Thursday, February 22, 2018

You Must Do this One Thing in a Business as Mission

I was recently asked in a meeting of executives what was one thing I would recommend to a Christ-following business owner wanting to bring his or her faith more directly into the workplace.

Without hesitation, I immediately recommended what we call the “hood-check.”

This particular discussion was interesting because most of the participants came from the for-profit world and they were really struggling with how to appropriately increase the role of faith in their companies without alienating employees or running in violation of discrimination rules.

I have a slightly different perspective because our non-profit organization, Belay Enterprises, was specifically set up as an urban business as mission incubator. We actively combine faith and business as instruments in rebuilding lives from addiction, homelessness or prison. Sometime other business owners seem to think that this special perspective from our unique “DNA” makes our approach not immediately replicable in a tradition for-profit business.

I disagree. If you’re a Christian business-owner your business is your ministry. And the day-to-day interactions you have with employees, customers, vendors, and competitors is sometimes the best chance for people in our culture to experience Christ’s love in a society that has decided that church no longer provides relevant answers to life’s problems.

And this is where the practice of “hood-check” can be a simple yet effective way to help people discover God’s love and God’s desire for people to be in community with others.

At Bud’s Warehouse, we practice “hood-check” at least once a week during our morning meeting. It’s the one thing that keeps the many challenges facing individuals re-entering society from prison from negatively impacting our workplace. We just simply gather together. Our program director invites everyone around the table to share what’s going on in their individual life. Men and women simply answer the question, “How are you doing?”

At first, it’s sometime awkward for new individuals and they simply answer “fine” or “good” like most of the individuals gathered around the table. But very quickly new participants learn it’s a safe place to share. They start to look-forward to a time where people are actually interested in them. Men will tell of marriages that are struggling though bumpy times. Women will share about children that are ill. Others will celebrate something a family member recently did or simply share that they had a hard time sleeping the night before. But though it all, a community of caring is created.

And the empathy carries over into the rest of the day. We find that inter-personal conflict is diminished because co-workers are aware of each other as individuals. If someone shares that they had a fight with their spouse before coming into work, other co-workers are more understanding when that individual seems on edge throughout the day. Never underestimate the positive impact caring employees will have on relationships and the success of a business.

Finally, the hood-check opens up the opportunity for prayer. We close our time together praying about the individual issues shared around the table. Employees don’t have to participate but the large majority does. Even those who don’t believe in God find that they do like the idea of a God who cares for the struggles in their life. And over time God answers those prayers and becomes more visible to even the biggest skeptic. Then the power of the hood-check really shines through.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The Golden Rule for Business as Mission


"What’s the nicest thing someone has done for you?"

With that question, we opened a recent Bud’s Warehouse morning staff gathering. 

Someone shared about the time he was arrested but the officer arranged to have him released quickly. The policeman waited two hours for him to be processed and then drove him to get help. It was the one caring act that changed the course of his life.

Another staff member told about how a counselor in a drug treatment program went out of her way to help him get into a long-term program. “She single-handedly gave me a shot at having a life again,” he said.

Several others talked about how friends and parents selflessly helped them when they were in need. Everyone quickly realized that sacrifice and selflessness is always behind those nice actions.

But when we changed the question to what was the nicest thing you did for someone else, the room grew quiet, mostly because it’s hard to talk about such things because ex-offenders have been conditioned to believe it shows weakness. But maybe it’s really because we all don’t do sacrificial things for others often enough. Our culture has taught us to look out first for ourselves.

Then we read the Golden Rule.

“Do to others what you would have them do to you.”

Everyone had heard that before but not everyone knew that Jesus taught that in Matthew 7:12. And he taught it in the context of prayer. If you ask for something good for you in the eyes of God, he will give what’s best to you because God can’t help but act like a good father. But like a good father, we need to do the Golden Rule…treat others like we want to be treated.

That lesson is so much bigger than one’s personal life and relationship with friends and family. It is one of the keys to success in a workplace. People who treat co-workers, bosses and customers as they themselves want to be treated are on the way to success on the job and in life.

If you are running a business as mission venture, the Golden Rule needs to be a fundamental value of your organization. Teaching about it opens the door to two topics that in my experience all people like to talk about: Treating others like you want to be treated and creating a space for asking God for help even if one isn’t sure God’s even there.

Indeed, what business wouldn’t be better if it’s employees lived out the Golden Rule and understood that God cared for their needs? 

Friday, February 9, 2018

A Good Job is the Best Way to Fight Poverty

That fact has formed the foundation of my career leading Belay Enterprise's over the last 18 years. I have seen first-hand how good jobs in faithful organizations transform lives.

Employment helps people move beyond the problems of being disadvantaged. It ends homelessness and prevents individuals from returning to prison. It allows people to support their families and engage in the creativity God intends for all to enjoy through work.
   
Work also provides the environment for people to learn about God in faithful businesses.

Since 1994, Belay Enterprises' mission has been to partner with the church to start businesses that employ and job train individuals rebuilding lives from addiction, homelessness and prison. Over the past 24 years, Belay has incubated six projects in Colorado that have hired hundreds of individuals.

