These days, when people want to see a change in the world, they're often turning to entrepreneurs to get the job done. Just think about the alternative fuels industry.
So when Craig Walker, 41, and Vincent Paquet, 37, found themselves thinking that every homeless person should have a free telephone number, they decided to make it part of their telecommunication firm's business plan. Even before GrandCentral, a business that offers customers one telephone number that will work on multiple lines including cell phones, began offering service to the public last year, Walker and Paquet teamed up with the city government of San Francisco to offer free telephone numbers to any homeless person needing one.
"You can give a homeless person job training, a hair cut, help them practice doing a job interview, buy him a suit, but if you don't give him a phone number to hand out when he shows up to an interview, there's no way for an employer to call him back and tell him he's got the job," says Walker. "We spend hundreds of millions of dollars trying to help the homeless, but that last little bit would make it so much more valuable."
As GrandCentral expands its base of subscribers around the country, the company is also extending its charitable program. Walker says that women who flee home because of safety issues with nothing but the clothes on their backs, as well as any victims of a future Hurricane Katrina-type episode, would benefit from a free telephone number. It's amazing the government or AT&T hadn't thought of doing this already, he adds.
Doing Good Goes Mainstream
While Walker and Paquet's idea may be unique, the concept of businesses "doing good" certainly isn't. It's becoming the norm for every business, big or small, established or startup, to make improving the world for their customers and employees part of their business plan.
In fact, it may soon be odd if a company isn't trying to contribute to the social good, says Bruce Piasecki, author of the recently released book, World Inc. "If you're going to be a global company, you have to go green. When you look at a recent cover of Sports Illustrated, where they're talking about how stadiums are addressing the need to be more environmentally responsible, you can see that it's already gone mainstream. It's no longer a choice; it's a competitive necessity."
The hunger to create a legacy of goodwill is what motivated Ric Kraszewski and Rick Grant when they first thought of Whale Tails tortilla chips several years ago. The two best friends, pals since fifth grade and now both 54 years old, were sitting in a truck and listening to the radio several years ago while taking a break from surfing. They were munching on chips and dipping them in guacamole, discussing the majestic beauty of the waves when the David Crosby song, "To the Last Whale," came on. Kraszewski thinks it was Grant who first suggested that if their chips were in the shape of a whale tail, they would be perfect for dipping.
Kraszewski, meanwhile, was fretting over the more serious issue of what to do with their lives. This all led Grant to suggest that they begin making whale tail-shaped tortilla chips and donate a percentage of the profits to ocean conservation.
In February 2006, they trademarked the name and started creating a business they hoped would follow the model of Newman's Own and Ben & Jerry's. The chips are so far available in about two dozen Whole Foods stores in Southern California and Redmond, Washington; several other independent stores; and some aquarium cafeterias and gift shops.
Kraszewski says that so far, only $1,000 has gone to ocean conservation, since in the last year their startup has made $259,000 in revenue, which, of course, isn't all profit. But the duo has made sure the money went to something meaningful to them, rather than a nonprofit's administrative costs. They diverted it to a nonprofit in Magdelina Bay in Baja, Mexico, where it was used to buy a boat for a local who measures the water quality of the bay, which is home to many gray whales.
Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.