For Benefit Enterprise in New Haven?

January 27th, 2014 View Comments »

I grew up in San Francisco and remember buying our Christmas trees from Delancey Street lots. As a child, I was more focused on the sights, smells and fun of running through the trees. As I grew older, it was less about the trees and more about my fascinated with that type of social enterprise.

Delancey Street describes themselves as “a community where people with nowhere to turn, turn their lives around. [They are] the country’s leading residential self-help organization for former substance abusers, ex-convicts, homeless and others who have hit bottom.” And a key part of it are the businesses they run to provide jobs and generate revenue.

Over the past year or so, I have been thinking more about these types of social enterprises (aka for benefit companies) that are focused on job creation for those that may not otherwise easily find employment. It seems there may be a group in Bridgeport that is doing similar work although not enough of this type of thing in the New Haven.

A few like-minded entrepreneurs and I have been giving it some more thought and are getting closer to deciding to start such an enterprise in New Haven. To me, food service is a natural choice for industry although we have thought about some others.

If you’re still not sure what I mean, here are a few of the more famous examples. I’m looking for other examples of successful social enterprises that are multiple-bottmline and are centered around hiring those that might may have challenges with traditional employment. If you have suggestions or other thoughts in this area, please let me know.

St Vincent de Paul of Lane County
St. Vincent de Paul is an internationally recognized leader in developing recycling-based businesses. These businesses have a quadruple bottom line: they responsibly reuse and recycle products; provide quality goods and services to the community; provide jobs and job training; and generate revenue to fund our charitable activities.”

Here’s a great video that tells their story well.

Delancey Street Foundation
Delancey Street Foundation as mentioned above.
Enter with a history. Leave with a future.

Greyston Bakery
Greyston Bakery is famous for the saying: “We don’t hire people to bake brownies, we bake brownies to hire people.” More formally, they believe that “employment is the gateway out of poverty and towards self-sufficiency.” And created the bakery to give “the hard-to-employ a new chance at life.”

Homeboy Industries
Homeboy Industries serves high-risk, formerly gang-involved men and women with a continuum of free services and programs, and operates seven social enterprises that serve as job-training sites.”

If you are interested in their story in more depth, check out the book Tattoos on the Heart.

What’s on Your Podcast List?

January 4th, 2014 View Comments »

Part of my 2014 learning journey is listening to fascinating podcasts.  And I mean good ones packed with information and thoughts that really get the gears turning. And with the exception of This American Life, I really do listen to almost everything at 1.5 or 2 times speed. (BTW, if you know a good way to listen to podcasts on iOS faster, please let me know.)

Here is what is on my podcast subscription list:

  • Freakonomics – I enjoyed the first book about the “hidden side of everything” through the lens of economics.  Then the second book.  So, why not listen to the podcast?  The recent episodes on studying direct transfers as a anti-poverty strategy have been fascinating.  (And Yale and IPA’s own Prof. Dean Karlan was featured recently, too.)
  • Long Now’s Seminar About Long Term Thinking -What if we take a long long term view of our planet, selves and challenges?  What do we learn or come to understand? Amazing speakers that often explore a topic in a totally new way or push my thinking forward in an important way.  One of my favorites was Ed Lu’s talk on B612.
  • Dan Carlin’s Hardcore HistoryA rotating deep dive on various historical topics with an emphasis on grand events, wars, struggles or other “hardcore” items.  I have learned a lot here.  (While he can be a bit verbose, it is great at x2 speed!)
  • EconTalkWhile I don’t agree with all the guests or opinions expressed on this show, this is the most intellectual of this list and really enjoy the level of discourse.  You probably figured out from the title that this podcast is focused do economics.
  • Planet MoneyA much lighter take on economics and finance and how it touches our everyday lives.  Won’t challenge you although may provide some concrete examples of things you only know about in theory.  Or my favorite is when they take you behind the scenes at a mint or similar.
  • This American LifeAs they say, hard to describe, but here is how they try: “There’s a theme to each episode, and a variety of stories on that theme. It’s mostly true stories of everyday people, though not always.”And no, this podcast does not have much to do with economics.  But you should give it a try if you have not already.

Also, I think I listened to (almost) every episode of the amazing podcast The History of Rome. Definitely an interesting tour through Roman history told very well.

I will occasionally listen to the Humanist Hour (depends on the topic/guest).

