4 Change-Makers Poised for Success

From green advocacy to immigrant rights, these black social entrepreneurs want to make a difference.

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BlocPower's Donnel Baird; Fight for Light's John Jordan and Markese Bryant; AIDA's Amaha Kassa (Echoing Green)

(The Root) -- Inspired by the billions allotted to renewable energy in President Obama's 2008 stimulus package, Donnel Baird, 31, figured the emerging industry is where he ought to be. But instead of angling for a government handout, the Columbia University business school student founded his own company. The result is BlocPower, a venture he's soft-launching by December that helps small businesses, churches, charter schools and various institutions in urban areas get outfitted with solar panels and other energy-efficient products.

Morehouse College buddies Markese Bryant, 28, and John Jordan, 23, are also aiming to kick off their own environmentally conscious project. With Fight for Light, the partners plan to create a three-year fellowship program for college students who will work to increase their environmental literacy, receive practical training and be encouraged to implement their own green initiatives.

Then there's Amaha Kassa, 39, a first-generation Ethiopian immigrant, who has established the Africa Immigrant Diaspora Alliance (AIDA). His nonprofit is poised to provide a legal advice and other community building services to African immigrant populations concentrated in cities such as New York.

All four are examples of black social entrepreneurs, an emerging breed of civic-minded business leader who have created companies and organizations that focus on a triple bottom line -- people, planet and profit. Echoing Green, a global nonprofit that provides seed money and other resources to entrepreneurs advocating for social change, selected them as fellows in its Black Male Achievement project. In conjunction with the Open Society Foundation, the fellowship winners (a total of nine entrepreneurs) get a $70,000 stipend and other professional perks to help them get their ideas off the ground.

"They're not waiting for the market to catch up to them; they're creating their own market," Decker Ngonang, a senior associate at Echoing Green, told The Root. "They've noticed a gap or opportunities to create impact … they created something and now they're taking it to marketplace to say, 'This works' -- not 'You should give me money,' but 'You should invest in this idea.' "

Baird's idea also came from recognizing the challenges that many face in middle- and working-class areas. Having grown up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, N.Y., and Atlanta, Baird said he understood how vital it is for residents to have access to viable employment. For that reason, BlocPower is also aiming to create jobs for locals to install solar panels and retrofit buildings with green products such as LED lightbulbs, smart thermostats and wall insulation. Such improvements, Baird said, can cut 15 to 45 percent off an annual energy bill.

In its pilot program stage, BlocPower is set to do light retrofits on 12 small businesses in Harlem in December. A formal launch is scheduled for February 2013 in Brooklyn and D.C. He hopes to employ up to 35 workers next year.

"We have to move away from looking at nonprofits or the government as a solution to the sorts of problems that we face as a community and really engage the private sector," he told The Root. "It's paramount we engage the private sector around jobs, creating our own companies or partnering with existing majority companies that have a socially responsible component."

So far Baird seems to have solid backing, too. In addition to Echoing Green's help, being an entrepreneur in residence at Jalia Ventures, a venture capital fund that invests in minority-owned business that have a social impact, has been invaluable, he said. He's also working with Sungevity, a major solar panel installation company that assists in financing the panels to customers.

However, he's had to do his fair bit of convincing. "The challenge is explaining the emerging technologies to folks in our community and explaining to the environmentalists and solar companies why our community is an important customer for them," Baird said.

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