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It’s that time of year: when North Texas gears up for The Pitch, the exhilarating culmination of our Social Innovation Accelerator program, when five finalists compete live on stage for hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize funding and the title Social Innovator of the Year.
The Social Innovation Accelerator is just one of the ways that United Way of Metropolitan Dallas leverages the power of social innovation to improve access to education, income and health in North Texas. Social innovation is a creative, inclusive approach to community impact work, where we find new solutions to social problems that are more effective, efficient, sustainable or just than current solutions.
Through the Accelerator program, we partner with local social entrepreneurs who have innovative new solutions to systemic challenges in our community. And at the end of the months-long program, we select five finalists to compete at The Pitch powered by PNC—held April 19 at Toyota Music Factory—where these innovators pitch their game-changing ideas that are creating meaningful impact in our focus areas of education, income and health.
This year’s Pitch finalists have used their experience in the Accelerator to refine their business plans, hone in on new ideas and rapidly grow their impact. Now, as they approach The Pitch, they are better equipped than ever to create opportunity for North Texans to thrive.
Read on to learn more about our five innovative finalists, as well as how their experience in the Social Innovation Accelerator is empowering them to create even greater positive change in North Texas.
The mission of Cornerstone Crossroads Academy is to end poverty with a holistic approach to education. The organization supports people who have dropped out of high school as they work to earn their diploma, which in turn increases their lifetime earning potential.
Principal Wayne Sims says when kids from under-invested communities enter the workforce, they’re more likely to receive lower wages than kids who come from well-resourced neighborhoods. By addressing this disparity, Cornerstone Crossroads Academy’s work aligns with our goals at United Way of Metroplitan Dallas: to improve access to education, income and health. As Sims and his team understand, these three areas are interconnected, because a strong education leads to a better-paying job, which enables individuals and families to access quality healthcare.
Although Cornerstone Crossroads Academy has been around for 15 years, Sims says being part of the Social Innovation Accelerator is giving him the guidance he needs to grow their impact. The mentorship program in particular has really benefitted Sims and his vision for the academy’s growth.
“My mentors are awesome,” he says. “They are all successful in their own right and open to sharing their resources and connections with me.”
One of those mentors is R. Michael Martin, president of MM Solar Advisory. He says he has been impressed with Cornerstone Crossroads Academy throughout the Accelerator program, especially as Sims has leveraged the skills, connections and resources provided by the experience to expand the academy’s scope into workforce development. Sims created and launched an innovative new Work Academy intern program, which will enable students to learn and develop their skills as employees.
“CCA is building on its 15 years of making impact in second-chance high school education,” Martin says. “It has solid leadership and resources, including energetic principal Wayne Sims and his teaching team, that positions them well to expand and succeed in the workforce domain for the long-haul in South Dallas!”
Learn more about Cornerstone Crossroads Academy at www.cornerstonecrossroads.org.
Empowering the Masses provides North Texans with access to a quality education that can be completed in a short amount of time. Tammy Johnson, the founding executive director of the organization, says she and her team utilize their nonprofit’s food pantry as a unique entry point to introduce individuals to their training programs.
Johnson says the educational programs improve participants’ self-sustainability by giving people access to a higher living wage, access to health insurance, and the ability to purchase quality and healthy food options—all of which align with United Way’s mission to improve access to education, income and health.
Although Johnson had an innovative idea—engaging potential students with her educational program through her food pantry, once they had better food security—she was looking for greater support and resources to scale her program.
“I needed access to the tools, mentorship and influence that would help me to take our program to the next level,” she says. “United Way has the affluence needed to address the problems in our community. Empowering the Masses has an influence in our communities, because we are boots on the ground serving. Together we can have effluence and create lasting, impactful change.”
During her experience in the Accelerator, Johnson has found the support she needed, particularly through the mentorship program.
“My mentors have helped to cultivate my voice and used their influence to provide me with access to a seat at the tables of individuals who were not aware of our existence or our work,” she says. “Their wealth of knowledge has provided me with the opportunity to view our work in a different light.
Scott Schoenvogel, CEO at Compass Professional Health Services, has been one of Johnson’s professional mentors throughout her Accelerator journey. He says he has seen Empowering the Masses rise to new heights as Johnson has learned new skills and achieved key milestones in the Accelerator program.
“Tammy has meaningfully expanded her relationships with large healthcare systems in the Metroplex,” he explains. “These healthcare systems desperately need employees with the types of skills that Empowering the Masses teaches, and they are willing to pay for that training. A relationship between Empowering the Masses and those large healthcare employers is truly a win-win for the community and the employers, thanks to Tammy!”
Learn more about Empowering the Masses at www.empoweringthemasses.org.
Heart of Courage serves local parents who have been impacted by the child welfare system and who want to improve their lives and the lives of their children. Dania Carter, founder and CEO, says the overall purpose of the program is to help parents become self-sufficient. She and her team achieve this by addressing education, income and health of their clients, providing education and advocacy, one-on-one mentoring, parent support groups, job readiness, educational services and community outreach.
Carter said she knew she wanted to be part of the Social Innovation Accelerator after completing United Way’s Social Innovation Incubator.