I used to listen to NPR’s On the Media and Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders (from Stanford) very regularly. For some reason, I have been listening a bit less frequently.  I really enjoyed Venture Voice which was stories from entrepreneurs, but I think they stopped publishing new ones.  If you know of something like that or can start it up yourself, I’ll be a fan.  I’m sure there are a few others I listen to here and there although these are the ones that are top of mind.

What am I missing?  What would you recommend?

My 2014

January 3rd, 2014 View Comments »

It is a new year. And I’m turning over a new leaf.

It was bittersweet coming to the decision that it is time to step back from running Higher One full-time. I’ve spent ~14 years building the company and am passionate about the people, products and mission. That said, it is the right time for the company and for me. Starting mid-January I’m going to be part-time, Chairman of the Board, and involved in various initiatives.

So, what else will I be doing with my time?

First and foremost, I’m focused on a successful transition at Higher One. Next, on shifting gears and taking some time to relax, hang out and travel with my growing family.

There is a so much I want to learn and do in my life. When your head is down growing a business, there is less time for learning things that are not directly relevant. I plan to take this year to look around and explore the world (intellectually as well as physically).


100 Books: While not yet firm, I am intrigued by the idea of setting a goal to read 100 books in 2014. I made a list, piled up the ones I already own, and tallied pages; at last count I’m up to 30,898. Is that too many? Would it sound better if I told you some of these books I plan to skim rather than truly savor every word?

Book Pile for 100 Book Challenge

Some of the books I'm considering reading this year

Online Classes: I want to take at least one online class both for the content as well as understanding the process. I have my eye on one regarding statistical programming and another on genetic engineering. Any other ideas for me?


In addition to my work on the boards of Yale New Haven Hospital, SeeClickFix, Higher One, the Yale Humanist Community and advisory board of Yale Entrepreneurial Institute, I may join one or two more.

One board I’m excited to be joining is AltSchool. I’ve long wanted to be involved in starting a school and now I’m getting the chance. A friend from high school and college has embarked on creating a child-centered primary education company. We are already up and running in San Francisco and hope to expand to other cities, too. Check it out.

Possible Projects

Here are a few other projects that have been rattling around in my head. I’m not fully committed to any or all of these although definitely building excitement and would like to hear your feedback and thoughts.

Digital Fabrication: One technology trend that continues to build momentum is digital fabrication. The ability to design objects, transmit them digitally and manufacture them in small batches and on-demand is truly revolutionary. The impact on rapid prototyping and customization is profound not to mention what it means for distribution networks and just-in-time manufacturing. I want to learn more about the tools, players and techniques. Perhaps New Haven could use a Fab Lab or Fab Academy-type set up where people can get certified in these techniques? Could it be a partnership with Yale, Gateway CC and/or MakeHaven?

For Benefit Business: I’m intrigued by operations like St Vincent de Paul and Greyston Bakery who focus on job creation while running a revenue-generating enterprise. I’d like to help instigate a similar business for New Haven. (Do we have one already?) One option is to run a business plan contest. Another is to support an existing organization in expanding in this way.

Impossible Festival: I like to dream bigger. I think it would be fun to celebrate the declaration of intent to accomplish impossible things and then embrace the success of those that succeed. I think New Haven could have an annual gathering for those tackling the impossible writ large and small. A place one could come to announce the creation of synthetic life, the colonization of Mars, and the secret to losing those stubborn 10 pounds. Or how to learn to juggle. Perhaps this starts as part of Arts & Ideas Festival?

Art: It was very gratifying to see the Inside Out NHV project come to life. Now it is time for more art! We’ve got another mural project starting and I’m thinking of making a short movie with a friend. Maybe more?

Money in Politics: As I have learned more about our political system, I’m increasingly passionate about changing the role of money in politics. If for no other reason than to restore some of America’s trust in our government. One group that I have been getting involved with is Fund for the Republic and I look forward to finding other ways to contribute.

New Haven Startup Scene: I hope to continue to support the New Haven startup community. For example, I want to help Grid New Haven be successful, to encourage New Haven Tech Bits to keep going, and attend InnoHaven events whenever possible.

The Next Dream?: I’m sure there are other things we can dream up together so please drop me a line.

Angel 101

October 20th, 2013 View Comments »

Excited to be one of the mentors and speakers at the upcoming Angel 101 event.  Elon Boms of Launch Capital and Katie Rae of TechStars and others are teaming to bring together angels.  The idea as I understand it is to make investing in startups more accessible to those that may have the money and interest although are not yet active.  Will be training and networking combined for the afternoon.  If you have ever thought you might want to be an investor, or have dabbled and are hoping to learn more, this is the place to start.