At different points over the years, Belay has set various goals of starting a certain number of businesses by a future date. But increasingly we realize that this is not enough. If we are going to positively impact disadvantaged communities, we have to engage for-profit entrepreneurs, who are the true engines of job growth in a community. I have seen firsthand how there are many talented entrepreneurs sitting on the sidelines of our churches that if engaged towards these goals could make a much bigger impact employing individuals rebuilding lives than Belay alone.

This year, we have been designing out our newest project, the Belay Venture Partners program. But others have been encouraging me that our vision should be bigger than just the Denver community. It should expand to include other cities throughout the US and the world. 

Belay Venture Partners plans to connect Christ-following business leaders with emerging entrepreneurs to provide technical assistance, mentoring relationships and venture funding.  

We envision the program to have a team of MBA students or retired business people identifying startup or existing business as missions in need of incubation or acceleration services. The initial team would then help with business plan development and crafting a venture support plan. After a handful of businesses have been identified, the ventures will be shared with a group of Christian business people who have been identified to be mentors and investors. 

Each business in the program will be partnered with 7 mentor/ investors of which Belay would be the 7th. The Venture Partners program will invest donor advised funds (DAF) into the business that will then be paid back by the business to revolve into future investments in other Business as Missions. During the period of repayment, the businesses would have regular mentor meetings with the group as a whole and the Belay team with the aim to help the businesses grow and thrive. 

Over all, the aim is to create more jobs employing people rebuilding lives from poverty.

Does this interest you? Please contact us here if you'd like to learn more or if you have thoughts on our approach. Also, let us know if you'd like to be a business mentor.







Thursday, February 8, 2018

The Book I Always Recommend for Urban Business as Mission

Over the last 18 years of my time at Belay,  I've read a lot of books on leadership, social enterprise, and serving disadvantaged communities. My all time favorite one is Father Greg Boyle's Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion. If you're interested in experiencing the crazy world of leading a faith venture, his beautiful book is a must read. And now he has written a new book, Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship, which I am excited to read.

Tattoos on the Heart wonderfully captures the flavor of employing ex-gang members rebuilding lives at Los Angeles' Homeboy Industries. Instead of being a how to book or a history of Homeboy, Boyle organizes his stories around nine spiritual themes that arise out of his unique ministry. These include the importance of God, the damaging nature of dis-grace, the slow nature of God's work, the difficulty of defining success apart from God and the value of kinship.

Indeed, these themes are fundamental to any faith venture business as ministry and are a good primer for anyone considering such an activity. 

In particular, I loved how he understands Homeboy to be a place that absolutely needs God to show up in order to be successful. He tells how depending on God for resources became an exercise of faith. "We constantly lived in the paradox of precariousness. The money was never there when you needed it, and it was always on time." (Tattoos on the Heart, p. 5)
He understands Homeboy Industries to be all about God. It is not good business in the traditional sense. He writes, "Not much in my life makes sense outside of God. Certainly, a place like Homeboy Industries is all folly and bad business unless the core of the endeavor seeks to imitate the kind of God one ought to believe in. In the end, I am helpless to explain why anyone would accompany those on the margins were it not for some anchored belief that the Ground of all Being thought this was a good idea." (Tattoos on the Heart, p 21)

Further, I enjoyed Father Greg's assertion that faith venture work is a slow journey. As Americans, we are culturally addicted to the idea of fast results. He gently reminds that God shows up but we must learn to trust in his slow approach. 
"Fortunately, none of us can save anybody," he notes. "But we all find ourselves in this dark, windowless room, fumbling for grace and flashlights. You aim the light this time, and I'll do it next. The slow work of God. And you hope, and you wait, for the light--this astonishing light." (Tattoos on the Heart, p 128)

And sometimes God's activity becomes difficult to see. Indeed, the very nature of success becomes hard to measure in a faith venture. "People want me to tell them success stories. I understand this. They are the stories you want to tell, after all. So why does my scalp tighten whenever I am asked this? Surely, part of it comes from my being utterly convinced I am a fraud." (Tattoos on the Heart, p. 167)

He continues:
Twenty years of this work has taught me that God has greater comfort with inverting categories than I do. What is success and what is failure? What is good and what is bad? Setback or progress? Great stock these days, especially in nonprofits (and who can blame them), is placed in evidence-based outcomes. People, funders in particular, want to know if what you do "works." Are you in the end successful? Naturally, I find myself heartened by Mother Theresa's take: 'We are not called to be successful, but faithful'...For once you choose to hang out with folks who carry more burden than they can bear, all  bets seem to be off. Salivating for success keeps you from being faithful, keeps you from truly seeing whoever's sitting in front of you. Embracing a strategy and and an approach you can believe in is sometimes the best you can do on any given day. If you surrender your need for results and outcomes, success becomes God's business. I find it hard enough to just be faithful. (Tattoos on the Heart, 167-168)

I could go on and on with Boyle fantastic insights on the unique nature of employing individuals rebuilding lives. But you really need to get this book for yourself. Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion reflects Boyle's unique talent at telling the stories of the community he serves.

