Can social entrepreneurs close the local income gap? Toan Nguyen thinks so.

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Toan Nguyen came to the U.S. in 1976, and said he always wanted to return to Vietnam to continue his father’s work helping the community. Now that he’s here, the Darden grad and coffee shop owner has made a name for himself as a local business guru who’s constantly giving back. Photo: Elli Williams Toan Nguyen came to the U.S. in 1976, and said he always wanted to return to Vietnam to continue his father’s work helping the community. Now that he’s here, the Darden grad and coffee shop owner has made a name for himself as a local business guru who’s constantly giving back. Photo: Elli Williams

What does a middle-class mother of three who produces freshly-made tomato sauce have in common with a man who paints houses and has tiptoed the poverty line for years? Elizabeth James and Terry Lee Jones both love what they do and have the drive to run their own business, but they needed a leg up in order to tap into the local market.

Toan Nguyen, a UVA Darden School graduate, coffee shop owner, and believer in the power of small businesses, is the driving force behind a local movement to boost the community’s economy through social entrepreneurism. Starting a business is a daunting and often times lonely task, Nguyen says, and he’s taken it upon himself to create opportunities for people who have financial and networking barriers in the way of starting and maintaining a business. The result, he hopes, is a network of self-sufficient businesses that people can rise into that will boost the community’s economy.

Social entrepreneurism, the process of creating a sustainable model to address a social issue, is hardly a new concept, but it’s recently gained traction and popularity in both the business and academic communities.

“It’s really an evolution in the way we think about business,” said Darden Professor Edward Freeman, who teaches a course on creative capitalism.

Freeman said he’s seen social entrepreneurism models like Nguyen’s work before, as with D.C. Central Kitchen, which combats the city’s widespread hunger problem while simultaneously training and employing men and women who were formerly homeless, incarcerated, or battling substance abuse.

“It works to turn poor people into entrepreneurs,” he said. “We see it working all over the world.”

Here in Charlottesville, where nearly one in three families rely on public assistance to cover basic needs, the goal is simple: Use the power of entrepreneurism and local business to bring those living below the poverty line up to self-sufficiency and boost economic diversity.

A call to serve

By age 14 Toan Nguyen had lived on three continents and was fluent in as many languages. The son of a Vietnamese diplomat, he grew up in a wealthy neighborhood with his parents and brother. He describes his father, a high-ranking official who worked in “Vietnam’s equivalent to the White House,” as a dedicated man whose purpose was to help others.

Nguyen recalls visiting the family of his father’s chauffeur as a child, and being astonished by the run-down, dilapidated shack they called home, and the rice sack they used to swaddle a newborn baby. Before heading back to their own neighborhood, Nguyen’s father looked him in the eye and said, “We have to live to make conditions better for other people.”

“My father drilled into my head that you should live for your community, for your country,” Nguyen said.

After his father’s death and the fall of South Vietnam, Nguyen arrived in the U.S. in 1976, but always planned on returning to his home country. Armed with architecture and business degrees from the University of Virginia and a desire instilled by his father to serve others, he spent the first part of his adult life working toward a career that would help the underprivileged and rebuild the war-torn country he left as a child. After graduating from the Darden School, he traveled the world working for United Technologies and the Carrier Corporation, and when he and his wife decided to plant roots in Charlottesville, it wasn’t easy for Nguyen to wrap his head around the idea of giving up his dream.

Turns out, he didn’t have to.

“Charlottesville is my Vietnam now,” Nguyen said. “I don’t have to go back to do what I want to do. I can do it here.”

Finding a job in a small Central Virginia town after years of chasing an international career was no simple task, so Nguyen drew on his two specialities: building things, and business. In 1997, he founded a small furniture store called Shelf Life. Shortly after the shop moved to a homey location on Harris Street, his 8-year-old daughter suggested that her dad consider turning the bland, bareboned entrance into a warmer, more welcoming lobby, with a coffee and smoothie bar. Unaware of the direction the decision would send his career, Nguyen took the third grader’s advice, bought some blenders and an espresso machine, and began selling beverages to his customers.

Business chugged along, and for several months Nguyen sold strawberry-banana smoothies alongside his hand-crafted tables and chairs—until September 11, 2001. When the economy plummeted in the wake of the national tragedy, Nguyen said business came to a screeching halt.

“Nobody bought anything anymore,” he said. “People didn’t know if they were going to lose their jobs, and furniture wasn’t a necessity.”

But people will always shell out for a coffee. Switching gears, Nguyen expanded the drink menu and transformed the showroom into a seating area, and C’ville Coffee was born.

By the time he opened his coffee shop, Nguyen had already made a name for himself as a Darden MBA graduate and business guru. But despite the appeal of high-profile jobs with hefty paychecks and international recognition, Nguyen homed in on the local market and spends most of his energy on establishing networks and business plans that he hopes will at least make a dent in Charlottesville’s poverty problem.

As C’ville Coffee gained popularity around town, so did Nguyen. When he’s not running the cash register and making lattes, he’s serving on organizations and committees like the Leadership Charlottesville Alumni Association, Charlottesville Albemarle Technical Education Center, and Piedmont Council for the Arts. He said he always wanted his business impact on a community to be about more than just making money, so in addition to running the coffee shop and raising two daughters, Nguyen immersed himself in local issues and movements like the Dialogue on Race, the city-wide initiative to address and combat racial prejudice and disparities in Charlottesville.

From the Dialogue on Race, Nguyen said, came a simple-sounding conclusion: Charlottesville has an income gap problem that is most stark among its minority residents, and the only way to boost the low-income population out of poverty is with jobs.

“The Dialogue on Race opened my eyes to the poverty problem and what’s needed in this community,” Nguyen said, adding that giving a handout is neither sustainable nor dignified.

With his father’s life-long drive to serve his community in the back of his mind, Nguyen gathered a group of business-minded locals in his coffee shop for regular meetings on how to find a solution. That process led to his first concrete project: the Community Investment Collaborative (CIC), a nonprofit that offers affordable business education and microfinancing to a pool of people who have good ideas and drive and just need the right tools and mentors to be successful entrepreneurs.

The 14-week course follows the New York-based Workshop in Business Opportunities curriculum, which covers business basics like bookkeeping and customer targeting, and emphasizes the importance of networking. Graduating students can then apply for CIC-administered loans of up to $35,000 to get their businesses off the ground.

In the beginning, Nguyen looked to non-governmental entities to fund CIC. Local nonprofits are asking the City Council and nearby county boards for money left and right, he said, and it wasn’t until the first class successfully completed the program and Greene County offered him $65,000 that he approached local elected officials about funding. This year, the Charlottesville City Council designated part of its $200,000 economic development funds to CIC.

More than 20 entrepreneurs have graduated from the program, and the burgeoning business owners include landscapers, painters, chefs, DJs, and hair stylists. The businesses fit specific niches in the community, and Nguyen hopes to see them gain enough momentum to employ people in their communities who are in need of jobs.

  • J_Horton

    Just posting to comment on a great article. Nguyen is a wonderful man and deserves all the press he can get (even if that press is bordering on an advetorial!). I must say that the writing coming out of C-VILLE each week is better than ever before in recent years. Kudos to Ingles, Brashear, Keaveny, and the like for producing some quality journalism week in and week out. Now if we can just get a few more comments and discussion on these message boards!

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