A World of Difference

Something Good in Store

Kowalski's Markets, based in Woodbury, Minnesota, started in 1983 with the good values set forth by founders Mary Anne and Jim Kowalski. They built the business on the principles of great customer service and plenty of community-minded good deeds-but they never instituted a written policy.

All that changed in 2000, when the Kowalskis got a call from Peg Michels, co-author, with Massengale, of MACI's Civic Organizing Framework, a set of principles, standards and strategies that explains how MACI works. Michels, who had previously worked with Mary Anne in another civic/political organization, believed Kowalski's Markets fit well with the ideals MACI was trying to promote. Mary Anne was interested in MACI's organized approach to what she and her husband, 59 and 58, respectively, had done informally in their business. Her interest led to the Kowalskis not only collaborating with four other businesses on a MACI curriculum for teaching civic leadership to business leaders, but also using Kowalski's Markets as the pilot for the curriculum.

Employees of Kowalski's Markets were introduced to the principles, standards, teachings and language of the MACI curriculum in 2001. "We designed [a curriculum] we thought would be practical and would work," says Mary Anne. "Can you do this in business-be ethical, have integrity and think through things in a civic manner, know everything you do affects everybody else?"

The Kowalskis had an opportunity to flex their civic muscle when they purchased four store locations in 2002. One of the stores was located in Minneapolis' Camden neighborhood, a lower- to middle-class community unlike their typical upscale customer demographic. Rather than sell the property, the Kowalskis decided they had an obligation to provide a neighborhood grocery store to that community since the former tenant had failed to do so, and the civic experiment began.

The Kowalskis shared their vision of a community institution and their desire to create a neighborhood market during a Camden community meeting. Though the store had already opened, the Kowalskis offered residents of the neighborhood the power to name it and spend all the store profits as they wished. The Kowalskis promised a clean, safe store with good lighting and security, and removed cigarettes and lottery tickets from all their stores. In the spirt of partnership, the Kowalskis asked the community to show support by shopping there. The residents shocked the couple by stating they would rather have the store prosper and remain than take any profits, and the residents felt using the Kowalski's name would attract more stores and restaurants to the area. Pledging a three-year commitment, the couple promised that if they decided to sell the store due to a lack of profits, they'd sell it only to someone who would keep the community at heart.

Members of the Camden community placed voter-style placards on their lawns and businesses urging others to "shop your neighborhood grocer." While Kowalski's gives its usual sponsorships and donations to athletic teams and church groups in the area, it's also active in community festivals and publishes a "recipe of the week" in the local paper. Though the location has cash flowing in, it hasn't yet been profitable. The other eight Kowalski's Markets have helped push projected 2004 total sales to between $115 million and $125 million. However, the Kowalskis still see the Camden store as a success because it has fostered a sense of community. City council member Barbara Johnson says Kowalski's well-kept storefront has increased the attractiveness of the community. "It's considered an amenity. Realtors use it to promote homes, and it has definitely increased property values. It's been a great thing for us."

"[We wanted to see] if you can engage the rest of the community to take a civic look at things," says Mary Anne, "and [show them] that citizenship takes the work of the people, not just businesses going in and saving the world. It takes the customer, the individual, the citizen."

High-Tech Help
Some entrepreneurs are driven to build businesses helping others do good. While friends headed off to lucrative jobs during the dotcom heyday in 1999, UCLA students Ryan Ozimek, now 27, and Grey Frandsen, 26, were on a humanitarian relief trip to the Balkans during the Kosovar wars. Witnessing firsthand the problems the nonprofit community faced due to a lack of technology, the pair combined Ozimek's technology and policy skills with Frandsen's international and nonprofit experience, and founded PICnet Inc., a technology consulting firm for nonprofits.

PICnet's goal is to empower the missions of nonprofits through technology, by offering services including Web development and online application design. With offices in Washington, DC, where many nonprofits dwell, PICnet has aided organizations such as the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and Relief International.

Frandsen (who's since left the company but remains on the board of advisors) and Ozimek don't mind that they've taken a different path than their peers. "Many of them [don't] get joy and passion out of their work on a day-to-day basis," observes Ozimek. "If you've had any kind of success, you should give back to help those who are less fortunate get to the same level you're at."

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This article was originally published in the October 2004 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: A World of Difference.

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