Come join in the fun!

THE GROVE (760 Chapel Street New Haven, CT)

October 30, 2013

1 to 5:00 PM

YHC Kick Off Event: Susan Jacoby

August 31st, 2013 View Comments »

If you are in New Haven, I hope you can join for this event.  Alas, I will miss it although have been working to help organize.  Grateful that Susan Jacoby agreed to come speak.

On Tuesday, September 10th at 7:00 PM, the Yale Humanist Community will host Pulitzer Prize-nominated author Susan Jacoby (FreethinkersThe Great Agnostic) for a lecture on how secular ethics bear on public policy and everyday life.Jacoby will lecture in K207 in Kirtland Hall, the Psychology Department, at 2 Hillhouse Avenue in New Haven, CT. Following her talk, Jacoby will take questions and sign copies of her books, some of which will be available for purchase from the Yale Bookstore. There will also be a small reception to follow, with food and drink available for guests.

This event will be the first for the recently established Yale Humanist Community (YHC), an organization dedicated to developing, supporting, and growing a diverse community of Humanists, atheists, agnostics, and the nonreligious at Yale and beyond. Information about future YHC events and affiliated Yale student clubs will be available to attendees, as will members of our Board of Directors and our staff members Chris Stedman (Coordinator of Humanist Life) and Paul Chiariello (Director of Operations). This event is free and open to the public, and all are welcome. We hope to see you there!

The Overhead Myth

August 21st, 2013 View Comments »

I was pleased to see that arguments like Dan Pallotta‘s are having an impact.  One of his key points is that he makes is that judging a charity mainly or only by “overhead percentage” or “amount of my money that goes to the cause” is dangerous, incorrect and damaging.

Just in the past few months, three of the most respected charity “watchdogs” or third-party evaluators have endorsed this concept, too.  They have launched a website and a campaign to spread the word.  They call it the Overhead Myth.  In their words:

In a historic move, the leaders of the country’s three leading sources of information on nonprofits – GuideStar, Charity Navigator, and BBB Wise Giving Alliance – penned an open letter to the donors of America denouncing the “overhead ratio” as a valid indicator of nonprofit performance.

The letter, signed by all three organization’s CEOs, marks the beginning of a campaign to correct the common misconception that the percentage of charity’s expenses that go to administrative and fundraising costs—commonly referred to as “overhead”—is, on its own, an appropriate metric to evaluate when assessing a charity’s worthiness and efficiency. The nonprofit sector, which all three organizations provide information to and about, has too often erroneously focused on overhead over the past few decades, which has starved nonprofits from investing in themselves as enterprises and created what the Stanford Social Innovation Review calls, “The Nonprofit Starvation Cycle.”

And it continues in their open letter: Overhead Myth Letter. [PDF]

Please help spread the word.

Unleashing the Humanitarian Sector

August 21st, 2013 View Comments »

truly giving charities the freedom to act like businesses

I was at time inspired and discouraged by reading Dan Pallotta’s two books on what’s wrong with the humanitarian (nonprofit if you prefer) sector.  I sat down to write a book review although found that Steve MacLaughlin had done a great job already.  So check that out. Or watch Pallotta’s TED Talk below.

Charity Case Cover

To summarize, the 5 key things we get wrong in thinking about the nonprofit sector are:

1. Compensation: We let the for-profit sector pay people a competitive wage based on the value of what they produce. But we don’t want people making money in charity.
2. Advertising and Marketing: We let business advertise until the last dollar no longer produces any value. But we don’t like to see charitable donations spent on advertising.
3. Risk Taking in Pursuit of New Donors: It’s OK for a big budget movie or new product to flop. But if a $5 million charity walk doesn’t show a 75% profit in the first year, then it’s considered suspect.
4. Time Horizon: Companies can go years without returning any money to investors in the interest of a long-term goal. But if a charity has a long-term goal that doesn’t show short-term results, then it’s scandalous.
5. Profit: Business can offer profits to attract investment capital and there’s an entire ecosystem around funding new ventures. But there’s no such vehicle for a charity and they are left starved for growth capital.

I was particularly struck by #5.  How can we create an equity-like market for humanitarian causes?  How can someone put up risk capital and earn some economic reward for taking risk to fund new projects, startup, transistion or capital needs for for a non-stock corporation especially one considered a 501c3.  Every idea I kept coming up with lead back to dubious legal grounds.  Under current law, in order to maintain the tax exempt status (and realistically to be able to raise donations as for-profits that ask for donations may be accused of fraud), “no part of the net income may inure to the benefit of any private individual”.

