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Business on a mission: Social enterprises help as well as workers in Pikes Peak region

By: ned b. hunter
October 20, 2013 Updated: October 20, 2013 at 5:05 pm
Caption +
Nathan, an employee at Blue Star Recyclers disassembles a computer in Colorado Springs, Colorado on Monday, October 14, 2013. (Kent Nishimura/The Gazette)

Nick Moscoso is more than proud to say he's the only forklift driver at Blue Star Recyclers who has never hit the walls.

That's not a bad record, considering that Moscoso was born with a cranial condition that led to cerebral palsy and some brain damage.

Not many employers would hire a person with physical or emotional challenges to drive a forklift. But Blue Star is a nonprofit that operates as a social enterprise - an organization that uses traditional business practices to address social needs and serve the common good. Moscoso, 29, is one of 14 Blue Star employees with a disability.

Social enterprises can be nonprofit or for-profit. They might employ people with disabilities, those coming out of prison or people living in poverty. Some of them focus on social responsibility, such as recycling.

But each has social welfare as its goal and derives a large percentage of operating expenses from service fees and the sale of products and services - not grants and private donations.

Blue Star founder Bill Morris is on a mission to make Colorado Springs the nation's hub for educating those wanting to start social enterprises. He is teaching community leaders how to create social enterprise organizations.

On Thursday, Blue Star received the Gold Leader Award from the Environmental Leadership Program in Denver.

The program is a statewide environmental recognition and reward program administered by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment's Division of Environmental Health and Sustainability.

Blue Star employee Andy O'Riley received the 24-Karat Gold Award, which goes to an individual "who has gone above and beyond required job duties in the creation and implementation of a program or initiative that has made a measurable contribution to the environment, the economy and society," according to an email from Blue Star.

Morris has contacted several local business leaders and organizations in an effort to start a social enterprise incubator program for entrepreneurs early next year.

"Bill wants Colorado Springs to become a cradle for social enterprise," said John Wilson, vice president, business development for the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance.

Morris' short-term vision is to make the Springs the place to learn about and start organizations. Long-term, Morris hopes social enterprise will become the city's new identity base.

He said the city's existing social enterprises help each other by sharing ideas and information.

Strength through unity

Although social enterprises have been around for decades, there was no unifying force until 1997, when six people with social enterprise experience met in Seattle to discuss the future of the movement, said Kevin Lynch, president of the Minneapolis-based Social Enterprise Alliance.

The next year, the group held its first meeting in Colorado Springs, where 182 people, including representatives from 92 nonprofits, attended.

There's no definitive count of the number of social enterprises in the U.S., but Lynch has said there may be as many as 30,000. Social enterprises in Colorado account for more than $500 million in revenue and employ more than 10,000 people, according to Rolfe Larson, social entrepreneur, consultant and co-founder of the Social Enterprise Alliance of Colorado.

The Springs has several social enterprises operated by nonprofits, including AspenPointe, Goodwill Industries and Springs Rescue Mission. Seeds Community Cafe, which asks people to pay what they can afford, recently opened downtown with a mission of eliminating hunger and promoting local foods.

Blue Star opened as a for-profit company in 2009. Morris was working for a nonprofit when he was introduced to a group of employees who have autism. He said some of them had "a terrific skill" for disassembling all types of electronic items. So Morris created a vocational and skills training program with four employees in 2008.

He opened Blue Star with the help of about $200,000 in private donations in the fall of 2009.

As more people heard of Blue Star's mission, they wanted to donate money to fund the company, but couldn't because of its for-profit status. So in 2011, Blue Star became a 501(c) (3) nonprofit, which allows it to accept private and government funds.

Still, it's Blue Star's revenue stream that funds its operations, Morris said. Blue Star sells recyclable electronic materials to certified recycling processors. Computer motherboards, for example, bring in about $3.50 to $4 per pound because of the precious metals used in parts and soldering. Blue Star charges the public 25 cents a pound to drop off recyclables other than computers. It charges corporations and governments 29 cents a pound, which includes a transportation fee. The revenue streams means Blue Star is 90 percent self-funded, Morris said.

"Then we use whatever grants and donations we receive to buy equipment or add employees," he said.

Business benefits society

Morris said nonprofits may need to become social enterprises or greatly shrink their expenses because of funding problems; the number of government and foundation grants for nonprofits has declined in recent years.

Social enterprises can save taxpayers money by employing people who might otherwise rely on government services. When people with disabilities don't work, they are entitled to Social Security and Medicare benefits, Morris said. They also use publicly funded services to run errands. When disabled people have jobs, they pay taxes and use fewer government benefits.

Blue Star has created more than 14 jobs for people with disabilities at its Springs recycling center and has a monthly payroll of about $30,000. The organization has assisted in the creation of 42 jobs in Alamosa, Ca?n City, Pueblo, Wheat Ridge and Woodland Park by helping other organizations provide jobs for the disabled. Morris estimates Blue Star saves taxpayers about $20,000 annually per disabled employee.

"Before working here, I felt confused and lost," said Moscoso, who lived with his mother before getting the job three years ago. "I felt like I didn't have anything to live for before I got here."

When he arrived at the organization, he never spoke to anyone or looked them in the eye.

"Now, you can't get me to shut up," he said, laughing.


Contact Ned Hunter: 636-0275

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