposed to go, if you don't have a preconceived notion in your head, you are probably going to be more creative, talk about things you may not have talked about, look at things you may not have looked at."

The group has not decided how it will try to affect the city. At their first official meeting this month, members decided they want more diversity -racially and professionally - and vowed to recruit other leaders. They also started talking about issues they want to tackle: bringing technology to schools, helping struggling Baltimore communities, finding ways to connect businesses.

Recently, Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America, visited the group to talk about social entrepreneurship.

Planners and participants acknowledge that, like any new endeavor - especially in these iffy economic times - this one carries the risk of failure. But they are determined to remain optimistic.

"If this doesn't work, it's OK," says Buffy Beaudoin-Schwartz, director of the Baltimore Giving Project. "We've learned something."

But Le Gette has a track record for making new ideas work. In addition to the earmuffs, he and his business partner have patented "Snap-2-it," a self-opening beach mat with built-in air pillow that, when collapsed, can fit into a carry-on bag; a radio-controlled hang-glider; a pop-up sunshade that integrates with the beach mat; and a quick-fold beach chair that converts to a backpack.

Le Gette's vision extends to real estate as well. Two years ago, he bought a run-down former pencil factory in Canton and transformed it into a state-of-the-art office with a personal loft above. He parks his Harley-Davidson motorcycle at the front door and, when he needs a break, simply walks up the wooden ramp to his loft for a game of pool.

He was philanthropically engaged before the Visionary Solutions Group was born - Big Bang has a mentoring program for disadvantaged youth called "Little Bang." Over a five-year period, Le Gette says, the young proteges will design consumer products and market them on television.

Le Gette and other participants are adamant that whatever remedies they propose, they want to make them work. The group doesn't want to be one more initiative that is funded by foundations for a few years and then fades into obscurity.

"We're not going to be involved unless there's a result that we can see and touch," Le Gette says. "We're not going to want to spend our time doing something that's not going to have a result."

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