A World of Difference

Words From the Wise

Sometimes, getting involved with the community is just as rewarding for the entrepreneur as it is for the people she helps. Growing up, Michelle Rathman didn't have an easy life. Her mother abandoned her and her three sisters when Rathman was 4 years old. Rathman left her home and her abusive, alcoholic father and lived on the streets at a young age.

Now, as the owner of St. Charles, Illinois-based marketing/PR firm Impact! Communications Inc., founded in 1989, Rathman shares her story with inner-city youths. She provides insight and advice in hopes of enabling them to make good choices. Rathman's challenges have continued; now she's divorced and raising two teenagers. Nevertheless, she was compelled in 2000 to launch the service end of her business, calling the work "philanthropreneurship." For every client she represents-many of them authors and speakers-she tries to create a program using her client's expertise that serves kids or communities in some way. "I had been through cancer [and] a whole bunch of life-changing experiences, and it's something in my heart I'd wanted to do for a long time," says Rathman, 37. "I just thought 'It's now or never.'"

One particularly powerful program is "How Do I Love Me?" Geared toward fourth- to 12th-grade girls, this two-hour program is the marriage of her "philanthropreneurship" concept and an organization she had already created, called Wise Women, made up of professional women who want to mentor girls. Rathman and a few Wise Women go into classrooms and teach girls what it means to love themselves-covering mind, body, spirit and style-with each area covered by an appropriate "wise woman." Segments include 20 ways to boost self-esteem; nutrition and exercise; 10 things Rathman has learned; and a fashion showcase of chic, age-appropriate clothing. Rathman has the school principal choose four or five girls (often homeless) to model the clothes, and she surprises them by letting them keep the outfits. Corporate sponsors pay for the clothing, but Rathman self-funds the program otherwise.

Getting kids to open up is a major accomplishment. Rathman recalls the day one girl whispered in the ear of the Wise Women nutritionist. "I knew this tiny girl had an eating disorder, and she told [the nutritionist] she did. She also said her brother died of asthma and [she] had no father at home. These are impoverished kids we're talking about."

Rathman hopes one day to build an online Wise Women network so girls can e-mail their questions or concerns, but for now, she's doing it one classroom at a time. "All these little girls coming up to you, holding you and not wanting to let go-it just melts my heart," she says.

Rathman has also created a program about what it means to serve vs. being self-serving, and another about the value of money. Since no one is paid to participate in these programs, Rathman recruits individuals she has met through business and personal avenues to be volunteers. She has also found clients are eager to participate in her civic endeavors. "I've found the people we work with want to serve. They just don't know how to get started. We can become a conduit to get something formulated for them and book them in the schools."

Though she has offered the programs strictly in the Chicago public school system, Rathman hopes to eventually go nationwide. Running her company, which has 2004 projected sales of $600,000, is a full-time job, but Rathman doesn't mind stretching herself thin to devote herself to both sides of the business. "Now I get it. I know why I'm still doing this work-so I can do this other thing I really want to do at the end of the day," says Rathman. "It's great to earn money, but bottom line, we're here to serve."

Take the First Step

These entrepreneurs have shown that from startup to well-established ventures, it's never too late to become civically responsible. If you want to make a positive change in your business and your community, Massengale advises, "the first step is to recognize you have power, influence, time and resources."

Identifying your resources will help you figure out how you can leverage them to do some good. First, ask yourself whether you are acting in a way that is civically responsible within your company, providing employees with livable wages and enacting policies that improve the quality of life there. Then, see what you can do to help your community. Massengale suggests collaborating with other businesses and organizations to make it happen. "It's a new way to conceive and carry out business, because it suggests partnerships with the folks that live in your business's community. And what you do now can have a positive long-term effect on yourself, your business and everyone you touch with your efforts."

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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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