A few years ago, I presented at a Social Enterprise Alliance conference following a talk by Father Greg. He is one of the best and most engaging speakers ever. If you ever get a chance to attend one of his talks, make it a priority. In the meantime, grab the book and enjoy this picture of a unique community of love.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

The Power of Second Chances

Early during my time at Belay Enterprises, I became a big fan of Prison Entrepreneurship Project (PEP) and it's passionate founder Catherine Hoke because of our shared affinity for creating opportunities for ex-offenders through business development. Belay even spent a year developing our own jail based commercial kitchen employment and training program inspired by the results PEP was achieving behind bars. Though we ultimately decided to focus on other program priorities, I continued to be a big fan of harnessing the entrepreneurial spirit of ex-offenders to create employment opportunity and reduced recidivism rates.

But then in 2009, Catherine made a big mistake and she had to leave PEP. I felt so bad for her and was sad that her voice for ex-offenders disappeared.

Yet, her story was not over when she experienced her own second chance, starting Defy Ventures in 2010. I participated as a speaker on a panel with her a few years later in New York City where her passion and talent was on full display, accentuated by her own experience of a second chance to do what she loves on behalf of ex-offenders.

Now she has written a book, A Second Chance: For You, For Me, And For The Rest Of Us, that beautifully details how her experience of grace has transformed her life and mission.

Tim Ferris, one of my favorite podcasters, also has a wonderful long-form interview with Catherine here.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Importance of Cash Flow Forecasts for the Business as Mission

Monitoring your cash flow and budget is the third most important activity of a faith venture entrepreneur. It falls right behind seeking God's direction for the business and marketing.

It's third, because you want to make sure your business is serving God's desires and not money while marketing is the lifeblood of any venture. But staying on top of your cash flow is in a close third place because it is an early warning indicator for the whole business, providing valuable time to solve potential future problems.

I've witnessed numerous practitioners err in this area by taking their eye off of this important indicator of how the venture is doing. In the business as mission start up community in developing nations, I have also frequently seen start-ups where the practitioner is not deploying basic accounting software so they are completely unaware of their venture's financial position except when it comes time to pay employees and bills.

Five years ago, during the start up of our custom cabinet business that employs ex-offenders, we made a mistake by growing too fast because of some positive publicity on a local news station and by also offering installation and finishing. We took a large amount of 50% down payments on jobs to help us buy the wood but then proceeded to anger customers with poor quality and installation work because we were attempting too many jobs at the same time. The situation quickly deteriorated with expenses far in excess of what we were billing for the jobs as well as our operation needing to refund some customers.

I had been closely monitoring our cash flow through this process but one day things went really bad and our cash flow projection showed us in danger of running out of money for payroll. I found myself praying for provision to overcome our mistakes as well as wisdom for the future. That day, a check arrived in the mail from an anonymous donor that covered our immediate money needs, allowing us to pay employees, satisfy our customers and change our business model. We stopped installing cabinets and started focusing on building just one line of unfinished shaker style cabinets. And we carefully managed our growth to ensure we could deliver a high-quality product ensuring the future success of our business. If we hadn't been monitoring our cash flow on a daily basis, we most likely would have missed our looming inability to pay our employees and been unable to proactively solve the problem.

Do you have a basic spreadsheet that helps your venture predict future income and expenses on a daily basis? It is not hard to create and can make a big difference in serving your business as mission goals. I'd be glad to share a simple spreadsheet to help.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Work is an essential part of what it means to be a human.


A job is also the single best way to fight poverty.

These two realities have formed the foundation for Belay Enterprise's mission of partnering with the church to create businesses that employ and job train individuals rebuilding lives from addiction, homelessness and prison. Over the past 21 years, Belay has incubated six projects in Colorado that have hired hundreds of individuals.

At different points over the years, we have set various goals of incubating x number of businesses in the future. But we increasingly realize that this is not enough. If we are going to positively impact employment rates for disadvantaged communities in Colorado through jobs, we have to engage for-profit entrepreneurs, who are the true engines of job growth in a community. There are many talented entrepreneurs sitting on the sidelines of our churches that if engaged towards these goals could make a much bigger impact employing individuals rebuilding lives from poverty than Belay by itself.

This year, we are rolling out our newest project, the Belay Venture Partners program. We plan to connect Denver area Christian leaders with emerging entrepreneurs to provide technical assistance, mentoring relationships and venture funding. Visit our website here to learn more.

I am also excited to be embarking on a trip to Thailand and Nepal next week to learn more about job development for the poor in Asia. A few of the businesses that we will be visiting have the mission of creating employment for women escaping sex trafficking. I've been a big fan over the years of trying to find ways for urban business as mission practitioners in the United States to partner with their international counterparts.  I'm hoping that this trip will develop some new relationships that will enable business people to connect with the missions in both settings while growing the impact of these ventures.

Stay tuned on this forum for updates on my visit.