Social Enterprise: Forging a New Path for Social Workers Wanting to Blend Social and Business Missions

By Merry P. Korn, CEO, Pearl Interactive Network

In 1979 I was enrolled at the Ohio State University School of Social Work. Following in my sister’s footprints, I thought a Master’s Degree in Social Work would prepare me for my destiny, a career as a clinical social worker. When one of my graduate school colleagues made the off-handed remark that I belonged in the school of business, I was too young and unaware to realize there was some truth to what he said.

Subsequent to graduation, I recognized early on that working as a clinical social worker was not my calling. The years rolled by and I found myself at a loss.  I did not feel that there was a fit for me within traditional clinical social work or business settings.  After many frustrating years of trying to find my life’s mission while blending my dual passions for social work and business, I finally retained a career coach. After months of what my career coach referred to as an “internal excavation,” I learned that my calling was to own or run a social enterprise. The only problem was that I wasn’t sure what a social enterprise was.

According to the Social Enterprise Alliance, the definition of a social enterprise is a “business whose primary purpose is the common good. They use the methods and disciplines of business and the power of the marketplace to advance their social, environmental, and human justice agendas.

In 2004 I launched Pearl Interactive Network, Inc., a for-profit social enterprise. Our mission is to deliver superior contact center services accessing home-based or client-site agents while providing jobs to skilled and talented people with challenges, such as disabled veterans, veterans, caregivers, military spouses and people with disabilities.

Among the services we provide to government and commercial clients are:

•      Call Center
•      Administrative Services
•      Help Desk

To date we employ 40 home-based contact center associates located in 19 states. Eighty-five percent of our home-based employees are disabled veteran or people with disabilities.

In April of this year we received notice of winning a federal bid as a subcontractor. We won a four year, $32,000,000 contract to provide resourcing and program management for a contact center located in the Midwest. This contract escalates to a total of 300 employees on payroll by mid-September of 2013.  Our hiring priority for this initiative is wounded warriors, veterans, military spouses, and people with disabilities. I feel my background social work has been invaluable in business.  As a leader of a social enterprise, I use assessment skills, compassion, and problem-solving skills to forge through the challenges of running a business. As a social advocate and one who wants to leave a profound, positive and impactful footprint, I believe the more successful our business is, the more we further our mission of providing sustainable jobs and opportunities to people with challenges. As I become involved in contract sales and business development, I revert to my social work training that taught me to begin any new relationship with understanding where the client is, developing a sense of rapport and trust, and working collaboratively with the client in developing strategies to accomplish goals.

Statistics on Social Enterprises

A survey conducted in 2009 by the Social Work Alliance and Duke University Center for Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship helps to advance our understanding of this emerging field.

Statistics on Survey Respondents

Findings were:

  • Social Enterprises have seen growth since the 1970s
  • The most rapid growth in social enterprises occurred in the 1990s and 2000s
  • Nonprofits are becoming more business-like
  • For-profits have increasing tendency to embrace environmental and social causes
  • 57% of respondents considered launching a social enterprise
  • 47% are driven by prospects of revenue generation and social impact
  • 87% of operating social enterprises anticipate launching another in 3 years
  • 50% have two or more social enterprises

Top 5 missions:

–      Workforce Development
–      Housing
–      Community and Economic Development
–      Education
–      Health

Earnings:

–      34% earned revenues over $1,000,000000
–      25% less than $100,000
–      Revenues higher for organizations with long history

Hurdles to Starting a Social Enterprise:

–      27% Sales and Marketing
–      23% Financial
–      13.8% Human Resources
–      11.9% Operations

CEO Merry P. Korn, MSW, is the former senior vice president of marketing for American Health Holding, Inc., a national medical management firm. As a member of the senior management team she assisted in growing the business to 23 locations nationwide, from 4 to 350 employees.  As founder and CEO of Pearl Interactive Network she continues to lead the growth of the company in the federal, mid level, and association markets.  Under her direction, the company has earned awards and recognition from sources such as Bloomberg Reports, BusinessWeek, Harvard Business Review, and obtained a 95% client satisfaction rating from a Dun and Bradstreet evaluation.