Mike Curtin Jr. On Social Enterprise Opportunities In The United States Of America

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Michael F. Curtin, Jr. is the Chief Executive Officer at DC Central Kitchen, a nonprofit developer of innovative social ventures that break the cycle of hunger and poverty.

Under his leadership, DC Central Kitchen has grown from $3 million to $17 million in annual revenue with nearly 60% earned through mission-driven social enterprise activities and 48% of its staff having completed its own nationally-recognised Culinary Job Training program for individuals with high barriers to employment. DCCK’s staff provide locally-sourced, scratched-cooked meals to Washington, DC’s public schools, distribute wholesale fresh produce to area corner stores, and operate a retail café and catering operation in one of DC’s most underserved communities.

Prior to joining DC Central Kitchen in 2004, Mike had more than 20 years’ experience in the hospitality industry including owning and operating his own restaurant. He is frequent speaker on the intersection of workforce development, healthy food access, and social enterprise.

 

Mike shares useful ways to propel forward the social enterprise sector, he discusses systemic issues which need dealing with and talks about what to expect at the upcoming Social Enterprise World Forum in Ethiopia.

 

Highlights from the interview (listen to the podcast for full details)

[Tom Allen] - Could you please share a bit about your background and what led you to working in the social enterprise and nonprofit sectors?

[Mike Curtin Jr.] - Well, I'd have to say that, that part of my story is a long and windy path. Not one that would be easy to follow or that I would recommend anyone following it. I spent a fair amount of time in the hospitality business prior to coming to DC Central Kitchen. For a part of that, I owned and operated my own restaurant. A time that I now refer to as my first experience in the nonprofit sector. So not a terrific experience all the way around, although it did bring me ultimately to DC Central Kitchen.

But having worked in that hospitality area for so long and seen the value of food and how food can create community, I was intrigued when I came across DC Central Kitchen as a restauranteur and got to know Robert Egger, the Founder of DC Central Kitchen.

I volunteered here, I did some donations here, helped raise money for the kitchen, but never thought of it as a career. When my time in the restaurant ended, I was doing some consulting work and then I found this opportunity here at DC Central Kitchen. I, like many of our students, came to DC Central Kitchen looking for that next chapter in my life to find that purpose that I felt was missing. I am incredibly fortunate to have found that here and to be able to take the entrepreneurial side of my life from before the kitchen and to combine it with that social aspect. It was always an important part of my growing up with my family and really creating this social enterprise experience here at DC Central Kitchen.

It's been an incredible journey, Mike. So as CEO of DC Central Kitchen, I'd love to hear a little bit more about your organisation and the impact that you create every year.

What's really interesting for us, especially in the context of the social enterprise sector, is that we started out as a very traditional, you could even say charity, although we loathe to use that word. A social service organisation, gathering food that was going to be wasted, turning that into healthy meals and serving that to shelters and transitional homes and other organisations in Washington DC while doing a little job training.

What we learned quickly was that we couldn’t be doing that forever. That was sort of the model that had been adopted in this country to fight hunger and poverty was just giveaway free food. We quickly saw that, that wasn't going to work. We were never going to feed our way out of hunger. We never will feed our way out of hunger.

We had to create opportunities for the individuals to whom we were providing food as well as the folks coming to our training programme, pathways to independence. And so that's when we really began. There were a couple of other things that we'll probably get to that sort of triggered our significant steps into social enterprise. It's this realisation that we have to get people to a place where they can own their own destinies. That is what the kitchen has tried to do.

We focused on individuals who have extreme barriers to employment, whether those are histories of incarceration or addiction or homelessness or other traumas, but experiences that not only prevent them from becoming the people they want to be but are draining our economy of resources.

This is the whole social enterprise experience, right? To get to a place where we can do well, but do it in a sustainable way that's replicable and repeatable over time.

That's where the kitchen has really focused, and I think that when we've developed a social return on investment model, annually now, we're putting about $70 million of measurable social and economic benefits back into our community through the work that we do here at DC Central Kitchen.

It's absolutely enormous. Well done on achieving that Mike and team because that's no easy feat.

No. But it feels good when you do it.

