Doing the Right Thing
Entrepreneurs who reap the rewards of launching social enterprises shared their stories at Entrepreneurship at Cornell Celebration 2017.
by Jay Wrolstad
Emerging businesses today are helping themselves by helping others as entrepreneurs respond to both society’s and customers’ demands to make a difference while making profits.
Yve-Car Momperousse, MS ’14, and Katherine Herleman, MS ’17, are the women behind two companies that address concerns such as environmental protection, meaningful employment, global warming, and sustainable energy. And their businesses are rewarding on many levels. Momperousse and Herleman delivered their stories on April 28 at “The Power of Social Enterprise,” a discussion moderated by Monica Touesnard, associate director of Johnson’s Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise. The panel was sponsored by the Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise as part of the Entrepreneurship at Cornell Celebration 2017.
Momperousse created Kreyol Essence, an organic beauty products business built on castor oil from crops grown in Haiti. The incentive to create the company came about as the result of a “hair catastrophe” in which she lost all of her hair, said Momperousse. She contacted her mother in Haiti to inquire about a traditional Haitian treatment for promoting hair growth — a product that lists black castor oil as its main ingredient — and received a sample.
Based on the hair product’s effectiveness, Momperousse enlisted Haitian farmers who grow the castor seeds and hired women there who process the oil to create a commercial operation. The result is that 300 farmers now sustainably harvest the seeds that are converted to oil by 60 women working for Kreyol Essence at a manufacturing facility built by the company.
“Our social impact includes economic development through women’s empowerment and environmental restoration,” Momperousse said. “With access to farmers and quality control, we are working to offset deforestation and soil erosion, and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We got involved with farmer training and building a manufacturing facility in Haiti that provides much-needed opportunities there.”
The company’s mission has attracted investment capital from the Clinton Foundation, the United Nations, and the Yunus Social Business venture fund, among other financial backers. “Our social and business missions overlap,” Momperousse said. “We got blended financing at the start because we had a strong social mission, and we are now focused more on traditional investors who understand that the social impact is critical to our business,” she said.
Viridius Property has a similar business model, said Herleman, environmental projects coordinator for the sustainability-oriented real estate management company based in Ithaca. “The basic idea is to address the issue of climate change locally,” she explained. “We are creating carbon-neutral, low-income rental housing through renovation projects using renewable energy sources.”
The company, which is a living-wage employer, owns 13 properties in Tompkins County and specializes in environmentally conscious building products with an eye on expanding to include building new homes and offering property management services as it seeks additional revenue streams to support its rental business.
“We want to make this type of housing more accessible,” Herleman said. “Rentals are important [in promoting carbon-neutral housing] because it is difficult for many people to become homeowners and pay for sustainable energy improvements such as heat pumps and solar panels.”
She noted that local and state government grants are available to help pay for housing improvements, and some local businesses offer financial help. “The good thing is we have many community resources in Ithaca that support low-income individuals. We are learning, too, about the agencies that help people and assist with housing needs,” said Herleman.
She suggested that the company’s business model could be a template applied to larger cities. “I think this can work in other college towns, where there is awareness of sustainability, but it has to be a community that can afford premium rents and has similar social and environmental values. The biggest challenge is fulfilling our mission while dealing with costs. When those costs come down it will be more scalable,” she said.
Both Momperousse and Herleman are bullish on the impact of social enterprise going forward. “The power of social entrepreneurship is astounding,” Momperousse said. “We did some crowd-source funding and met our initial goal in about 10 hours. People want to do good and support a good cause.”
“It’s empowering to act on climate change, which is an existential threat,” said Herleman. “Our focus on renewable energy gives people an opportunity to do something about that. It’s also important that we are a living-wage employer because that has a positive impact on the local economy.”