The closest I’ve found to working around this is Pay for Success or Performance Bonds championed by the like of Third Sector Capital.  Do you know of any other models like this?  Would love to hear about them.

Pallota does suggest in Charity Case that by law we create a new category called a for profit foundation.  It would be allowed to solicit donations and funnel them only to 501c3s.  It would be able to make a profit (pay taxes on it) and distribute to shareholders.  I think it is a great idea and would love to help make it happen.  Any pointers to resources on this or people working on this topic, please let me know.

If you’re interested in learning more about Pallota’s plan to change the country’s view on charities, check out the Charity Defense Council.

Celebrating Inside Out New Haven

August 18th, 2013 View Comments »

a public art project of and by the community

What started an idea inspired by JR’s Inside Out Project, a Sunday planning session with Ben Berkowitz and then a simple blog post, grew into a movement, a living piece of art and a community.

photo from Chris Randall

Here was the pitch we gave:

A multi-lane freeway divides what once was one neighborhood: barren concrete cuts across State at Bradley and Humphrey at State in New Haven, CT.Over the past few years, with the help of URI, we have cleaned-up, planted trees and painted fences. Inspired by the Inside Out Project, now it is time to take one more step to bring the neighborhood closer together.Let’s get to know each others faces. Inside Out #NHV seeks to post ~200 portraits of the people who live here.We will cover the overpasses with huge portraits of our actual neighbors. No models need apply. And we’re doing this with local money and local photographers.

And did people respond! Before we were done we had: over 500 people join our Facebook group, 215+ people donate money, been covered at least a dozen times in the media, and official support from State of Connecticut and the City of New Haven.

We were interested in creating public art and doing it in a way that involved and built community. Going door to door in the area to pass out flyers advertising our various photo-shoots was a another method for us. The photographers also volunteered their time and created quite the scene filling the sidewalks of the very underpasses we planned to transform.

We choose to raise money from individuals as we wanted each piece of this project to include the community. We also were curious to use Kickstarter for a project and so this one seemed perfect fit. When Ben took to social media for an hours long real-time social media fundraising session, the donors really rolled in.

More important than that we had such a positive response from volunteers willing to help hang the photographs once they were printed. People kept showing up with buckets of wheatpaste they cooked after work.

The passion of the volunteers was so great that when the project was struck by graffiti, the outpouring of support was incredible and immediate. Before Ben and I could declare an “official” response from the “leadership”, volunteers choose to start repairing the photos themselves. I was blown away!

The New Haven Independent had a pretty good wrap up of our efforts. I think most folks involved were pleased with our success.And it was pretty cool that we even briefly captured the attention of the Whitehouse.

I did hear from a few people that they were disappointed that the art did not last longer. Given that it was paper portraits, I was not expecting it to withstand the elements very long. To me part of the art was the passing nature of the work. It was a moment to be experienced.

That said in the end, some of the photos were brought inside for an official art show at Creative Arts Workshop. Go figure! And you can re-live it through photos on I Love New Haven’s two different pages hereand here, or via a video John Belanger posted on on Vimeo.

Inside Out #nhv from John Belanger on Vimeo.

Many thanks to all our backers and volunteers including Chris Randall and many others. We also had great support from Colleen and Chris from URI. We couldn’t have done it without all of you. Thank you!

Creating a Humanist Community at Yale

August 18th, 2013 View Comments »

meaning, service, community, ethics, education, ceremony and assembly without superstition and dogma

For the past year or so, I’ve been working to help create a Humanist Community at Yale University. As an alum living in New Haven, I feel connected to the university and wanted to contribute in another way. After founding the Yale Entrepreneurial Society, helping start the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute, starting companies in town, and building community via projects like scavenger hunt Cluefest and collaborative public art Inside Out #NHV, I was ready for another project.

What is a Humanist Community, you ask? As a shorthand, you can think of it as the key elements of a church or religion without reference to the supernatural and with much less dogma. I’m talking about weaving together things like meaning, service, community, ethics, education, ceremony and regular assembly without the superstition or dogma.

Yale students have groups like Yale Humanist Society and the Open Party. Our goal is to support their work and create a larger umbrella and broader community that includes faculty, staff, students, alums, family and others.