Absolutely.

You spoke a little bit about changing your business model and also how you're looking to create a deeper, systemic level of change. So what have been some of your biggest challenges in leading the organisation and how have you navigated your way around them?

I have to say it's interesting. There are two that dovetail together. One that happened just recently that was a result of one of the earlier challenges, and that was way back in 2006 when the city was asking us to provide more meals to their shelters and to provide better meals for their shelters. A wider variety, menu variety, more fresh fruits and vegetables, more protein, but they asked us to do this all for free as they had for the previous 16 years.

We finally said, "You know what? We just can't continue to do this and we can't continue to do this in the way that needs to be done with the level of respect that needs to be given this food if the city is refusing to participate economically or financially in this venture."

We had to really convince them that this is part of their responsibility and we could do this together. We weren't asking them to pay for everything, but to treat us as a business and the work that we do as value and the individuals that we were working with and for were also valuable. That's what we wanted to do. One would have thought it would have been a fairly simple conversation, but it wasn't. It took months. Ultimately, at the end of it, we had to go on strike to get to the place where we really wanted to be. Part of that involved our founder, Robert Egger and myself going on an eight day hunger strike to prove, to really put a fine point on the point we were making, that this was not just about DC Central Kitchen, this one particular contract, but this was about the larger social sector and the value that needs to be placed on our work.

This was a huge challenge that we were facing, really the potential of going out of business, but we felt that standing up for the work that we were doing was wildly important. This led to a contract. It ended up being about a million and a half dollars. Really, our biggest step at that point into social enterprise.

That really teed us up to develop our other enterprises, most importantly, this locally-sourced school food programme that really we embarked on as a response to the global financial crisis in 2008 when philanthropy was really being threatened, but the need that we were serving was increasing. We figured we needed to expand our mission, but we needed to do it in a way that was, again, sustainable and scalable and we settled on school food and started in that business and continue to grow that. That started from a $2 million business to about six and a half million dollars now.

But most recently, last year, at the end of last year, we faced our biggest challenge when the city, for reasons still unknown, opted to give most of that shelter contract to a politically connected for-profit business based in Maryland. Outside of the district of Columbia. So that was a huge financial blow to us, but one that we could have responded to by laying off a significant number of staff, most of whom would have been graduates of our programme, but we didn't feel that, that was in keeping with who we are, where we wanted to be. So we had to not only figure out how we could cut some of our expenses but add more business. So over the last few months, we've added close to another million dollars in contracts, business that is really important to us and actually ultimately will be better for the community.

Again, as we've continued to feed the shelters, we've said, "Ultimately, this isn't the business we want to be in because this isn't helping people get to a better place. This is just gathering people to poverty." And we didn't really want to be privy to that or a party to that, so we've pivoted to really focusing on businesses that will not only create jobs but will create other economic value in the community.

All of those challenges are sort of tied together.

One of the pieces that does do that, that binds them, is the fact that no matter how hard we try, at least in the United States of America, this notion of social enterprise is still undervalued. It is not recognised for the significant larger economic, socioeconomic impact that it has.

I think folks particularly in UK, (and we'll see in Africa this year at the Social Enterprise World Forum), in Australia, New Zealand, in Asia, there's a much greater understanding and government support of these endeavours, but we're still lacking significantly here in the US.

Students from DCCK’s Culinary Job Training program join Mike Curtin, Jr. and celebrity chefs Spike Mendelsohn and Kwame Onwuachi for a photo during a donation event with Smithfield Foods.

What do you believe can be done to help improve that government support in the United States?

It's a really hard time.

We, as a sector, have to continue to do our work and continue to devise better ways to tell that story.

As I said, we've developed a social return on investment formula that we're really pushing out hard and really showing the value of training in a small investment and training in employing people as opposed to keeping people incarcerated.

Although we don't lead the world in social enterprise, we lead the world in incarceration and therefore we spend hundreds of billions of dollars a year, not only on lost productivity while people are in prison, but we still have these immense barriers and stereotypes and labels attached to people coming out of prison, preventing them from getting a job and being productive part of society.

