A 'Kool' Nerd's Lessons on Launching a Killer Social Enterprise

The term “social entrepreneur” has become more and more common since the advent of companies such as Tom’s Shoes and One Hope Wines.

The exciting part about the evolution of social enterprise is that companies everywhere are building businesses with philanthropy and important societal elements at their core -- but let’s be clear, many of these aren’t non-profit businesses. In fact, many are building quite profitable companies while giving back at applause-worthy levels.

In case you’re not completely familiar with the term “social entrepreneur” or enterprise, let’s go to our friend Wikipedia for a simple but informative comparison: “Business entrepreneurs typically measure performance in profit and return, but social entrepreneurs also take into account a positive return to society." 

Pretty straightforward, right?

Related: Social Entrepreneurship Has Unexpected Benefits for the Bottom Line

So how does one develop a social enterprise that acts like a full-fledged business but has the capacity to change the world through giving back? Well, I don’t know because I’ve never built a social enterprise. So I connected with Orane Barrett, founder of a New York-based inspirational clothing brand that is changing the meaning of a word that has a historically negative connotation -- nerd.

Start with your passion.

Barrett came to the U.S. from Jamaica as an 8 year old and grew up in the inner city of New York. In his formative years, Barrett was fortunate to have a few great mentors that helped him to see education as a path to achieve success. He wanted to be a doctor but wasn’t really sure why -- aside from the fact that his mother was a nurse -- so he went to the University of Rochester to pursue medicine but ended up in chemical engineering.

He was always good at chemistry and math, but when told about the chemical engineering program, he responded, “I don’t want to be an electrician.” It is this very misunderstanding that is at the core of his budding social enterprises -- to expose inner city kids to the wealth of possible career paths and opportunities.

After completing an MBA at MIT, Barrett found himself unsatisfied as an investment banker at a large New York firm. He knew a change was necessary that would allow him to provide needed exposure that most young people in his community lacked -- they didn’t know their options. So he started Kool Nerd Clothing, a brand he says “promotes the positive values of today’s nerd: hard work, intelligence, individuality and passion.”

See where the market is going. 

Do you have a space that you’re passionate about and are eager to give back? Well, we know that one can’t just set up shop and expect to move a product or service. Instead, you must be as strategic in a social enterprise as in a business enterprise, if not more.

Related: TOMS Founder: 'Focus on Your Passion. Nothing Else Matters.'

Barrett says that he "saw that the intelligence movement was taking place and that represented opportunity.”

Kool Nerd Clothing was born and "started with one logo on one product and the response was positive.” This gave him the chance to “use t-shirts as a positive marketing tool to communicate the positive values of today's nerd and inspire future kool nerds to join the movement.”

Kool Nerd’s social "give back" comes in the form of its 4.0 program, which is built around donating $4 from every product sold toward working with inner city children, or more specifically, partnerships with STEAM programs -- that’s science, technology, engineering, arts and math -- simultaneously aiding with job demand for hyper-specialized fields.

Keep it lean and create exposure. 

Barrett started part time until Kool Nerd was moving along and was in need of his full time and attention. At that point, he left his job and teamed with visual arts painter and graphic designer Kwami Delfish to help build the brand.

Delfish says he was attracted to the idea because “Kool Nerd wanted to be the brand that goes out into the community and encourages students to see the term 'nerd' in a positive light”.

Like most well run small businesses, it started and remained lean through the early days, spending modestly and working to grow its footprint with grassroots efforts. To garner exposure and affirm the business model -- essentially prove that someone was willing to pay for the product -- Kool Nerd launched a crowdfunding campaign through Kickstarter. This wasn’t done to raise money, although that’s a nice unintended consequence, but instead to increase awareness and get the message out -- which can prove to be an amazing business tool when executed well.

In the case of Kool Nerd Clothing, the desire to create a socially-conscious movement was married with the business-like efficiency that is required and sure to generate incredible outcomes, all while helping those that will no doubt dictate and control our futures -- the kids.

Related: A Look Into Entrepreneurial Approaches to Social Change