Creating Social Value Blog / Social Innovation

Notes from the Case Files: To Drive or Not to Drive

By Jesseca P. Timmons, a case writer in Entrepreneurial Studies and Social Entrepreneurship for the Lewis Institute at Babson College.

As a case writer, my job is to find out what’s going on behind the scenes in a venture. One question we always ask an entrepreneur is: what is the biggest challenge facing your business? For InnerCity Weightlifting (ICW), Associate Professor Mary Gale and I were able to interview not only founder Jon Feinman but also half a dozen of his closest advisors. When we asked each of them to name ICW’s biggest hurdle, we were surprised at their answers: it wasn’t funding, staffing, or the evolving business plan that were keeping them up at night—it was driving.

Former board president Anne Morris explained:

How to move these kids safely around the city is a huge challenge–that’s one of the realities of life for these high-profile gang members….wherever they go, they are targets. They can’t get on a bus, they can’t get on the T–that is one of the realities of their life that is impossible to imagine! So how you get them into the gym has been a problem from the beginning. We are working hard to kind of get Jon out from behind the wheel of the car, picking the kids up and bringing them to the gym.

Susan Musinsky of the Social Innovation Forum also felt Jon’s practice of driving kids home could be problematic: “Maybe not today, maybe not in two weeks, but at some point, there is a certain risk. We can’t have Jon constantly taking that risk.” Another board member agreed: “We have talked about how that is not the best use of Jon’s time right now…the transportation model is definitely in need of an overhaul.” The board discussed possible solutions to the problem, such as purchasing a van to drive students home.

Outgoing COO Ken Lima, however, felt other challenges—such as perfecting specific, measurable outcomes for the program—were more pressing. Ken, who had worked side by side with Jon and the students for two years, felt the benefits of Jon’s car trips vastly outweighed the risks:

I think that trust gets cultivated in those car trips. It’s important that Jon have car trips well into the future of this organization–he may well minimize those trips with students who have been here longer….maybe they identify kids who maybe need Jon more, or less. And maybe they are other ways for him to participate in building relationships with these kids that don’t involve travel…but my gut reaction is, car trips are not going to go away in the near future.

This perspective was echoed by the students we spoke to: they joked about Jon’s habit of changing rap lyrics and and getting everyone to sing along. Obviously, the rides in Jon’s car were highly valued time.

Hearing different views on the same issue from staff, students and outside advisors of one business illustrates exactly why an entrepreneur’s path is so challenging, and why writing the cases is a continually fascinating process. Every business is constantly evolving behind the scenes — understanding viewpoints from all sides allows us to truly capture a moment in that process.