This is a self-fulfilling prophecy, almost seemingly endless cycle of failure that we are promoting through government policies that prevent people from getting job clearances or just the emotional or psychological scars that people carry coming out of incarceration.

We really have to get our heads around that as a country and the government has a huge role to play if they're courageous enough and opt to do it.

Absolutely. Now, DC Central Kitchen are really essentially all about breaking the cycle of hunger and poverty, right? So are there any other key barriers that you believe are really getting in the way of doing that?

Well, I do think unfortunately these stereotypes around people who have faced some of these barriers exists as they did when Robert started the kitchen. And unfortunately, at this point right now in our collective history as a country, things are only worse, I'd have to say. There is still, unfortunately, this mythology about this notion of the American dream as if it's some sort of box on a shelf at the American dream story that anyone can walk in and just take it and go on their merry way.

That just isn't the way things are operating now. Like I said, it's getting worse.

We have to admit that there's an issue. We have to admit that there are inequities baked into the system. There is systemic racism that exists in our country today. Until we admit that, we're never going to get to a place where we can actually start doing something to solve it. We can't solve a problem that we pretend doesn't exist.

I think having that honest conversation and not being afraid to say, "Yes, this is wrong." It doesn't mean that I made it wrong, that I'm responsible for it being wrong, but God damn it, I can do something about making it better.

Staff of DC Central Kitchen’s new fast casual cafe, which serves healthy, local food prepared by graduates of the Culinary Job Training program, stop for a photo in the front-of-house.

Staff of DC Central Kitchen’s new fast casual cafe, which serves healthy, local food prepared by graduates of the Culinary Job Training program, stop for a photo in the front-of-house.

Mike, you mentioned earlier the Social Enterprise World Forum. This year, it's going to be held in Ethiopia where you're one of the speakers. What are you most looking forward to about this year's World Forum?

I continue to be fascinated at how this movement is growing and how the forum is growing now just after a decade. Going from a small group of a couple of hundred people to getting close to 2000 delegates from 60 or 70 countries around the world. That's fascinating for me. I'm really looking forward to being in Africa. I've never been to Africa. I have a dear friend from college who's Ethiopian and is working on a project there and I'm just so eager to share, to understand that culture a little more and to be part of that experience.

But what I always find so uplifting being at these gatherings and what I am very much looking forward to is experiencing this in a new country, with more delegates that probably haven't been to many of these forums in the past, and see these folks from the four corners of the world all doing the same stuff, all getting up every single day, fighting that good fight, slugging it out to make their communities a better place.

The scale is different, the methodology is different, but the motivation is the same. To me, that is so powerful at a time when it is hard to, in my mind, be an American and it is really hard to live in Washington DC where I live and just to be bombarded by the sadness and real ugliness of the news today.

To be in that place where people who really are living in much more trying circumstances than we are, but are full of the joy of the journey. I am just thrilled and can't wait to get down there and to be part of that experience and really just share that road that we're all on.

Fantastic. You've spoken about the growth, Mike, of SEWF over the last 10 years or so. Speaking a little bit more broadly about the sector in general, how have you seen it transform and change over the last five years or so?

Well, I'd say that, again, it's been amazing to see, I think, especially in the UK, (and that's where things I seem to be plugged in a little more, and in Australia, New Zealand and Asia), how much more government has taken a role in supporting this sector and recognising that it is far more than on the fringe, that it's just a group of people doing something that sort of queued over here that might help a few people but not really a whole lot…

To coming to a place where there is really this large recognition that this is a powerful new economy that we have to not only get our heads around, but support and really do the things that the government can't do directly, but certainly can support in ways that the communities, states and counties can make their own.

This can truly be homegrown solutions that can be supported by government entities. To see the growth of that and to see the government involvement in these forums and governments creating ministries and cabinet level positions for individuals that specifically focused on this sector, I think is incredibly promising. Again, my hope is that we over here in this States catch up with the rest of you all, so we can harness some of this power that we see.

So what advice would you give then to the aspiring social entrepreneurs out there who are listening who are trying their absolute best to create positive social impact?