Our efforts were briefly profiled in the Yale Alumni Magazine and we’ve made enough progress now that I would like to share the news about a few important milestones:

  • Key Staff: Chris Stedman. I am very pleased that Chris has joined our effort. His background as Assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard’s Humanist Community plus his experience with interfaith and service projects making him well suited for the effort here. For now he is part-time although I hope that will grow into more. I am grateful for the support of Greg Epstein of Humanist Community at Harvard as Chris still works the rest of the time for Greg.
  • Director of Operations: Paul Chiariello. Paul has co-founded this effort with me and has done so much to create the organization. His relationship from being a recent grad student at Yale, his experience with Rutgers Humanist Chaplaincy and his willingness to take action have all been very helpful. Paul is officially our first staff member and we’ve got payroll up and running! Paul is also helping to start Camp Quest New England which will be right here in Connecticut. He is their first Program Director and develop their Ethics and Humanism Curric.
  • Connections with Broader Community. We have fleshed out or board with faculty members, student representation, community members and those with connections to the broader humanist movement. More details to be announced on our website soon. Also, we’ve officially become a chapter of the American Humanist Association and have connections with the Unitarian Universalist Humanist Association.
  • Applied for Formal Affiliation with Yale. We’re working to be formally recognized by Yale’s official Chaplin and be part of Yale’s Religious Ministries. Many conversations and much thought has gone into this so we’re hopeful although it is not yet complete. Perhaps in the next few months we should have official word on our application.

Have questions? Wanna get involved or help? Please let me know. Or check out the website at

Startup Weekend New Haven 2012 Round Up

November 11th, 2012 View Comments »

Exciting to see a second sold-out year of Startup Weekend in downtown New Haven. The same power-packed 54-hour intensive session of dreaming, testing and doing. The new thing in 2012 was that sit was supported by The Grid New Haven. Still located at The Grove for the working part. The pitches took place in Gateway Community College’s shining new facility. If you missed it, here is my round up of the teams that pitched:

FISTS Inc (Financial Instrument Security Technology Services)
Kevin Ewing pitched on behalf of this check-fraud technology service company for use by merchants at point-of-sale. Competing with Certegy and TeleCheck who they say focus on MICR line (routing number, account number and check number). FISTS competitive differentiater is lower pricing (flat fee rather than %-based) and patent-pending technology that uses more data including almost everything on the check including address, signature, fraction number matches RTN, customer information, etc., not just account number.

Aasta Frascati-Robinson pitched for ed tech nonprofit that is focused on creating an augment-reality mobile app for the study of history for K12. Teachers can create their own curriculum or edit/reuse lessons built by others.

A Good First Step (2nd Place)
A lead referral service for local attorneys with free information as marketing plan. Content includes video and copy for answers to basic questions. Also plan to offer sponsored content for a fee in addition to selling leads. Free for purchasers of legal services. The team did surveys of residents and lawyers, filmed first content and first version of the website over the weekend.

Task management, inventory and financial management/forecasting SaaS business for small businesses. The example used in the pitch is a solo carpenter that allows data entry on the job of customer information, materials order and task information. MyBee is focused on creating one system that replaces need for the many systems that would normally be found in separate packages (Salesforce, BaseCamp, Intuit, InDinero, etc.). Goal is to price lower than competitors.

The company creates a platform on web and mobile with real-time social media for use at live events, radio or presentations. Allows for 2-way communication from the crowd to each other and to the presenter. More structured than Twitter to allow for aggregation of sentiment from users. Sold to radio stations, if I understood directly.

Mobile app for meeting people and managing contact information for events. Individuals who attend an event enter a code to unlock the ability to see public contact info from any at the event. Also, allows for contact via the app for those that do not want to share the contact info. The customer is the event organizer who pays per attendee. Working mobile app built from scratch over the weekend! True startup weekend spirit.

Musicians Vault (3rd Place)
Downloadable app for musicians to meet, collaborate (in composing and recording? new work) and promote their work once complete. Revenue from advertising, iTunes label model (get a cut of song sold) and in app purchases of music, as well. I’m not familiar with the competitive landscape here and they did not spend much time on it.

Good Game Network
Online video/computer game wagering platform. Think you can beat someone else on Xbox live? You can bet $10 on it and GGN gets a $1 cut. Or you can earn points like airline miles or hotel points rather than cash. If legal, surprised that there is not a clear market leader already?

Snag It Deals (1st Place)
“The of deal websites.” Consumer-oriented alerting service for when a particular product comes up for sale on deal websites. Revenue expected from affiliate model. Also, great that they built a first version of the system over the weekend where you text in keywords. At scale by collecting purchase intent, there are marketing and analytic opportunities.