“Social” might be the word of the 2010s. Social media, corporate social responsibility, democratic social-ism… Okay, maybe there isn’t as many examples as I thought, but it is one of, if not the, defining words of the decade.

People are seeking greater social connection and it’s changing the ways we interact in different aspects of life.

Social enterprise is another example. The non-profit and business worlds collide with this one, changing the landscape of both industries and creating a sense of connection between product and people.

If you’re socially conscious at all, it’s time you jumped on the crowding bandwagon.

So, what exactly is a social enterprise?

Well, there’s a bit of confusion there.

While it’s not a new model of non-profit – Goodwill Industries, for example, has been a social enterprise for over 100 years – there’s not one uniformly accepted definition.

One reason is the model has two seemingly competing core principles: the mission and the revenue. Both are necessary, and yet, both can eat into the other if overemphasized.

The other reason is that popular professional endeavors like social entrepreneurship, corporate social responsibility (CSR), and entrepreneurial nonprofits are similar, but not synonymous with social enterprise.

This confusion is part of the reason communities have struggled to truly take this model and run with it. Competing purposes are hard to balance in our brains, especially when we’re making identity-defining decisions in our purchases.

For today, though, we’ll go with this simple definition:

“A social enterprise is a business created to further a social purpose in a financially sustainable way.” – NESsT

Now let’s flesh that out a little bit. It’s a business. It sells something – a service or product – for a profit. In turn, those profits are used to further a social purpose. The money gained has the distinct goal of helping people, often the enterprise’s employees. And lastly, the revenue is sustainable. The business produces something the people want and that they’ll spend enough money on to keep the business functioning.

And why is it sexy right now?

Well, for one, it works. But we’ll get there.

On a larger scale, nonprofits are facing stiffer competition. They’ve been forced to seek creative revenue streams to supplement charitable donations. There simply are not enough donations to fund the work, and non-profits have to be very careful how they fundraise (for fascinating perspective on this issue, watch this TED Talk by Dan Pallota).

On the for-profit side, businesses see the benefits of appealing to a growing market of consumers who appreciate and even demand greater social responsibility.

Plainly, people really like the idea and the sector is hot.

In a report done by the Social Enterprise Alliance two years ago, 60% of social enterprises in the US began 2006 or later and 29% started post-2011.

The energy of the sector is expanding all over the country, from LA to, of course, Denver, Colorado.

What’s the landscape of the Denver social enterprise scene?

Expanding.

It has its veterans like The Women’s Bean Project and Work Options for Women who’ve been around since the 90s as well as young guns like The Mile High Workshop, Purple Door Coffee, and Peak Thrift who are only three years old or newer.

REDF, a national philanthropic venture that solely invests in social enterprises, recently picked two of these social enterprises, The Mile High Workshop and the Women’s Bean Project, for large grants to expand their operations. They along with 20 others across the US were chosen out of 200 applicants as being “some of the most innovative and effective social enterprises in the country.”

But each of these Denver enterprises has both the compassion of a dedicated nonprofit with the strategy of the best small businesses.

Employees sow pillows together at The Mile High Workshop, a Denver manufacturing social enterprise. Photo: Kelley Birschbach

Employees sow pillows together at The Mile High Workshop, a Denver manufacturing social enterprise. Photo: Kelley Birschbach

What missions do social enterprises impact?

It’s varied, but many social enterprises focus on job training programs for people who otherwise would struggle to find employment – people stuck in poverty, those with criminal records, a history of homelessness or addiction, mental health disabilities, or those who did not finish high school.

Here are some favorites doing just that in Denver that you can partner with:

1. The Women’s Bean Project

The Women’s Bean Project makes gourmet food, handcrafted jewelry, and women who believe in a better life.

Most of the women come having failed more than they’ve ever succeeded,” says Tamra Ryan, CEO of the Women’s Bean Project (watch her TEDx Mile High talk). “So one of the hardest things for them is becoming successful and I would say, feeling like they’re worthy of a better life. That doesn’t happen over night. It happens over time because of little successes.”

They’ve been providing the space for those little successes for over two decades to hundreds of women. 89% of which sustain a job for at least a year after they leave the program.

You can purchase their food at 1000 stores in 40 states – any King Soopers or Safeway in the dried food section. They’re also available in some fair trade stores like Momentum in Boulder as well as online at the project’s website, Amazon.com, Overstock.com, Walmart.com, and Samsclub.com.

2. Purple Door Coffee

Purple Door Coffee is a coffee shop that believes every person who walks through their doors deserves the treatment of kings and queens (purple is the representative color of royalty).

Mark Smesrud, Director of Purple Door Coffee sees social enterprise as an ideal for people ready to make steps towards stability.

Social enterprise creates a more realistic environment from the job-training side of things and caters to those folks [who have serious trauma in their background]. It moves them towards development rather than keeping them in this perpetual need of services.

Purple Door Coffee is a perfect shop for working and sipping. It’s located in Five Points at 2962 Welton St., Denver, CO 80205.

Purple Door Coffee, a social enterprise job training program for homeless young adults in the Five Points neighborhood. Photo: Kelley Birschbach

Purple Door Coffee, a social enterprise job training program for homeless young adults in the Five Points neighborhood. Photo: Kelley Birschbach

3. The Mile High Workshop

The Mile High Workshop is a quickly growing manufacturing and shipping company with a job-training program for people transitioning out of tough situations. They specialize in helping small businesses scale with high quality services at fair rates.

It’s a business, says the Director, Andy Magel.

We do not want anyone to partner with us on the business side out of charity or sympathy. We want to give them the service that they desire so they can make that decision from a purely business perspective. Our mission is the cherry on top.”

Are these Denver social enterprises making a dent in their missions? 

All three of the ones above have over 75% graduation rates and powerful stories of life-change.

REDF says its social enterprises have a 268% increase in income with a drop in reliance on government assistance from 71% to 24%. Housing stability triples for their partner organization employees. Plus, they say every $1 invested in social enterprises yields $2.23 back to society.

This accounts to thousands of dollars, maybe even millions, both for the individual and tax payers over the course of years and a lifetime.

That’s success.

How can I support social enterprise?

Take a moment to do a bit of research on these three or others in Denver. Make the decision to buy their products over the big guys.

They are businesses, but like Magel said, the missions are cherries on top and those cherries are ours to eat. A chai latte tastes all the more sweet (or spicy, both kinds of chai are available at Purple Door Coffee) when you know your buying decision is supporting a business that is truly social.