One of the things we have on our website, is we've created what we call eight rules for righteous entrepreneurs. That's a term that Robert Frey coined many years ago. We came up with eight rules of things that we believe righteous entrepreneurs should do, and certainly social entrepreneurs fall in that category. Ultimately, what a lot of those come down to is belief.

We absolutely have to believe that what we are doing is the right thing. That to me is really motivation enough to keep going. You have to believe. Again, not only that this is right and this is good, but it's smart. This is the smart thing to be doing.

If we think about the impact that we have, maybe not one that you're not going to see on a profit and loss statement, but in terms of lives and about value created and community sustained and generational cycles broken. That is powerful, powerful stuff.

I think that's what social entrepreneurs have to keep going and have to keep developing that belief. That sense that we've got to keep going forward. Sometimes people ask me like, "Why do you do this?" I think they're looking for some sort of grandiose or some sort of Mother Teresa kind of a response. Although Mother Teresa might give this kind of response and I'd say, "I do it because I'm selfish. I have three kids."

Until now, most generations could say that they turned over a better place than they arrived in for their children. I don't think that we can do that, my generation can’t do that. There's a lot of problems we're going to be leaving behind.

If there's anything that I can do, if there's a smallest thing that I can be part of, it's going to make help to create a little bit of a better path for those coming behind me, then I want to do it because I'm selfish and I want to see a better future for tomorrow, for those leaders of tomorrow.

I align with you on that one, Mike.

To finish off then, what books would you recommend to our listeners? Perhaps there are some inspiring books to help people get out there and create that change you're talking about?

Well, there's a book by my colleague Alex Moore called The Food Fighters, which gives a really cool history of DC Central Kitchen, our first 25 years.

I did read something fairly recently... A book by a guy out of Harvard named Shawn Achor, called The Happiness Advantage. It's sort of like the nonprofit sector or the social enterprise sector. You think about happiness and you think, "Oh, it's great. Isn't that cute? Wouldn't it be wonderful if we're all happy?" But what he really talks about is how happiness actually makes businesses more productive. How this factors in to the economy.

Certainly, a lot of these kinds of books, are, I guess, easier read than done but it makes a lot of sense. As I'm talking to you, I'm in the basement of one of the largest homeless shelters in the United States. It's a crumbling building that I'd rather be almost anywhere but here. We're looking for a new home. We can build a better kitchen. We can have workspaces that are more dignified and respectful, but this is where we are.

If we can't be happy while we're doing this where we are, then we've got problems.

I think that, that's really cool, The Happiness Advantage.

The book that I'm just starting is by an economist named Mariana Mazzucato. It's called The Value of Everything: Making and Taking the Global Economy. I think she's done some work with the Scottish Government. I don't want to speak too much to her work because I'm just getting into it, but I've been reading a lot about her, is that she really deconstructs a lot of what we typically think about economy. Who are the makers, who are the takers, who's creating value, who's taking value.

She talks a lot about what she thinks is sort of this false dichotomy set up between the public and private sectors and one being good, one being bad, one being stagnant, one being creative. One that can make and one that takes in. I think that inside of that discussion, there's a significant role for our sector to play and to talk about really this fascinating bridge hybrid between those two; traditionally considered public and private sectors.

I think the social economy has a real role to play as we think bigger and less traditionally about the ‘economics 101’ that we were taught in high school and in college. I think this seems to be an interesting place for us as social entrepreneurs to be to maybe step into a place that hasn't been traditionally defined.

What a wonderful note to end on, Mike. It's been absolutely wonderful to speak today. Thanks so much for your generous insights and time. I'll look forward to seeing you in Addis Ababa, in October, at the World Forum.

I'm looking forward to it as well, my friend. I'll see you there, and thank you so much for all you're doing and spreading the word. We really appreciate it.

DCCK staff and volunteers pause for a photo during a cooking shift at the organisation’s main kitchen production facility in downtown Washington, DC.

DCCK staff and volunteers pause for a photo during a cooking shift at the organisation’s main kitchen production facility in downtown Washington, DC.

 
 

You can contact Mike on LinkedIn or Twitter. Please feel free to leave comments below.


Impact Boom are proud media partners of the Social Enterprise World Forum, Ethiopia, 23-25 October.

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