Social Change — Building the Business Model

Web of Change launched the 2009 season with Designing for Democracy — a multimedia presentation by social entrepreneur, technologist and artist Favianna Rodriguez at Vancouver’s stunning 319 Theatre. In our follow up interview, we asked the Oakland native about her business model for change, and how she has grown her social mission through a unique relationship between her web agency, TUMIS, and the Eastside Arts Alliance, the community non-profit she cofounded in 1999.

Your business model is unique. You’re the cofounder of a ground breaking non-profit that is supported through a thriving web technology business. Do you find this odd?

We’re definitely innovative, but hopefully not odd. People have been working towards ways of making activism and enterprise work together for a long time now. I think what’s happening is that we’re finally seeing the emergence of successful models that allow the two camps to work with, rather than against each other. In our case, that means that the Eastside Arts Alliance does more than receive support from TUMIS. The relationship is two-way, as any healthy relationship should be.

How does this two way relationship work?

You have to remember that this enterprise, TUMIS, began with the Eastside Arts Alliance, with social change, and not with the other way around. When the Alliance first formed in Oakland back in 1999 a part of its mission was to bring opportunity and business into the community. TUMIS grew out of that need and now serves clients from all over the United States. The Alliance, in turn, gives back to TUMIS by providing tangible resources that assist our business case.

So what specifically did the Eastside Arts Alliance offer TUMIS?

In the beginning, management expertise and knowledge. When we began TUMIS we were a group of dynamic and successful contractors with no experience running a corporation. The Alliance offered critical perspective about how organizations need to operate. Later, their programs began to evolve into a recruitment and training opportunity. Youth in our community had the chance to develop genuine creative and practical skills. Some have gone on to work for TUMIS or in the creative design field. One particular individual is now a partner in TUMIS. That’s real value for youth, TUMIS, and for the community as a whole.

So partnership is a key part of your business model?

At every stage. Nobody knows it all, and you have to realize that a great part of success comes down to recognizing what you don’t know and figuring out how to change that. That’s where partnerships come in, and the more diverse they are the better. TUMIS and the Eastside Arts Alliance have supported each other, but as TUMIS has grown, we’ve created partnerships well beyond that.

Do you have some examples?

We’ve dived into our personal networks and brought in experts willing to work on weekend or evening projects where we needed help the most. Outside talent helped fill in our knowledge gaps in law, project management, taxes, work flow, accounting and design. By tapping into the skills of our friends and colleagues, we were able to shore up our business model and clear up our blind spots. The result has been a far more stable, and forward looking organization.

A lot of people say that socially responsible business cannot be done, especially in the current economic climate. What’s your response to this?

That they’re wrong. If you really think this you’re stuck in a stereotype that doesn’t see what is really going on in the world. Not only is socially responsible business continuing through the current recession, but we’re also seeing traditional businesses like auto manufacturing and resource industries being hit the hardest. These are rigid institutions based on poor models that often harm workers or the environment. A part of what’s happening now is that models of harm are being shown to be unprofitable in the long-term — something the social change sector has always said.

You’ve mentioned the long-term a couple of times. Do you see this as a key to your success?

Long-term planning is absolutely key, both in business and social change. Our CFO saw the recession coming 8 months before the media began talking about it, and we made tough decisions last spring to make sure that we’d be in a healthy place right now. Could we have ignored all of that for a bigger take in the short-term? Absolutely. But we’d be paying that back now, and that’s always true when you choose short term gain – in business, relationships, society or the environment. That’s why there’s always an opportunity for business and social change to work together.

Favianna continues her work with TUMIS and the Eastside Arts Alliance in Oakland, California. Do you have a WOC success story you would like to see profiled? Let us know —