Many organizations—for-profit and not-for-profit—get their start out of a desire to seize a market opportunity or fulfill an unmet need. Similarly, the Charlottesville-based Conscious Capitalist Group Foundation launched because no other organization was providing what it does—entrepreneurship, community engagement, and career readiness training that young people need to not only prosper in life and work, but develop a spirit of “giving back.”
Robert Gray and Derek Rush, both Albemarle County natives, founded Conscious Capitalist Group in October 2019 as a way to lift “opportunity youth” out of poverty and help them become not only productive citizens, but business leaders and change agents who then learn to pay it forward in the future. (“Opportunity youth” is defined as people 16 to 24 who are in the transitional years of their life but aren’t enrolled in school or participating in the workforce. According to the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions, approximately one in nine Americans in this age group falls into that category.)
“I think we need more young people in entrepreneurship at an early age because the skill sets that come with entrepreneurship are critical thinking skills,” says Gray—like making good decisions, being good leaders and team members, and other skills that impact everyday life. Social entrepreneurship specifically, he adds, teaches young people how to make the world a better place to live, and “leave their community in a better place than it was before.”
Both Gray and Rush grew up in the Esmont area, an impoverished pocket of generally well-off Albemarle County, where Gray says the poverty rate is notably above the average for Virginia, so he understands the importance of having better resources in place to help young people.
“We’re both entrepreneurs, and we know what entrepreneurship did for us, what type of skill sets it equipped us with, and so we want to use those skill sets to basically reach back and leave a ladder for other people coming from similar situations as us,” adds Gray, who is a first-generation college graduate—he graduated from Saint Augustine’s University, earning a degree in political science. More recently, before co-founding Conscious Capitalist Group, he was a pathway coach at City of Promise in Charlottesville, where he created and led a youth social entrepreneurship training camp in the Westhaven neighborhood.
The programmatic pillars of the Conscious Capitalist Group—its Youth Social Entrepreneurship Leadership Academy and Beyond the Bars Re-Entrepreneur Leadership Academy—are built around providing leadership, financial literacy, career and business development, and social entrepreneurship training. Y.S.E.L.A. runs in classrooms, after-school programs, youth camps, college campuses, and community centers, and partners with other nonprofits, like the Cherry Avenue Boys & Girls Club and Charlottesville Abundant Life Ministries, while the Beyond the Bars program partners with facilities like the Blue Ridge Juvenile Detention. Youth interested in participating can also apply at consciouscapitalistgroup.org.
Over the course of the academy, Y.S.E.L.A. participants get matched with internships, help transitioning to post-secondary education or into a job opportunity, and gain access to guest speakers, workshops, visits to area businesses, and one-on-one consultations with business professionals. At the end of the program, they also get to partake in a pitch competition, with the winner receiving seed money for his or her business idea.
Gray and Rush, both alumni of the Community Investment Collaborative entrepreneurship workshop and members of the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce’s Leadership Charlottesville initiative (Class of 2020), see social entrepreneurship and “compassionate capitalism” as a vehicle for building a stronger community and helping young people reach their full potential in the workforce and life after school, especially if they aren’t on the traditional four-year college or university track or need assistance in establishing a career or business.
“We just added the social element because we’re living in a time where I feel like every company, every business, should have some type of social responsibility,” Gray adds.