Portland and Social Entrepreneurship: A conversation with Darius Monsef of COLOURlovers and All Hands

[Editor: Dale Davidson of TrekDek shares another guest post with us.]

I recently sat down with Darius Monsef IV aka Bubs, the founder of COLOURlovers. Though much of the tech world is focused on the recent $1 million dollar funding they recently received, I thought I would try to get his perspective on the world of social entrepreneurship and Portland’s role in it. Considering that Darius is a co-founder and an active member of the non-profit All Hands, a disaster relief group, he is extremely knowledgeable about the subject.

What do businesses and non-profits have in common?

In the tech world, the path of a successful start-up goes something like this: a) two friends decide they want to start a company, b) the two friends build a product and get some traction (hopefully), c) two friends decide that founders can’t live off ramen and water forever, decide to pitch to investors, d) after months of rejection, one angel invests in the idea, and then e) the company expands and goes through multiple rounds of funding until they sell the company to Google for a billion dollars.

The path of the non-profit follows a similar trajectory with a few key differences. The non-profit’s “product” doesn’t generate revenue and the company is constantly fundraising to stay afloat. In the case of All Hands, whenever a major disaster occurs, the organization has to quickly raise funds to help meet the needs of the disaster-struck community.

The skill set that is required to build a scalable non-profit looks very similar to the skill set that is required to build a scalable tech start-up. The entrepreneur and social entrepreneur have to be able to raise funds, work with limited resources to accomplish an objective, and to adapt to an ever changing set of obstacles. In 2005, Darius volunteered to coordinate AllHand’s largest project in Biloxi, MS following hurricane Katrina.

“It felt great to be able to coordinate All Hand’s response to Hurricane Katrina,” said Darius. “Organizing volunteers and figuring out where we could contribute the most value on a limited budget was extremely difficult but also extremely rewarding.”

It isn’t hard to find similar stories from startup founders. The narrative is well known. The start-up founder, at least the good ones, are what Paul Graham describes as “relentlessly resourceful.” They figure out ways to get the product released and support themselves on a very small budget. Though painful at the time, the successful founders usually enjoy recounting their harrowing tales of having only $20 left in the bank account and against all odds, succeeding.

Despite the similarities between startups and non-profits, it is rare to find cases where the two worlds intersect.

Portland and success, a love-hate relationship

Darius, a native Portlander, believes that “Portland is a city trying to be a town.” After reflecting on that statement for a while, I’ve come to agree with him. Portland is certainly a city in terms of its size and resources. However, it is not a major player in any industry. New York is a world financial center, Los Angeles is the world entertainment leader, and San Francisco has Silicon Valley. Portland is the microbrewery capital of the US.

Portland doesn’t hate success, but rather, the city is suspicious of success beyond a certain point. The city reveres its food carts, its indie music scene, and of course, its coffee shops. Unless it’s a sporting goods company, native Portlanders would probably be suspicious of the motives of a tech company that is raising millions of dollars in financing.

Darius believes that it’s because Portland doesn’t have any good role models. Though the city is trying to change this, many Portland tech companies leave for Silicon Valley. If tech start-ups were to stick around Portland, the same skills that lead to success in the tech world could breed an ecosystem of social entrepreneurship that Portlanders would be more inclined to trust. After all, altruism is pretty respected in this city.

Take Darius for example. The skills he has obtained in running COLOURlovers are being put to use for All Hands and vice versa. If there were more successful start-ups in Portland, I imagine that they could do pretty amazing things with non-profits and social business while drawing upon Portland’s desire to make a positive impact on the world.

Changing the Narrative: Make money and help people simultaneously

In our conversation, Darius brought up the point that many startup founders believe that they need to become financially successful before they can really dive into the world of philanthropy.

Though its true that startups require an inordinate amount of time and energy, it is definitely possible to be involved in both. Our multitasking COLOURlovers founder raised $30,000 for All Hands from his investors to build a school in Haiti. It is a matter of taking advantages of opportunities when they arise, something entrepreneurs excel at.

If more start-ups were to move to (or stay in) Portland, it’s not hard to see how the city would inspire entrepreneurs to delve into philanthropy while building their own companies. If more people like Darius stick around, Portland, in addition to being the microbrewery capital of the US, could become the social entrepreneurship center of the US.

(Image courtesy Darius Monsef. Used under Creative Commons.)

