The Starting Good Podcast, Stacy Ratner, Open Books

If you could only have one more job in your working life, what would you choose to do?

Stacy-Ratner-Open-BooksStacy Ratner asked herself that in 2006 when facing “a significant birthday” and after years of nurturing successful, for-profit startups, including SitterCity.

Ratner answered the question by creating Open Books, an innovative social venture that offers literacy programs for thousands of K-12 students in Chicago.

Unlike other non-profits that rely on grants or corporate gifts, Open Books funds its operations primarily through used book sales from its retail store in the heart of downtown Chicago. The store’s colorful shelves are lined with over 50,000 donated books, including 10,000 or so children’s books.

With no previous bookselling experience to draw on, the launch of the store was an adventure for Ratner. But she always saw it as a critical element of her plan to tackle what she calls the ‘invisible problem’ of literacy.

“It funds our programs but it’s also an awareness venue,” says Ratner. “If someone comes in to buy a book, or attend an author reading, or host a book club, they might also leave with some awareness that literacy is still a problem in Chicago, and maybe even better, a determination that they can get involved and do something about it.”

The retail store helps fund literacy programs and is home to over 50,000 titles.

The Open Books bookstore helps fund literacy programs and is home to over 50,000 titles.

Now in its eighth year, Open Books partners with over 60 Chicago Public Schools offering programs that range from one-on-one reading to creative writing workshops. While literacy is still a large problem in the city, Ratner says the daily accomplishments of her programs’ students offer a powerful antidote to despair.

“It could be that a child gets a book that he or she has been wanting for weeks. It could be that they figure out a word that they didn’t know. It could be that they read a poem in front of their class and now their class is kind of admiring them. Every day, in every program that we offer, something wonderful happens.”

Listen to the complete interview with Stacy Ratner on iTunesSound Cloud, and Stitcher.

(Photo credits: Paul Natkin and Richard W. Chapman)



The Starting Good Podcast: Erin Dinan, One Sandwich at a Time

For most of us, a peanut butter sandwich is just that, a sandwich. But to Erin Dinan, it’s an instrument of social change.

Dinan is the founder of One Sandwich at a Time, a New York-based charity that engages volunteers in large-scale sandwich making events to feed the city’s hungry and homeless.

Erin Dinan's sandwiches feed thousands of homeless in NYC.

Erin Dinan’s sandwiches feed thousands of homeless in NYC.

Her inspiration came from a chance encounter with a homeless man in a train station. Dinan had just bought herself a sandwich when the man approached her for help. She instinctively shared half of her meal and the man’s response made a powerful impression on her.

“I think he was surprised that someone had done it, and he was so grateful that someone would help him make it to his next meal,” recalls Dinan. “It was an image that really stuck with me.”

Erin then began packing extra sandwiches in her bag each day and distributing them on the street. After sharing her experiences with friends, they encouraged her to start a non-profit.

Her charity has since fed thousands of hungry and homeless individuals in New York and Erin plans to ultimately launch One Sandwich at a Time chapters in other cities.

“But on a personal level,” says Dinan, “I measure success in the lives we touch.”

“When someone comes up to me in a shelter and takes a sandwich and they hug me and thank me, I feel content. Because I know we have touched the life of one person. And for me, that goes a long way.”

Listen to the complete interview with Erin Dinan on iTunesSound Cloud, and Stitcher.




The Starting Good Podcast: Blair Brettschneider, GirlForward

GF-logoWorking as an assistant at a refugee resettlement agency, Blair Brettschneider was well aware of the challenges that refugees face upon arrival in the U.S.

But in 2010 she got a first-hand view into the educational struggles of refugee girls when she took on a tutoring assignment, helping 18-year old Domi from Tanzania.

“She was really struggling,” recalls Brettschneider. “She only had a couple of years of schooling when she arrived in the US, but because of her age she was put in high school.”

The language barrier and her limited education were challenges for Domi, but her responsibilities at home, including an expectation that she care for her younger siblings, also contributed to her difficulties.

Brettschneider became a mentor to Domi and supplemented their one-on-one tutoring with group classes to assist other refugee girls facing similar issues.

Blair Brettschneider and Domi

Blair Brettschneider and Domi

The combination of peer support and individual mentoring helped Domi pass high school and get into college — and also laid the groundwork for Brettschneider’s non-profit, GirlForward, which now offers these services to hundreds of refugee girls throughout Chicago.

Programming is offered year-round, including a free summer camp with a curriculum of journal writing, reading and weekly field trips around the city.

Brettschneider, 25, has earned several accolades for her work, including being named a CNN Hero in 2013. But she says her biggest reward is watching the organization grow beyond her initial idea.

“We have a program director, we have interns, and some of the new girls don’t even know who I am and that’s the best feeling because it means they identify with the organization and it’s not just me.”

Listen to the complete interview with Blair Brettschneider on iTunes, Sound Cloud, and Stitcher.



The Starting Good Podcast: Daniel Wiens, Journeyman International

Need a school built in Ghana? How about an orphanage in Haiti? Give Daniel Wiens a call. He’s a construction expert with a humanitarian mission.

JI-logoHis five-year old non-profit, Journeyman International, takes on building projects for charities and philanthropic organizations that have the funds and desire to build abroad, but need construction and design expertise to bring their projects to fruition.

Wiens took on his first such project in college as a student of construction management. He and an architecture student partnered to design and build a dental clinic in Belize.

“After finishing that project, I was just sitting around thinking it was effective, we did a great job, and I bet there have to be other students who would love to do something like this. And that was really the birth of Journeyman International.”

