I love teaching business. In fact, as I have said many times business has an incredible ability to create positive social change. Let me give you some examples. Back in the old days, ok boomer, before electronic deposit, managers were required to distribute paychecks. This usually happened on Thursdays. This event was one time employees were happy to see their boss. As a manager, I loved to hand out the checks, shake my employee’s hand, and tell them they had done a great job. I also told them they could come back the next day. That last part was a joke. Business has created economic opportunity all over the world, improving people’s lives. And in the case of my subject today, offers people a second chance.
Several years ago, I was a part of team that wrote a new major for the school I taught at. Students who studied this subject would receive a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Entrepreneurship. They would study humanities, business, entrepreneurship, and religion. The goal was to not only give them business skills, but to teach students to be entrepreneurial. We also wanted to give them a why. The slogan was to whom much is given much is required. I believe that when you are blessed, you are required to give back. Business can and does do this.
Today I read about a business located in Cincinnati, Ohio. 80% of its employees have criminal backgrounds who were looking for a way to turn their lives around. Nehemiah Manufacturing “invests in our employees in order to retain them.” Dan Meyer and Richard Palmer founded Nehemiah in 2009. The mission is “to build brands, create jobs, and change lives.” Both men have significant business experience, and have a goal to “design, manufacture, market, and sell brands in a variety of product categories.”
When it comes to creating of jobs, they are focused “on creating job opportunities for individuals in the inner-city of Cincinnati.” These jobs have helped to change people’s lives. People that may not have had a second chance if not for Nehemiah Manufacturing. Nehemiah is a certified B corporation, which has some ownership implications helping management to focus on doing good.
The Wall Street Journal describes Meyer and Palmer as men who previously had been successful in business but were now focused on bringing manufacturing back to the city. The reason, “their Christian beliefs were a motivator; the pair named the company Nehemiah after an Old Testament prophet who helped rebuild Jerusalem.” However, according to the article, the road to success has not been easy.
Dan Meyer said, “We didn’t understand all of the challenges. Employees showed up one day, only to disappear the next.” I had heard about this phenomenon before. I used to take students to South Dakota to work on the PineRidge Reservation. We would serve a small church there, and then go to White Clay, Nebraska and serve lunches to street people there. Often, we would drive to Martin, South Dakota and buy supplies to feed the students and the others. One time I got to talking to the person who owned the small supermarket that we shopped at. I asked him if he hired Native American workers and he said he did, but he had to learn how to be flexible. Often after hiring someone they would disappear for days and then return. The reason they would give was usually family related. The owner had to convince his employee that not only was family important but so was their job. It took time to figure out how to come to a compromise.
Working with people who had been incarcerated Meyer and Palmer “thought that providing a job would fix everything.” The problems that many of their employees faced needed to be dealt with. “If you are homeless, couch surfing, how productive can you be?” They adjusted their business model to include a social-service team and a lawyer, and now 80% of their employees (180 in total) are previously incarcerated people.
Karrie Norgren, a recovering heroin addict; Gina Johnson, had a “seventh-grade education and was in and out of prison for drug-related crimes; Rayshun Holt, spent 20 years in prison, but is now a second-shift supervisor; and Michael Taylor, who struggled with alcohol addiction, is the company’s operations manager. These are the stories that represent many of the people who have been given a second chance. As I read their stories, and the business strategy of Nehemiah’s leaders, I am convinced that there is no such thing as a business decision. All decisions we make in business impact people, either positively or negatively.
In Hill and Rae’s book “The Virtues of Capitalism: A Moral Case for Free Markets,” we see an argument for the business model that Meyer and Palmer have chosen. An economic system that encourages creativity, initiative, cooperation, civility, and responsibility allows not only for economic profit but the ability to do good with that profit. In our capitalist system workers are allowed to “sell their labor and talents for the best price they can get.” To be able to do this, workers need to ensure their skills are up to date. This means taking responsibility for their level of skill. This could mean going back to school, or taking training classes to be prepared.
However, as I stated earlier to whom much is given much is required. This is what the Bible emphasizes. I have concluded that as much as I like Tony Campolo and Jim Wallis, their anti-capitalist position is incorrect. As Hill and Rae notes, “the Bible focuses on the ends of the economic system more than the means for accomplishing those ends.” That seems like situational ethics a bit, so what do they mean? First, an economic system “should maximize the opportunities for human beings to exercise creativity, initiative, and innovation.” I agree, and this is what Nehemiah Manufacturing is doing. Second. The economic system should “provide a means for human beings to support themselves and their dependents.” Capitalism does provide the best means for this, but business needs to look at it wage structure and ensure this can be attained. I don’t think entry level jobs should pay a living wage, but they should pay a fair wage.
The third given for an economic system, “is that it must take care of those who cannot take care of themselves. It must provide a safety net for the poor.” I am adamantly against Socialism as an economic system. However, I am for a strong social system that ensure people have to ability to lift themselves out of difficult situations. This is what Nehemiah Manufacturing has provided. Socialism creates government dependency, while capitalism provides the opportunities for people to take care of themselves and others. As Hill and Rae state, “capitalism provides the resources that are necessary for either private charity, or public assistance through taxes, to help support the poor. Both charity and government assistance assume productive wealth creation.” However, those that have wealth and the means of production need to choose to use those resources to help others. Hill and Rae also say, “but more importantly, capitalism provides the opportunities for the poor to help themselves out of poverty and uphold their dignity at the same time, since they are participants in the system and not simply recipients of charity.”
Gina Johnson, 56 years-old, works for Nehemiah Manufacturing. The company helped her “find housing, clean up her credit record, and set a budget.” She has taken this opportunity seriously and has begun “rebuilding her relationship with her children,” who in turn are helping her earn her GED. Michael Taylor, Nehemiah Manufacturing’s operations manager, “has struggled with drug and alcohol addiction and was jailed for burglary.” Now he, and the other employees support each other to ensure their success.
I really think this company reflects what business as mission is all about. It is profitable, intentional about its action about the kingdom of God, focused on holistic transformation, and concerned about the poor. The owners of Nehemiah call themselves a social entrepreneurship, and I think it is. However, I think it is so much more, it truly is Business as Mission which to me has greater purpose.
And that is my thought for the day!