LaunchKC shines spotlight on founders as first social venture studio cohort takes the stage

Tying Jerren Thornhill’s social venture to the footwear industry jogs a logical path, the founder said: re-selling used shoes was a $2 billion industry in 2021, and more importantly: “Kids love shoes.”

his startup, One Pair — founded in 2020 to provide teenagers with a pathway to financial security through entrepreneurship while simultaneously minimizing their free time that could lead them to get into trouble — was one of seven socially-minded businesses showcased Thursday at a demo day for LaunchKC’s Social Venture Studio.

Thornhill described One Pair as “a maker space” completely operated by its teen employees. One Pair cleans and re-sells shoes, holds monthly events, and sells clothes from six local brands.

His pitch Thursday highlighted the business and demonstrated — as with other cohort members’ presentations — progress made through the course of the inaugural six-month venture studio program.

“We have seen a tremendous amount of growth over these past few months with them,” said India Wells-Carter, consultant for Social Impact Advising Group, which facilitated programming for the LaunchKC effort. “They’ve invested a lot of time, a lot of commitment. Being a founder and a CEO, you have a million other things on your to-do list. But they showed up, hopefully created a beautiful bond with each other, and now will continue on to lead and change our city.”

All seven of the Kansas City founders also received grant awards ranging from $35,000 to $50,000, professional support, dedicated mentoring, and network connections as they grow their businesses, which range in focus from eliminating food deserts to expanding telehealth appointments to engaging students using hip hop .

Click here to read more about the origins of the LaunchKC Social Venture Studio, which publicly announced less than a year ago.

A social venture is a business that prioritizes social good with business success. Kansas City has a rich fabric of social ventures, however the founders often felt that they fell through the cracks — not purely for profit, nor purely philanthropic — when it came to business advice, networking and funding.

Members of the LaunchKC Social Venture Studio cohort recounted “lightbulb moments” and detailed their entrepreneurial journeys to audience members, who were encouraged to connect with and find ways to support the founders.

Dr. Shelley Cooper, Come On Now, at the demo day for the LaunchKC Social Venture Studio

Dr. Shelley Cooper, founder and CEO of Diversity Telehealthled off the evening by thanking each fellow cohort members “for the opportunity to have known and grown with them.”

Diversity Telehealth’s Come On Now! platform replaces no-shows and last-minute cancellations with billable telehealth appointments, aiming to connect the most vulnerable patients with the care they need, even if they can’t physically make it to a doctor’s office.

Cooper said 1 in 4 appointments each year end in cancellations or no-shows and could instead be filled using the HIPPA-compliant platform, which is currently being used in the Kansas City area, with a five-step plan in place to expand geographically.

She added that she believes Come On Now! could have saved the life of her father — who died in February 2018 at age 87 as he struggled to access medical care for his chronic conditions — had it existed at the time.

“The Come On Now! platform couldn’t save my daddy,” Cooper said. “But with your help, we can save your loved ones.”

Cohort members and mentors listen at the demo day for the LaunchKC Social Venture Studio

A prevailing theme among the inaugural cohort members was equitable food access and responsible disposal of food waste.

Maxfield Kaniger, founder of Kanbe’s Marketsstarted his nonprofit with the goal of conquering those two problems.

Kanbe’s Markets does that by redirecting produce from landfills to its 40 “Healthy Corner Stores,” which are mom-and-pop stores located in food deserts across Kansas City.

Kaniger said the program could be expanded to 600 locations throughout the city, and that at 300 locations, Kansas City would officially become the first major American city to eliminate food deserts entirely.

Produce that isn’t in good enough condition to sell is donated to local organizations that support food insecure individuals, and anything that isn’t safe for human consumption is dedicated for animal consumption. All remaining produce is composted.

Click here to read more about Max Kaniger, who was named one of Startland News’ Kansas City Community Builders to Watch in 2021.

Kristan Chamberlain, KC Can Compost, at the demo day for the LaunchKC Social Venture Studio

Compost is the whole focus for Kristan Chamberlain, executive director of KC Can Compost.

Chamberlain launched her organization in 2019 as a solution to what she called “the food waste crisis” that contributes to harmful greenhouse gas emissions.

She said KC Can Compost operates using a triple bottom line, meaning that in addition to generating revenue, the company also prioritizes people and the planet.

