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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Starting Good Interview: Veronika Scott, The Empowerment Plan

Veronika-ScottA coat that transforms into a sleeping bag was Veronika Scott’s inspired idea to help Detroit’s homeless population stay warm. And then the idea transformed her.

Scott turned her concept into an innovative non-profit, The Empowerment Plan, that hires homeless women from shelters to sew and manufacture the coat she first prototyped as a 20-year old design student.

The program helps its employees regain their financial footing, while the coats they make provide comfort to thousands of homeless individuals across the US.

Scott recently shared her story with Starting Good, describing some of the challenges she faced getting started.

Starting Good:  For those unfamiliar, tell your founding story. What inspired you to start the Empowerment Plan?

Veronika: The Empowerment Plan started when I was a student studying product design at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit. I was given a class project to design a product to actually fulfill a need and being in Detroit, I immediately began brainstorming ways that I could help the countless homeless individuals around the city. I began volunteering at a local shelter and after spending time with and talking to various individuals staying there I came up with the idea for a coat that transforms into a sleeping bag. It wasn’t until I began working on the initial prototypes that I realized there was an actual need for this item and that my idea was much more than a response to a class project.

Starting Good: What was “job one” for you when you decided to start your venture — the most important thing you had to do initially to demonstrate your commitment to getting your program off the ground?

Veronika: Job one for me was deciding that after graduation I was going to fully dedicate myself to developing The Empowerment Plan into a full-fledged non-profit organization. When I was in college, I always thought I would end up with a career in product or industrial design, so for me, making the decision to take a risk and to commit myself to this was job one.

Starting Good: What kind of response did you get from others when you told people you planned to manufacture your coat with a workforce made up of individuals from homeless shelters?

Veronika: I received a variety of responses, many of them being more negative than anything else at first, but I have proven wrong all skeptics wrong. I was never told that the product we would be manufacturing was a bad idea or that there was not a demand for the product, but I was told time and time again that the organization would fail because of who I was hiring. I was told that homeless women were unreliable and that they would not be capable of holding employment. I, on the other hand, could not think of a better population to hire. Yes, we have an atypical work force, but each lady takes such pride in her work and understands the impact that one of our coats can have because they can directly relate to those receiving one.

Starting Good: You started The Empowerment Plan at a young age with relatively little business experience. In what ways has that been a detriment? Or conversely, has it been an asset?

Veronika: In some situations it has been an asset because I am more inclined to take risks and am more open to new opportunities, but in other situations I wish I had more business experience and overall exposure to the business world. Luckily, I have an amazing board of directors and multiple mentors that I can call on at any time and that have been critical to the growth and success of The Empowerment Plan. I have learned so much since I started this venture three years ago and am still learning every day. I have learned that I cannot be afraid to ask questions, to make mistakes, and to call on someone for help when I need it.

Starting Good: What role does your board play in mentoring you and helping your organization grow?

Veronika: The board plays a huge role in now only mentoring me, but also in guiding the growth of the organization. Our board members work in various professional fields, but they all genuinely care about our mission and bring different experiences and perspectives to the table. It means so much to me to know that I have such a strong support system to back me up. I cannot tell you how many connections I have made, events I have attended, and opportunities that have been presented to me as a result of the board constantly thinking about ways to help us.

Starting Good: What advice to you have for others who are inspired by your story and who are interested in starting their own non-profit or taking a leap into social entrepreneurship?

Veronika: The time is now and you can do it. When I graduated, I thought I was the last person that should be starting a non-profit organization, but I had to take a step back and realize that I was the only one that could create this opportunity. I know you hear it all the time, but you really cannot be afraid to take risks, to fail fast, and to learn from your mistakes. My mistakes turned into my biggest achievements because I learned what not to do.

You will never feel fully ready until you actually take the initiative and welcome the associated challenges. I hope to be able to show other aspiring entrepreneurs that achieving their dreams, both big and small, starts with making the first small step and the first small choice. I believe that all great change is accomplished one step at a time.

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