Ben Jealous: Entrepreneurs have a role to play in solving our nation’s problems.

Kapor Center

Four years ago, Vinay Bhargava had an epiphany. The Google executive was giving a talk to students at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Virginia. The students, bright, tech-focused and driven, had no idea how the college admissions process worked, or where to begin.

Mr. Bhargava learned that this is a common problem for high schoolers, particularly those who are set to become the first in their family to go to college. He teamed up with Thomas Jefferson counselor Sean Burke to design a solution and soon left his job at Google to found Mytonomy, an alumni-powered college counseling company based in Bethesda.

Mytonomy — which my company, Kapor Capital, has invested in — is just one of a growing number of startups based here in the Mid-Atlantic that are making a profit by narrowing achievement gaps in society. While wealthier families have easy access to private counselors and tutors, Mytonomy works to level the playing field for those that don’t.

It may not seem revolutionary on its face, but impact-focused companies like Mytonomy are changing the way we think about how to solve social problems: through the marketplace.

Too often, we behave as if our nation’s biggest problems can be solved simply through charity — what we do with our free time and our extra money. However, a rising generation of young business leaders has recognized that some problems are so big that it will literally take all they have to help solve them. In doing so they are reviving an old American tradition: that of the social impact entrepreneur. The most inspiring stories my grandparents told me were about their own grandparents, who were born slaves but went on to found banks and small businesses and farming enterprises as part of their broader strategy for achieving social and economic equality. They were single minded about achieving social justice and dedicated the entirety of their minds, their hearts and their time to the cause.

In my role as a partner at Kapor Capital, I am inspired daily by ambitious entrepreneurs who are similarly single minded about achieving big social goals: improving children’s health, expanding good jobs and strengthening our education system. These are nontraditional activists who happen to be very good at math, science and business. And their ranks are growing in the mid-Atlantic.

Regional startup WorkAmerica, which is also in the Kapor Capital portfolio, has come up with an innovative way to boost gainful employment, for example. They partner with community colleges to create “job-guaranteed courses.” At Anne Arundel Community College, for example, WorkAmerica empowers students to apply for and receive a job guarantee from an employer before they pay for their welding or truck driving course. Thus they start the course knowing they will have a good-paying job when they finish. WorkAmerica’s service costs the employer less than they usually spend to recruit a new worker. It costs the community college and its students nothing. The end product provides a social benefit for workers, employers, community colleges and our regional economy. It’s also a promising business.

Similarly, Maker’s Row, a startup based in Brooklyn, is making it easier for entrepreneurs to get their products made in the USA. A handbag company, for example, can be connected online to a local button manufacturer and pattern designer. By linking domestic factories with entrepreneurs, co-founders Matthew Burnett and Tanya Menendez hope to spark a renaissance in domestic manufacturing and create thousands of new jobs here at home.

As someone who has been a leader in some of our nation’s largest volunteer-based organizations, I am always grateful to those who give a portion of their hard-earned money and their scarce free time to expand access to the American dream. But as my old pastor used to say, the success of any movement ultimately hinges on the willingness of people to give their work, their wealth and their wisdom.

We are living in a time of declining economic mobility and stagnating educational progress. Fortunately, we are also living in a time of unprecedented innovation. From Baltimore to Brooklyn and beyond, we would be wise to pay attention to the lessons of our ancestors and to the power of many of our nation’s most promising entrepreneurs to help solve our nation’s biggest problems.

Ben Jealous is partner at Kapor Capital and former president and CEO of the Baltimore-based NAACP. He currently serves as chairman of the Southern Elections Fund and as a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. His email is benjealous@www.kaporcenter.org.