(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.
For John Jordan, at least, it's obvious why black communities should invest in the environment. "Climate change is real; as [humans] we need to address it," he told The Root. "The green economy has enabled social justice to take on a new look. As we work with students, they want to actually have work with meaning."
He and Bryant are banking that millennials have a long-lasting and genuine desire to do social-impact work. Their efforts are focused on preparing the next generation of black green advocates. By fall 2013, Fight for Light will have enrolled 10 to 15 students from Morehouse, Spelman and Clark Atlanta University to participate in its inaugural three-year fellowship program. During the first year, students will attend a series of environmental literacy workshops. The second year, fellows work toward becoming certified as professional energy auditors in order to be able to properly assess how buildings can implement green strategies. In the final year, the emphasis is on "design thinking" — developing one's own sustainability project and seeing it through to implementation.
"In the black community we're at forefront of all environmental issues, if we're talking about pollution, obesity," Bryant told The Root. "But once we talk about environmental leadership, we're at the margins. We're trying to address that."
Meanwhile, Kassa is setting himself up to be a leader in a different area — among African immigrant communities. Citing vibrant support institutions often associated with Latino and Asians populations, the Harvard grad said he has long wondered why there weren't the same types of mutual aid organizations for Africans new to the United States.
"It's the story of every immigrant community," he told The Root. "People come here and don't get ahead by themselves. They get ahead with other members of their group. They build institutions, whether you call them welcome centers, worker centers or mutual aid centers … [groups have] created these institutions to help navigate the system, have a voice and be counted basically."
Enter AIDA. Through a series of seminars and workshops, Kassa hopes to build a support network to improve the economic and educational prospects for first- and second-generation African immigrants. The model is to eventually provide direct services such as legal and housing counsel. Over the next six months, the focus will be on educating immigrants about the Deferred Action Childhood Arrival legislation, a bill signed by President Obama that provides temporary relief from deportation for immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.
"I'm trying to increase the number of African immigrants to adjust their status through DACA," said Kassa, who also has a law degree from University of California at Berkeley.
The Alliance, which will soon change its name to African Communities Together, or ACT, will start out in New York City, focusing on the French-speaking West African residents of Harlem, the heavily Ghanaian section in the Bronx and the Liberian community in Staten Island, Kassa said. He hopes to be incorporated before the end of the year and encourages other blacks to find their own way to make a difference.
"We need African-American people especially thinking about how they can make an impact no matter where they are — [in the] private sector, public, nonprofit or hybrid [structure]," Kassa said. "We need people making an impact, whether it's getting people hired where they work or using the wealth they accumulate to fund nonprofits, using money to plow back into communities. I'm not a big believer in silver bullets. It's about a lot of small efforts coming together."
Brett Johnson is an associate editor at The Root.