  1. Thank you for providing Portlanders with the opportunity to learn from others program development stories. This guy in NoPo (E.D. MondainĂ© founder of Po’ Shines : Cafe de la Soul) has a story that is both inspirational and just amazing. How he has taken the traditional model of the Church and has turned it inside out, bringing the responsibility of community development back to the Church.

    There was a time when Churches kept their doors unlocked.  When staff could be found in the building more than just one day a week.  When schools and hospitals where built and staffed by compassion members of the congregation.  The was a time when the Church was a true resource to the community.

    However, the Church has faded into the perimeter over the years.  Holding an occasional community event, opening a food pantry here and there, and perhaps lending its space to a neighborhood meeting.  One can’t help but wonder, at a time where so many are in such need, where is the Church?

    Pastor Elbert Mondaine has dedicated his life to restoring the face of the Church as a community resource.  Through entrepreneurship, education, arts and community outreach, Mondaine strives help revive communities from the inside out.  Pastor Elbert Mondainé founded Celebration Tabernacle Church in North Portland in 1988. From its inception, Celebration Tabernacle has been a social and spiritual force to be reckoned with in both the Christian and secular societies. It has become a model of church-based community involvement, yet emphasizes the importance of entrepreneurship.

    In 1994, when Elbert Mondainé and his small congregation moved their church into an abandoned bar and gambling hall in the run-down Kenton Neighborhood of Portland, Oregon, the outlook seemed grim. The streets were littered with used needles and condoms, bars outnumbered any other entity in the neighborhood; few people felt safe crossing the main street to walk their dog or take their children to the park. Facing the great feat of rehabilitating a neighborhood that the city would rather forget was not Mondaine’s only challenge. He also faced personal struggles of being a young single parent and dealing with various health conditions that affected his heart and his breathing.

    With Mondainé’s guidance, Celebration Tabernacle and its congregants have founded over 20 different businesses and organizations, including a restaurant, Po’ Shines Cafe de la Soul which boasts four locations including a spot at the Rose Quarter, a record label, Achaia Records, Inc., which has recently cut Mondainé’s group, E.D. Mondainé & Belief’s, third album and is preparing to record a fourth, a day care and preschool, Lil’ Angels Academy, that nurtures children from 6 weeks to 3 years, and many more. In addition, Celebration Tabernacle’s PROPER organization (People Reaching Other People Expecting Restoration) annually feeds more than 1,000 people, and ministers to hundreds more, with their free summer festivals and free Thanksgiving feasts while the Teach Me to Fish program, run through Po’ Shines, teaches job training and life skills to inner-city youth and young adults.

    Some of the other businesses that MondainĂ© has fostered are Empyrean Perspectives, a graphic design and branding company, Heaven’s Archives, an antique and home interior boutique, and Fresh Start, a free community health organization focused on teaching life skills to combat obesity and diabetes.

    Along with his faith in God, Mondainé turned to music to carry him through his personal struggles. As a child he taught himself to play piano on the bricks of his windowsill, and 30 years later it was his passion for music that kept him going. Mondainé formed the gospel group, Belief, and began missionary works with the Voices of 1,000 Angels Project. The project’s launch took place in the wake of the 2006 Amish school shooting when Mondainé and his congregation went to Pennsylvania to offer support and healing by bringing the surrounding community together in song. One year later the congregation flew to Utah to unite the community once again in the wake of the Crandall Canyon Mine Collapse. Most recently, the group went to Joplin, MO in the summer of 2011 after a catastrophic tornado ravaged the town.

    All of this is just the tip of the iceberg. At the heart of E.D. MondainĂ©’s message is a call for social responsibility. Community living and involvement have been his petition from the beginning of his ministry. MondainĂ© continuously strives to teach these valuable concepts not only here in Portland, but also in his hometown of St. Louis, MO at Celebration Grace Center, which came under his wing in 2005.

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  3. Thanks for writing about this! It’s a great reminder that successful entrepreneurs have a lot in common regardless of the type of organization they build. We are lucky to have great entrepreneurs like Darius who manage to do it all and give back.

    I think it’s worth mentioning that in addition to non-profits, a growing number of social entrepreneurs in Portland are creating businesses to generate social impact. Doing good is the purpose of their ventures. We have several examples in the Social Innovation Incubator at Portland State. There’s also Springboard Innovation and its programs to spur “citizen innovators.” And there’s the growing number of certified “B corporations” – “for benefit” companies that have met strict third party standards that substantiate their commitment to economic, social and environmental objectives.

    Portland is a great place to cultivate innovative social entrepreneurship models. We need all kinds of approaches.

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