“I learned so much from being in the program,” she said. “After completing the Incubator, I realized that I knew how to start an organization, but I needed more mentoring with developing further strategic skills to continue to sustain it.”
Following her experience in United Way’s Incubator, Carter continued to grow her organization’s capacity and added a peer advocacy component. Now, the Accelerator has enabled her to tap into even more resources, form new partnerships with alumni of the program and refine her business model. As a result, the organization is able to serve double the number of clients compared to last year.
Jamika Doakes, director of corporate social responsibility at AT&T, is one of the Accelerator mentors for Heart of Courage. She said that through the Social Innovation Accelerator, Carter has revamped her mission statement, developed a three-year financial roadmap and created collateral material for peer advocates. Doakes is confident that after the program, Heart of Courage will continue to grow and reunite more families.
“Heart of Courage founder and CEO Dania Carter is a gem in the North Texas community,” she says. “The time and effort Dania has given over six months are stellar. As mentors, we serve to assist our fellows in dreaming big. Dania has high aspirations for Heart of Courage, and we know through her participation in SIA, she will achieve them and reunite more families in Dallas County and beyond.”
Learn more about Heart of Courage at www.heartcourage.org.
At March to the Polls, executive director Camila Correa Bourdeau and her team work to increase voter participation for historically underrepresented communities—because voting is a key lever for improving education, income and health outcomes in our community.
Bourdeau says she knew the organization would benefit from the Social Innovation Accelerator as soon as she heard about the program.
“The need to improve, change course and reflect on the impact of our work on the community is ever-present,” she explains. “Our organization was stoked to find out that a program like the Social Innovation Accelerator existed to support our thinking and planning process in a holistic way.”
Bourdeau says the program has helped her realize the importance of collaboration to truly make an impact. Indeed, collaboration is one of the key ways United Way is able to positively impact 1.5 million people every year.
“My mentors have made me realize that my nonprofit team is not alone in this work,” she says. “Our work impacts an entire community, and it is great to see how invested the mentors have been in making sure we are doing our best. They have given us great feedback, ideas and reassurance as we introduce new elements to our work. The Accelerator has given me an opportunity to focus on how our nonprofit is contributing and making sure we are doing so effectively, efficiently and thoughtfully.”
John Watson, an entrepreneur and a longtime Accelerator mentor, is one of the mentors for March to the Polls. He knew right away that Bourdeau had an innovative and unique idea with her organization, and he was eager to support her vision.
Watson and Ken Barth, former Committee Chair of United Way’s Social Innovation Accelerator, encouraged Bourdeau to apply for the Accelerator to help her, and her organization, grow in their ability to execute on their mission. Since she joined the program, Watson has seen the nonprofit’s potential grow exponentially.
“Her milestones as a fellow—dealing with data collection, marketing and communications, and youth focus groups—were all three achieved in a timely manner,” he said. “These milestones produced not just data but, more importantly, outcome. And outcome is what the Social Innovation Accelerator program is all about.”
Learn more about March to the Polls at www.marchtothepolls.org.
Together We Thrive works to connect North Texas youth who have experienced homelessness, sex trafficking or the foster care system with community support and resources. The organization provides a life coach for each client, creating a consistent relationship on which children can rely. Life coaches work closely with their clients until they achieve a place of sustainability, while also helping them develop and grow relationships in the community.
Founder Tracey Hardwick says she learned about United Way’s Social Innovation Accelerator program last year, and she knew she had to be a part of it.
“What better way to serve the community I call home, with the wisdom, leading and guiding of United Way and experienced individuals that could teach me and Together We Thrive how to broaden our wings?” she said.
Her goal through the program was to expand her team’s impact and serve more youth—and both goals are much more within reach now.
“The biggest takeaway so far is how to better tell our story that would set us apart from others in order to make the biggest impact,” Hardwick explains. “By doing this, we can grow our revenue to allow us to hire more life coaches, which impacts more youth, which impacts more communities.”
Amber Wagenknecht, an Accelerator mentor for Together We Thrive, says Hardwick has worked methodically over the last four years to prove her innovative concept, and now even more success is on the horizon.
“They started with 41 youth in Dallas ISDs’ alternative school, all homeless with little chance of graduating,” Wagenknecht explains. “But the results are incredible: All have graduated from high school. Today, Together We Thrive serves 200 vulnerable youth each school year and has aggressive but achievable plans to serve 600 by 2025. Together We Thrive is a nonprofit with impressive impact, strength, leadership and sustainability.”
Learn more about Together We Thrive at togetherwethrivetexas.org.
On April 19, these five incredible finalists will take to the stage at The Pitch, where they’ll pitch their innovative ideas to a panel of judges and a live audience. Join us for this exhilarating, inspiring social innovation competition, and find out which one of these entrepreneurs will walk away with hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize funding and the title Social Innovator of the Year.
Social innovation is one of the ways we create lasting change in the areas of education, income and health. We invite you to join the Live United movement by investing in the Social Innovation Accelerator, which supports innovative organizations that are making a direct, lasting impact in their communities.