“The people who are closest to the challenges in their communities are often closest to the solutions.” That’s a mantra for Michelle Geiss, co-founder and executive director of the Impact Hub Baltimore, a thriving center in the heart of the city, which describes itself as “part innovation lab, part co-working space, part civic forum.”
Baltimore, Geiss says, is a city that faces a number of social challenges, including deeply rooted economic, educational and health disparities. Traditional nonprofits focused on these issues tend to engage with founders who already have access to funding — “and there’s nothing wrong with that,” she emphasizes, “except that it leaves a whole lot of people out. The best ideas for solving these issues are from people who come to the work from a place of experience. They know, on a nuanced and detailed level, what will work and why.”
Supporting grassroots social innovators who have great ideas but are new to the nonprofit ecosystem means providing practical help, such as office space and business development classes. It also means providing introductions to funders, mentors, collaborators and additional resources, such as the Social Innovation Lab at Johns Hopkins University and the Conscious Venture Lab accelerator.
The city’s social innovation community works together in a way that Geiss says feels unique to Baltimore, which can feel like a small town despite a population of more than 600,000. Instead of cutthroat competition, “people show up for each other here,” she says. “They’re willing to share resources and information to bring along others,” including three founders nurtured at the Impact Hub who are innovating around issues they’ve lived through.
Breaking Down Barriers to Re-Entry After Incarceration
People who were incarcerated face major obstacles to rebuilding their lives after their release, even if their crimes were nonviolent — a truth that Laurin Leonard and her mother, Teresa Hodge, faced firsthand after Hodge completed a federal prison sentence.
Leonard and Hodge founded Mission: Launch in 2012 to foster entrepreneurship as a road to economic stability after prison. As the team got deeper into the work, they saw that accessing business-building capital is nearly impossible for those whose background checks raise red flags for lenders. “We realized that we were failing people by preparing them to be entrepreneurs who couldn’t get capital,” Leonard says.
Today, Mission: Launch still works directly with entrepreneurs but has evolved to focus on overhauling the traditional background check so lenders and employers can more fairly assess formerly incarcerated people. Its web-based tool, R3 Score, incorporates other factors into the algorithm, such as whether the applicant has pursued education and reconnected with family.
Mission: Launch is part of the current Conscious Venture Lab cohort, which includes a $100,000 equity investment. That happened, Leonard says, because Baltimore’s social innovation scene is full of “people who intentionally make introductions and are really thoughtful about how they can help you in this space. I’ve had doors opened for me that I could never have imagined.” In January, the cohort will stage a demo day for potential funders.
Support for Moms Who Need It Most
“We are dying in record numbers and nobody is doing anything about it,” says Ana Temple Rodney, a Young Innovator recently accepted into the next cohort at the Johns Hopkins Social Innovation Lab.
Pregnancy and childbirth complications among women of color have been on the rise in the U.S. for years. When Rodney gave birth prematurely to her son Aiden in late 2014, both of them had significant complications — and Rodney’s experience with the healthcare system galvanized her to start MOMCares in 2015. A postpartum doula program that serves single women of color who face economic stressors and have babies in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), MOMCares aims to support better health outcomes by helping mothers practice self-care, access social services and spend more time with their babies.
In 2017, Rodney won a Baltimore Corps Elevation Award for city residents of color piloting novel approaches to strengthening their communities. “Baltimore Corps is a name that people trust in the community, so that award threw me into a whirlwind,” she says, and it brought her into the Impact Hub’s orbit of connections and support.
“Before I got here, I didn’t know what business was like — I thought everyone just hoarded their own stuff and figured it out by themselves,” she says. “But here, there’s a community that’s all about sharing access with others.” That includes helping Rodney hone her presentations to funders and hospitals.
Dirt-Bike Riders as Budding Engineers
Brittany Young always wanted to be an engineer but never met an engineer who looked like her: a black kid making her way through Baltimore city schools.
She earned a chemical engineering degree and now teaches technology while also running B-360, her nonprofit that engages youth from the city’s dirt-biking scene and shows them how their talents fit with science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers.
Dirt bikers are genius mechanics, problem solvers and makers — in short, they’re design engineers, Young says. B-360 kids learn STEM skills, such as prototyping and 3D printing; they also connect with mentors who help them envision career success in jobs that can lift families out of poverty. Brookings Institution research says that the average wage for middle-skill STEM workers in Baltimore is more than 61 percent higher than the wage for workers with similar educational backgrounds in non-STEM jobs.
Young’s novel approach to connecting kids and STEM earned her an Elevation Award and a spot at the Johns Hopkins Social Innovation Lab. “The first gave me money; the second gave me access,” she says, which led to a Warnock Foundation fellowship, a place in the first U.S. cohort of the Red Bull Amaphiko Academy for social entrepreneurs and other recognition, including a 2018 Echoing Green global fellowship.
Now, Young’s focus is to turn those accolades into funding to scale B-360. “My job is to be the ambassador to Baltimore about why people who look like me have solutions. We are creative. We are frustrated. And passion is what drives us,” she says.