Socially minded entrepreneurs help students excel

Memphis has been noted for its above-average charity; we are a city willing to give. That generosity is bleeding over into local start-ups, where entrepreneurs increasingly want to make money and do good at the same time.
 
Here in Memphis, start-up founders and their investors are paying attention to bottom lines but are also listening to their social consciences while forming new enterprises. These social entrepreneurs seek not only to make financial profit, but also to improve their communities, particularly when it comes to providing services for students. Companies like The College Initiative, MentorMe and Agape North are making giving back to the local community an integral component of their business plans.
 
Brit Fitzpatrick and partner Scott Brown built MentorMe to help organizations running internal or external mentoring programs operate more efficiently and improve outcomes for mentoring relationships.
 
Fitzpatrick, MentorMe Founder and CEO, knows the impact mentoring has on education and professional development because she's seen it firsthand.
 
"When I read that there's a gap of 15 million kids in the U.S. who are in need of mentors but unable to be matched, I thought about how much human capital we're leaving on the table," she says. "I thought that there has to be a better way to connect mentors and mentees, while helping organizations build the capacity needed to serve that many people."
 
Fitzpatrick benefited from participating in mentoring programs growing up and continued to benefit from great mentors throughout college and in his career. Her philosophy is that the greatest innovation comes from challenges that involve moving the needle on complex social problems, but in a sustainable way, and that belief is what drew her to a for-profit social enterprise business model.
 
MentorMe replaces pen, paper and spreadsheet with an online platform that reduces administrative time.
 
"We provide a streamlined onboarding process, data and reporting tools, and mobile technology to keep mentors and mentees connected," Fitzpatrick says. "We're also developing matching algorithms to help organizations better match mentors and mentees, kind of like an eHarmony for mentoring."
 
MentorMe has partnered with the Memphis Grizzlies Foundation to bring its technology to local nonprofits throughout the city and help the Foundation track mentoring across it network of partner programs, including Streets Ministries, Grizzlies Prep Charter School and Reach Memphis. The group also works with the Greater Memphis Chamber through its Advice on Tap and MentorMemphis programs, which connect small business owners with mentors. 
 
Fitzpatrick and Brown graduated from the Seed Hatchery accelerator in May 2013, and the company received angel funding from Start Co. in January. The MentorMe platform launched in June, and it has already acquired 11 organizations and reached more than 1,500 users.
 
In 2015, MentorMe plans to expand the youth mentoring platform nationally and conduct some smaller pilots with universities and companies looking to implement mentoring as an employee engagement tool. 
 
The mission of the College Initiative and Founder/CEO Gabriel Fotsing is to help high schoolers build the skills needed to become college-educated leaders who give back to their communities.
 
"When I was in high school I knew that I wanted to go to college, and I knew my parents could not afford it," says Fotsing, who is originally from Cameroon. He cites the fact that only 48 percent of students in public K-12 schools are low-income, and only 8 percent of low-income students earn a college degree by age 25.
 
Fotsing eventually was able to attend Harvard on scholarship, and when he graduated he joined Teach For America and was placed in the Mississippi Delta, where he taught French, physical science and AP biology at Lee Senior High School.
 
"When I started teaching, what I realized was that many of my students, although they had a desire to go to college, didn't really know the steps that they needed to take to make sure the transition between high school and college went as smoothly as possible," explains Fotsing, who also graduated from the Start Co. business accelerator program.
 
His company has already supported more than 100 young people on their path to leadership and college success, and Fotsing's ambitious goal is to assist 150,000 students over the next five years.
 
Current College Initiative partnerships include with ongoing projects with Leadership Memphis and eight local high schools, as well as with some school systems in Arkansas.
 
Agape North is a Memphis-based social organization that makes custom apparel for businesses, churches and schools, while donating uniforms to students in need.
 
"We have donated nearly 25,000 uniforms to students in need in the last three years," says Founder and CEO Joe Williams. "We wanted to take products that people buy every day and put meaning behind them, and help to give back to our city. It's a great way for businesses to show their corporate responsibility and for churches to be able to give back to the community."
 
Companies and organizations purchase the apparel from Agape just as they would from any vendor, and Agape provides a certain number of donated uniforms based on a fee structure agreed upon at the time of purchase.
 
"I'm born and raised in Memphis, and I never knew the need that existed 20 minutes from my house," Williams says. "Memphis is becoming more and more of a charter school system. So many schools are now requiring uniforms, and there is a cost [for families] associated. We try to eliminate that cost while allowing the students to focus on their education."
 
He points out that many families can only afford one uniform shirt for their children, so Agape likes to be able to provide a second shirt for many families in need.
 
"It's like Christmas for some kids when they get a donated uniform. Something like a polo shirt with their school name embroidered on the front--something many of us would take for granted--is a very prideful thing for them," he says.
 
Agape's partnerships to date include work with the Junior League of Memphis, St. George's Independent School, Hilton Hotels, Germantown Methodist Church and International Paper. And up to 30 percent of Agape’s donations go to international destinations in Uganda, Kenya, Guatemala and Honduras.

Read more articles by Michael Waddell.

Michael Waddell is a native Memphian who returned to Memphis several years ago after working for nearly a decade in San Diego and St. Petersburg, Fla., as a writer, editor and graphic designer. His work over the past few years has been featured in The Memphis Daily News, Memphis Bioworks Magazine, Memphis Crossroads, the New York Daily News and the New York Post. Contact Michael.
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