1. Recipe for a Start-up
While food businesses have traditionally gotten started in personal kitchens, most states now require any food sold commercially to be prepared in a kitchen monitored by a health inspector.
That requirement is too costly for many would-be entrepreneurs. People who want to start a food business in Cambridge, Mass., can rent professional kitchen space on an hourly basis from CropCircle, a nonprofit “kitchen incubator” that provides technical assistance and access to equipment like convection ovens and blast freezers.
Starting a food business through CropCircle, or one of the other kitchen incubators that have opened around the country, helps keep costs manageable, and entrepreneurs can quickly scale up production when they’re ready.
CropCircle members can take a food-safety class that prepares them for the state certification they’ll need to go out on their own. Operations Manager Darnell Adams cites the logistical challenges confronting food entrepreneurs, and says there’s room in the market for more kitchen incubators and the help they provide.
Some kitchen incubators focus on a specific population, such as immigrants or organic food producers, but Adams says CropCircle is “here for anyone who has an idea that is viable,” which is why a day on the job might have her sampling kimchi, carob peppermint cookies, or baba ghanoush. – Colleen Shaddox
2. Free Computers
Computers are vital for almost any business, but not everyone can afford to buy one. Free Geek in Portland, Ore., can help. Volunteers donate 24 hours of their time to deconstruct and rebuild donated computers in exchange for one of their own.
Free Geek’s build program guides them through the process of constructing five computers, so they can take home the sixth. A grants program allows nonprofits to apply for computer donations.
Free Geek also offers computer classes, tech support, and a thrift store that sells desktop computers and peripherals at a fraction of retail prices. This keeps computer equipment out of the landfill, working for the local economy, and connecting people to jobs, work, and the world.
For those not living near Portland, Free Geek has numerous affiliates across the country. These affiliates must follow guidelines that include: disposing of equipment in ethical and environmentally responsible ways, using free and open-source software when possible, providing affordable or free tech training, using democratic and transparent governing policies, and being a nonprofit business. – Krista Vogel
3. Quality Child Care
Working parents with young children need high-quality, affordable child care, while many parents staying at home with their children need a way to earn a living. Nicole Richardson got assistance from an organization that addresses both these needs.
Richardson came from a big family and always wanted to run a child-care business. But realizing that dream required her to navigate complex regulations and make renovations to her home, where the business would be based. She turned to All Our Kin (AOK), a nonprofit in New Haven, Conn.
All Our Kin prepared her for certification as a child development associate, helped her apply for her license, and provided technical assistance, including one-on-one mentorship from a master teacher. AOK clients get boxes of free materials that range from smoke detectors to art supplies, and Richardson even got a low-interest loan to fence her yard.
“I don’t feel like I’m babysitting kids,” she says. “I feel like I’m an educator.” Today she is certified as an Early Head Start provider and employs an assistant to help care for five infants and toddlers.
AOK opened in reaction to welfare reform, which pushed mothers into low-paying jobs that didn’t cover the cost of child care. Founders Jessica Sager and Janna Wagner began training women to provide outstanding child care in their homes. They expanded AOK’s work when many existing child care providers in Connecticut started going under. They believed that with good training and support these businesses could be sustainable and extend high-quality care to neighborhoods where it was scarce.
Their strategy worked: The number of providers is actually increasing in New Haven.
With the right skills, child care can be a great career, according to Richardson. “If you have the love for the kids, I recommend it,” she says. – C.S.
4. Ignite! Local Business
Training and mutual support go a long way in making small enterprises viable. That’s no secret to the graduates of Urban FIRE (Financial Intelligence, Responsible Entrepreneurship), a nonprofit in Oakland, Calif., that provides an affordable “crash course” for would-be entrepreneurs in the inner city.
The resulting new businesses are launched every year at the Ignite! New Business Expo, a showcase to encourage community support.
Teamwork extends beyond the classroom for Urban FIRE graduates. The founder of Our Cuban Kitchen in Oakland, for example, buys the restaurant’s desserts and marketing services from fellow graduates.
It’s just the sort of collaboration that Urban FIRE founder Boku Kodama envisions as the basis of a local economy. “What Ignite! and Urban FIRE attempt to do is create intra-dependent villages within their communities so that they can be more self-sustainable without relying on so-called social service programs,” he says. – Lily Hicks
5. Instant Office
Independent workers may need a ready-made office for just a few hours, or all day, every day, and that’s just what’s provided by Citizen Space in San Francisco, Calif. Freelancers can pay a small fee to drop in occasionally, or a monthly membership for dedicated desk space, 24/7 building access, conference rooms, and office amenities.
But this is more than just an office. It’s one of the growing number of coworking spaces that has sprouted throughout Europe and North America in the past five years as collaborative alternatives to working from home.
Citizen Space gives members access to a computer clinic on efficient use of technology – vital to independents whose computers serve as business hubs. It’s just one of the classes and events offered to promote good business practices and encourage social interaction. The networking opportunities are endless, and the atmosphere – somewhere between an office and a coffee shop – proves that people don’t need to work for the same company to be colleagues. – Krista Vogel
6. Factory at Your Fingertips
What would you make if you could run a factory from your laptop? It’s a real option, at least if you live near a Fab Lab. Developed at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Fab Labs are a suite of industrial fabrication tools controlled by a personal computer.
The first Fab Lab outside MIT, at Lorain County Community College in Elyria, Ohio, has allowed entrepreneurs to start microbusinesses producing everything from knitting tools to circuit boards. Fab Labs currently support small businesses in scattered sites around the United States and even more so in the developing world.
Some of these products may find their way back to the United States. A wireless network that helped Afghan farmers keep track of their sheep was repurposed in Kenya as a way to provide Internet access. Now people in Detroit are talking about adopting the system to provide low-cost wireless service. – C.S.
7. Organizing Freelancers
Offering your services on a temporary basis is one way to find work at a time when employers are reluctant to create permanent jobs. Contract workers make up 30 percent of the American workforce, and their numbers are increasing. The Freelancers Union offers “solidarity, benefits, community, and a political voice” to these consultants, independent contractors, temps, part-timers, and contingent employees. The 156,000-member organization is not actually a union in that it offers no collective bargaining. But it advocates for the rights of independent workers, and provides support in the form of group benefits such as 401K plans, health insurance (in certain states), disability insurance, and member discounts.
Increasingly, universities and colleges employ part-time, contingent, and adjunct instructors, who are sometimes paid less than the cleaning staff, and work without benefits or job security. The American Federation of Teachers is a trade union that now includes workers throughout education, health care, and public service, as well as adjunct professors. The American Association of University Professors and the New Faculty Majority are not unions but do fight for adjunct rights.
The United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers (UE) of America describes itself as an member-run, independent union. UE has a growing membership that includes a range of occupations and represents approximately 35,000 workers in more than 140 autonomous locals around the country.
Whether these and other newer professional unions grow to have the political and economic clout of the Teamsters or SEIU remains to be seen. But in the age of social networking there are new avenues for organizing from the ground up. – Larry Buhl
• Sign-up to receive a weekly selection of practical and inspiring Change Agent articles by clicking here.