KC Can Compost provides orange organic waste bins in locations throughout the city so that people can easily dispose of food scraps that shouldn’t be left to decompose in landfills.

The organization then collects the bins and sorts through the waste to either repurpose or safely dispose of it.

Related: Spring in the face of ‘doom and gloom’ — KC Can Compost grows green infrastructure while expanding its own footprint

Chef Shanita McAfee-Bryant, The Prospect KC, at the demo day for the LaunchKC Social Venture Studio

Shanita McAfee-Bryant, executive director of The Prospect K.C.also began her nonprofit with a focus on equitable food access.

The Prospect KC aims to end generational poverty by providing nutritional literacy and kitchen skills training, and through increasing access to nutritious, affordable, culturally appropriate food, particularly for residents of Kansas City’s east side.

McAfee-Bryant described the approach as “whole person training” and said she had “an a-ha moment” upon recently hearing the philosophy of fellow chef José Andrés.

“Charity is not about the redemption of the giver, but the liberation of the receiver,” McAfee-Bryant recounted.

The Prospect KC is set to open a social enterprise urban eatery at 2000 Vines in the coming months. All food and drink will be priced affordably, McAfee-Bryant said, and all profits will be reinvested in the nonprofit’s work.

Click here to read more about The Prospect KC’s plans at 2000 Vine.

Another common thread among the cohort was work centered on uplifting children, teens, and families.

Roy Scott, founder of Healthy Hip Hoptold the audience how after high school, he nixed college to pursue his dream of becoming a rapper.

Though that path didn’t pan out, Scott eventually used his love of the music genre to create Healthy Hip Hop, a TikTok-esque platform that encourages students to engage educationally by creating music-related videos and content in a secure network.

Scott recounted how his “urban Disney” platform nearly received $500,000 in funding after appearing on the ABC show “Shark Tank,” only to have Disney pull the episode and the deal because Healthy Hip Hop presented potential competition.

He then drew inspiration from Walt Disney himself, a fellow Missouri native and entrepreneur, persevering to build Healthy Hip Hop into a resource for students to achieve grade-level reading comprehension by third grade, with the goal of eliminating the school-to-prison pipeline .

Natasha Kirsch, Pawsperity, at the demo day for the LaunchKC Social Venture Studio

Natasha Kirsch founded pawsperity (formerly known as The Grooming Project) in 2016 after seeing firsthand how poverty is often passed down from one generation to the next.

Kirsch recalled how in a phone conversation with her mother, a pet groomer in Iowa, she pleaded for anyone willing and able to work. That was Kirsch’s “lightbulb moment.”

After returning to school to earn a degree in nonprofit management, Kirsch founded Pawsperity, a unique organization that sends applicants — mostly single mothers — to school for 40 hours a week for six months to learn everything needed to be a successful pet groomer.

Along the way, participants have access to social workers, an on-site food pantry, child care, a family residence, and any other resources they need. The program takes two years to complete, but Kirsch said that graduates have Pawsperity’s support for life.

According to Kirsch, all 100 graduates were placed in jobs, 83% have retained employment, the average starting salary is $41,000, and 73 percent no longer needed welfare benefits within two years.

Additionally, she said dozens of children have been removed from foster care and reunited with their parents who went through the pet grooming program.

Click here to read more about one of the women impacted by Kirsch’s work.

In September, the International Economic Development Council (IEDC) recognized the LaunchKC Social Venture Studio with its Excellence in Economic Development Award for its work in promoting economic equity and inclusion.

The program was selected for the award from a pool of more than 500 applications from across the world. It is a collaboration between LaunchKC, which is organized by the Economic Development Council of Kansas City, Missouri and the Downtown Council, and Keystone CoLab, which played host to Thursday’s demo day.

“Social Venture Studio shows that Kansas City’s entrepreneurial spirit can build successful businesses and also help address longstanding issues in our community,” said Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas. “It is a testament to what can be done when organizations like the City, EDC, Downtown Council and Keystone Innovation District collaborate with emerging businesses to create opportunities for all members of our community.”

This story is possible thanks to support from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundationa private, nonpartisan foundation that works together with communities in education and entrepreneurship to create uncommon solutions and empower people to shape their futures and be successful.

For more information, visit www.kauffman.org and connect at www.twitter.com/kauffmanfdn and www.facebook.com/kauffmanfdn