The Irish Impact Awards recognize an institutional or community partner, distinguished alumni, faculty administrator and/or student who have demonstrated entrepreneurial spirit and significant social impact.
This year’s awardee – Steve Thomas (ND ’78) of Better Futures Minnesota – embodies the multitudinal topics related to Irish Impact. He has built Better Futures Minnesota from the ground up, created scalable and replicable social impact, fought for financial sustainability, and acted as a true change agent. He is impassioned and visionary, and is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to fighting for the human dignity of high-risk men with a history of mental illness and/or incarceration.
Irish Impact asked Mara Stolee (ND ’14) who served as a social enterprise intern for Better Futures Minnesota in summer 2012 to provide her unique perspective of Steve as a social entrepreneur as well as the organization’s impact.
I looked at him from across the picnic table and asked, “Why these men?” and he responded, “Because they are the last group of people that anyone wants to help.”
I’m willing to bet that in ten seconds or less, you can name at least a dozen organizations directed towards helping women and children. I’m also willing to bet that you’ll need closer to a minute (and maybe the help of Google) to think of ONE organization that works toward helping high-risk men with a history of mental illness and/or incarceration.
Since 2007, Better Futures Minnesota (BFM), formerly known as the NetWork for Better Futures, has been rooted in serving high-risk men in the North Minneapolis area, a population that is most often overlooked when it comes to philanthropic assistance. By addressing critical housing, healthcare, and skill-based needs, BFM gives the men the tools they need to take ownership of their problems and improve their living situations. The company generates revenue through a recycling operation based in Hennepin County, which employs the men and offers them the opportunity to develop valuable work skills that will be applicable to their careers after Better Futures.
After receiving a Masters in Public Policy from Duke University and serving as the Assistant Commissioner for Corrections in New York City, Steve Thomas sought to create social and economic value for Minneapolis by serving a marginalized and neglected population. Now acting as the company’s CEO and President, Steve continues to lead the organization with his ceaseless drive and entrepreneurial spirit.
I had the privilege of working with Steve during the summer of 2012 as part of Notre Dame’s Social Venturing Internship program for undergraduate students, sponsored by the University’s Center for Social Concerns and the Gigot Center for Entrepreneurship. This internship was my first exposure to the business world and without a doubt ranks as one of my most formative life experiences.
Colleagues have described Steve as the “quintessential entrepreneur,” someone who drives change within and beyond an organization through big ideas and enthusiasm. Working with Steve is like being constantly inspired to use every ounce of your ability to do something meaningful. Steve has played a critical role in my professional development, serving as a mentor and role model. As a college intern with barely any business knowledge, I feared that I would not be able to contribute to the company’s mission, but he challenged me to develop my writing and problem-solving skills by personally working with me on a variety of projects.
Steve genuinely cares about each BFM participant and interacts with the men as much as possible. With his employees, he inspires a collective consciousness in the company’s social mission, and as an intern with BFM, I never failed to see the greater meaning behind even the most mundane tasks. (As exciting as it is to work for a startup, you do have to format PowerPoints from time to time.)
In the last five years, BFM has worked with over 600 high risk, primarily African American men in the Minneapolis area, addressing their critical needs in four areas: housing, jobs, health, and coaching. This holistic model has yielded impressive results, reducing the recidivism rate of its participants by nearly 50%, as well as increasing employment, income and child support payment rates.
Each year, during the Irish Impact Social Entrepreneurship Conference held at Notre Dame, one distinguished entrepreneur is recognized for his/her success in driving critical social change. This year’s conference committee selected Steve for the Social Entrepreneur of the Year Award, which he accepted at the Zielsdorf Family Awards Ceremony on October 2nd. The university was proud to award this recognition to one of its own alumni, especially as Steve’s efforts continue to give back to the Notre Dame community through valuable learning experiences like the internship I pursued.
No matter what role you play in your organization, you can benefit from incorporating the mindset Steve has with BFM. When faced with complex challenges, Steve reminds himself and his employees, “We are a learning company.” No meaningful change happens overnight, but by taking and applying each thing we learn, especially those valuable lessons from failure, we can really work to achieve something great.
According to Steve, “by setting high expectations an providing direct access to the resources needed to meet these expectations, BFM offers participants the opportunity to become productive members of members of society. The result: a man transforms from a ‘client,’ consuming public benefits, to a wage-earning, tax-payer who pays child support and is no longer chronically dependent on public support and programs.”