Wiens recruits students from top engineering and architecture schools to lend their talents to the non-profit, keeping costs low for clients. Services range from initial feasibility assessments to the creation of construction-ready blueprints and project management.

A library project in Rwanda.

An ongoing Journeyman International library project in Rwanda.

Projects can last up to a year or longer, and students often spend a considerable amount of time in underdeveloped countries, where they encounter a variety of logistical and cultural challenges.

“When you go to Cameroon it’s different from Ghana, which is different from Haiti. But that’s part of the fun,” says Wiens. “You meet with the local building officials, you meet with the city council, you meet with your client and you just start putting all of the pieces together.”

The “journeyman” in the organization’s name comes from the construction community, which the founder says is fitting for its mission.

“A journeyman, by definition, is someone who has mastered a trade, and that’s what we aim to become, a team that has truly mastered the art of humanitarian architecture and construction.”

Click here to see a portfolio of completed construction projects.

Listen to the complete interview with Daniel Wiens on iTunesSoundCloud, or Stitcher.



The Starting Good Podcast: Alex Danco, Backtrack

New wearable technologies, like the popular Fitbit, are helping consumers measure and achieve wellness goals. But Alex Danco says the next wave of wearables will help treat chronic health concerns.

Alex Danco, co-founder of Backtrack

Alex Danco, co-founder of Backtrack

Danco is the co-creator of a wearable app called Backtrack that targets one of the world’s most common and costly chronic conditions:  back pain.

“It is an enormous problem. It’s the second greatest reason for doctor’s visits in North America for individuals under 45, and the leading cause of workplace disability,” he says.

The device itself is an adhesive patch that uses smart sensors to give individuals more precise measures of their back movements, including the ones that cause back pain. Data collected by the patch are then transmitted to a mobile app for self-monitoring or sharing with a doctor or physical therapist.

Danco is fresh from graduate school at McGill University where he studied neuroscience. With little background in mobile and wearable technologies, he says the product development process has presented a variety of challenges, including the prototyping of a patch, complete with data sensors, that could stretch and adhere to the back while remaining comfortable and unobtrusive.

Patients will start using Backtrack in a limited trial later this year and a crowdfunding campaign may be a next step to raise additional capital.

If successful, the company’s technologies could be adapted to other therapies, Danco predicts. “Our sensor could be used for any sort of rehabilitation that involves movement.”

Listen to the complete interview with Alex Danco on iTunesSoundCloud, or Stitcher.



The Starting Good Podcast: Jon Feinman, InnerCity Weightlifting

Although his non-profit is called InnerCity Weightlifting, Jon Feinman will tell you the weightlifting is secondary.

InnerCity-Weightlifting-logoIts real mission is to build a caring support network for the hundreds of at-risk kids, mostly gang members, who attend workouts with Feinman and the program’s coaches at gyms in some of Boston’s toughest neighborhoods.

“What we found during our first year was that our students were getting shot, they were going back to jail,” recalls Feinman.  It wasn’t realistic to expect kids to show up for regular workouts, he says, because their lives outside of the gym were so dysfunctional.

So he shifted the purpose of the organization, structuring around what he calls ‘the community of the gym,’ rather than the activity of weight lifting.

“Weightlifting just happened to be this common activity that could get some of these young people off the street and into the gym. But (the non-profit) became much more about the community and much more about the relationships that we could form if we just happened to ask them if they wanted to come in and lift (weights),” says Feinman.

Those relationships run deep and can be long lasting. It’s not uncommon for Feinman to give his students rides to the gym, help them find jobs and to make introductions for them into the world outside of their neighborhood to show them alternatives to gang life.

Feinman’s ambitious plans for growth include opening a revenue-generating gym in Boston’s business district. The gym would employ his students as personal trainers, giving them a living wage and career path, while raising funds for the non-profit and greater awareness.

Beyond that, he says, “the future vision is to have a presence in every city affected by gang violence.”

(Photo: Boston Globe)

Listen to the complete interview with Jon Feinman on iTunes or SoundCloud.



The Starting Good Podcast: Monika Allen and Tara Baize, Glam Runner

Tutus are increasingly popular among runners who want to show a little personal style during races. The founders of Glam Runner, Monika Allen and Tara Baize, have turned the trend into a socially conscious business – selling homemade tutus online to raise money for their favorite charity, Girls on the Run.

“With the rise of fun runs and costume runs, we just fit into that,” says Allen. “Every race we run now, we see people everywhere with tutus.”

GlamIn March, Self magazine turned a national spotlight on Glam Runner when it published a picture of the founders wearing their whimsical creations.

Monika and Tara had provided the photo assuming it would be featured in a positive light, but the caption made fun of the tutu craze, calling it “lame.”

Self made no mention of the women’s fundraising, and the editors weren’t aware of Monika’s courageous personal story. She has brain cancer, and the photo showed her in the LA marathon, her first race after months of aggressive treatment.

Outrage over the magazine’s insensitivity quickly spread through social media. In a matter of days, the company and its tutus were featured on national news outlets, and Allen and Baize were flooded with new orders. The magazine ultimately apologized.

Publicity over the photo flap helped the founders raise over $8,000 for Girls on the Run in just a few weeks, an outcome that Allen says was gratifying.

“The money goes straight to the organization that we support and it’s why we started Glam Runner, so it was really great.”

Listen to the complete interview with Monika Allen and Tara Baize on iTunes or SoundCloud.