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

Raising the bar 

In the fall of 2011, others in town were coming up with similar ideas on how to address the city’s income gap by bolstering new businesses. Former Tom Perriello aide Ridge Schuyler and colleague Meg Hannan collaborated to produce the Orange Dot Project Report, a 27-page study that tracked income disparities across the city and revealed pockets of poverty represented by orange dots on a map. The report states that the cycle of poverty involves parents and children, so breaking the cycle requires a focus on families. According to the report, 29 percent of Charlottesville families do not make enough money to be self-sufficient, meaning they can’t afford basic necessities with the added costs associated with working like transportation and child care.

“That’s too many people,” Schuyler said. “But not too many people to help.”

Ridge Schuyler, one of the creators of the Orange Dot Projeect, is spearheading the Charlottesville Works Initiative, which he hopes will, in tandem with C’ville Central, connect jobs to those who need them most. Photo: Elli Williams

The Orange Dot Project points to Charlottesville’s local income deficit—which is the total additional income needed to lift all 1,865 struggling families out of poverty and into self-sufficiency—which is $20-38 million annually. Government agencies and neighborhood programs offer job readiness and training for low-income residents, but without concrete, attainable jobs at the end of the line, Schuyler said that’s simply not enough. The report recommended creating a community-centered hub to harness regional economic power, which would “function much like a general contractor.”

The first attempt at creating such a hub emerged last summer in the form of the Green Dot Cooperative, a partner-owned corporation led by Nguyen and City Councilor Kathy Galvin. The plan was to move into the IX complex on Second Street Southeast and establish a central location for business owners, complete with a community kitchen and incubator space, but some involved say the initiative stalled because there were too many stakeholders and not enough momentum. Nguyen broke off and started C’ville Central, a corporation still in its infancy that connects those who need work, particularly in the fields of home repair and house cleaning, with those who need their services.

C’ville Central’s mission is to handle the ins and outs of business ownership, while allowing the business owners to do what they do without worrying about things like invoicing. The benefit corporation, which Nguyen describes as a for-profit that serves a social purpose like a non-profit, offers small business owners access to widespread marketing and new clients—and, hopefully, contracts with the area’s anchor institutions like UVA, State Farm, and Martha Jefferson Hospital.

“It’s about harnessing the power of business with efficiency and the quick response of customer service to achieve what non-profits usually do,” Nguyen said.

Piedmont Virginia Community College President Frank Friedman is ready to get his institution on board. Friedman said PVCC, by the nature of its mission as a community college, shares Nguyen’s goal of preparing local people for local jobs through education and training. But it’s not just an educational institution, he noted—it’s also an employer.

“If we can employ local individuals and contractors to do the work that we need done rather going outside our community, obviously we’d love to do that,” Friedman said. “The hope here is that through Toan’s initiative, we’ll be able to find skilled workers who provide us the value for our dollar that is our business to provide for the taxpayers.”

Bernard Whitsett II, a financial consultant and chair of the local Minority Business Council, was one of the original Green Dot supporters. Due to the community-oriented nature of the plan, he said, the whole effort got too bogged down to gain much traction.

“Whenever you’re doing something with the community it can take a long time because you have to build a consensus,” Whitsett said. “So Toan said, ‘Well, I’ll just do this on my own,’ and formed C’ville Central. What he’s done has carved out a niche for itself, and that’s a great thing.”

Having grown up in the 10th and Page community, one of the city’s historically black neighborhoods with a high population of low-income families, Whitsett said he expects residents to be wary of any new initiative that promises a boost in employment and wealth. Nonprofit funding is declining, and projects come and go in low-income neighborhoods, he said, so residents don’t know what to expect from the “next big thing.”

“As a result of past initiatives that had promise and turned sour, there tends to be a lot of skepticism,” Whitsett said.

One bird, two stones 

Schuyler and Nguyen are of the same mindset that current government and public assistance programs simply aren’t enough to get unemployed people over the hump of finding and maintaining a job.

So rather than pouring money into GED classes and resume-writing workshops, Schuyler is spearheading the Charlottesville Works Initiative, a nonprofit that will certify hubs to fill specific niches in town and go hand-in-hand with C’ville Central. And like Nguyen, he wants to tap into the area’s largest employers. Take UVA for example. Schuyler found that the University spends upwards of $640 million a year on products and services—everything from candles to carpet cleaning —most of which are not sourced locally.

“Is there some slice of what they buy that we could produce here?” Schuyler said. “It could be landscaping services, it could be curtains. We’re not going to be able to make microscopes, but there are things that we can make here.”

Once a need for a product or service is established, Schuyler said the next critical step is to connect it, via social networks and peer groups, to hubs made up of certified workers, like C’ville Central. Schuyler said he’s still in the market research phase of the initiative, building relationships with key institutions to establish their needs and whether they can be fulfilled locally. He’s been working with Nguyen since 2011, and Schuyler anticipates that C’ville Central, CIC, and Charlottesville Works Initiative will depend on one another to function efficiently.

“I look at them as being mutually supporting,” Schuyler said, noting that, “The way we keep them from interfering with each other is to make sure we’re all clear with what everybody’s doing.”

It’ll be a system with several moving parts, but it has the potential to run like a well-oiled machine, he said. CIC will mentor and provide capital funding to get new businesses up and running, which will fill particular market niches identified by Charlottesville Works, and connect to large institutions through hubs like C’ville Central. An essential component, Schuyler said, is a network of peer groups, with trusted contacts in low-income communities who can advise people who need these jobs.

“There needs to be a person in the neighborhood who has access to the latest information about jobs and what support services are available to help somebody get those jobs,” he said.

It’s a fledgling plan, and Schuyler said the community has every right to be skeptical. He said he’s giving himself about a year before he hopes to see results, and whether or not it’s successful will be simple to determine.

“Until I produce a job and get somebody in it, I have failed,” he said. “The measure is not how many people were served, not how many meetings I had. It is how many people who wanted to find work were able to find it because they had this kind of help.”

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