Where did you sleep last night?
16th April 2012 · 0 Comments
You might not normally think that homelessness has anything to do with tech startups, but bear with me.
When a problem presents itself more than 3 times in one week, I tend to take it as a sign that I should think about it. This morning, Philip (my 13 year old son), myself, and one of our new founders, Eric Yoo of YooLotto, prepared and served meals to 171 homeless people in south Dallas at Cornerstone Kitchen. It’s something Eric does the second Saturday of every month and he invited the new Tech Wildcatters class to join him.
Last week I met with a local tech entrepreneur who spends much of his time and money helping educate homeless children. Yesterday I listened to a talk about a great organization that helps encourage those experiencing homelessness through running, called Back on my Feet.
The most profound experience however, was last weekend when I was in San Francisco. A friend and I were getting some breakfast and sat down at a patio table looking out over the Bay. At the table next to us was a homeless woman. A friend of hers stopped, along with his cart full of belongings, to talk to her. The first thing he said was “Where did you sleep last night?”
I don’t know about you, but that question sums up a lot. You and I might ask it with a wink and nod on a Sunday morning. He asked it because they both don’t have a place of their own to sleep.
I gave a talk yesterday about the personality traits I’ve observed in innovative people. If innovation = problem + solution + commercialization, then innovator = inventor + entrepreneur.
So let’s talk about homelessness as a problem that an innovator can solve. I know, how can someone possibly think about profit when it comes to the homeless? What a terrible thing!
But wait, if a big part of the problem is getting people engaged back into the economic system, shouldn’t they learn by doing?
The three of us, Eric, Philip and I, were in the car heading from where we prepared the food to where we were serving it. As we are all entrepreneurial, with more ideas than we could ever execute on, we hatched a new business idea. It’s yours for the taking if it will help you fulfill your mission. We’d love to brainstorm more if anyone is interested!
There are some similar concepts out there, but they are generally run by non-profits. For instance, there’s one in LA, called Made.
Thesis: If what many homeless are lacking is a job…then how can we put them to work? Forget working for free, I mean real w-2, you take a drug test and show up on time kind of work. If you do well, you get a raise, you get promoted. If you want to take your new skills and get a higher paying job somewhere else…mission accomplished. If you want to stay at the company, that’s great too. It’s basically a company that runs on the one resource that everyone seems to overlook when they see homelessness as a problem. The people. I realize not all of them are capable of working, due to things like addiction, illness, or choosing homelessness as a lifestyle. This isn’t for that group of people. It’s for the ones who want to get back on their feet. The ones who don’t want handouts. The ones who need and want the dignity of taking care of themselves.
So what would they sell? We thought through some simple products that could be sold the same way Tom’s Shoes or Ethos Water are…with a social mission marketing angle. Philip suggested the plastic bracelets that so many of us have, with the words ‘No Hobo’. I mean, if you’ll buy one that says ‘Save the Boobies’, why not? I proposed a line of screenprinted items and handmade jewelry, with inspirational quotes. Think the Life is Good company.
We talked through a lot of the what if’s. We really think this could work. Imagine if a homeless person could get a minimum wage job with full benefits and a place to work like google that serves meals, has childcare, and reimburses college tuition for employees and their families. Imagine if they could work within a company culture where people understand them. Imagine if it became one of the most profitable consumer product companies, with all profits being reinvested in growth.
Can’t hurt to try!