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underserved communities during the pandemic

Ojala Threads social entrepreneur supports underserved communities during the pandemic

There is no doubt that the Covid-19 pandemic has affected us all in countless ways. However it has not affected us all equally. We cannot claim to stand in solidarity with each other if we are not also working to support underserved communities during the pandemic as well. 

Currently there are 48 million Americans living below the poverty line. For those living paycheck to paycheck, this time is not a time of “rest” or a break from their lives. Instead they are filled with increased stress as they wonder how they will afford to live and keep a roof over their heads. 

underserved communities during the pandemic

Ojala Threads founder and social entrepreneur Ramona Ferreyra interviewed in Open by BronxNet (Photo courtesy Ramona Ferreyra)

The issue of safe housing is also one that many privileged individuals often take for granted. Being quarantined in a comfortable suburban home is a much different experience from being quarantined in a public housing complex. Unfortunately, inner city environments are often more prone to the transmission of disease and unsafe public housing can make pre-existing conditions worse. Additionally, it can simply be difficult to social distance in an urban environment where people are already living in close quarters and forced by necessity to take public transportation.

If we are truly committed to helping each other through this time, then we must also commit to support underserved communities during the pandemic. 

“Doing good in our hood”  

underserved populations during the pandemic

Ojala Threads baby (Photo courtesy Ojala Threads)

Ramona Ferreyra has been working to just that. For years she has worked to support her community of the South Bronx, and has specifically focused on improving public housing conditions. Owner and founder of Ojala Threads, a social enterprise that creates baby bodysuits inspired by Hispanic Heritage, Ramona uses her business to give back to her community. 

“My goal was always to use Ojala as a tool for good,” says Ramona. “While we had been making significant contributions to our community before Covid-19, we increased our ‘doing good in our hood’ efforts significantly in March.” 

She began using her company to advocate for public housing back in 2018. As a public housing resident herself, Ramona knows first-hand the challenges faced by residents. 

“Living in NYC public housing means that we live in unsafe homes,” says Ramona. 

She describes how the presence of mold, leaks, faulty boilers and elevators worsen pre-existing conditions, such as asthma, which Ramona herself suffers from. 

“Combined with a high index of diabetes, limited access to health foods, and poor health systems Covid-19 has found a perfect home in the Bronx,” she says.

This is why Ramona has made securing masks for her community her priority. Since March she has distributed 500 masks and has also secured a pledge for 3,000 additional masks. 

“These masks will keep our neighbors safe for months to come. Personally, these efforts have been fulfilling,” she says, “but the illness has taken a toll on me emotionally as our community has been hit pretty hard.” 

You might be interested: NJEDA launches Small Business Emergency Assistance Grant Program Phase 2

Coping with grief and finding peace 

It is especially important for us all to support underserved communities during the pandemic because they are the communities that are the most vulnerable. 

According to the CDC, Latinos account for 16.7% of all coronavirus cases and African Americans account for nearly 20%. Underserved communities are also at an increased risk of chronic disease. These chronic conditions unfortunately contribute to an increased risk of mortality among coronavirus patients. 

Ramona has seen the effects of Covid-19 as it has hit her community. Her neighbor, Luciano, contracted Covid in late March. He spent two weeks fighting on a ventilator while Ramona did what she could to help him. Unfortunately, Luciano passed away on April 18th. 

“He was like a grandfather to me,” Ramona says. “I haven’t made much time to mourn him, but at moments it creeps up on me and I am overwhelmed with anger. I wish I had gotten masks sooner. I wish we had known that fevers weren’t a main symptom. But I did all I could for him with what I knew.” 

Luciano’s passing has been difficult for Ramona, but she has been able to find peace in her work. She continues to bring attention to NYCHA residents and the fiscal deficit it faces of $34B. 

underserved populations during the pandemic

20% of sales go to underserved populations in Citymeals. (Photo courtesy Ojala Threads)

“I am grateful to have founded Ojala as a social enterprise,” says Ramona. “At moments like this we are positioned to support the communities that we’ve served before and will continue to serve in the future.” 

Ramona began Ojala Threads on public assistance and always sought mentorship and resources. She knew that doing so would ensure long term success, and more importantly resilience. Now she wants to work to give back. She is determined to continue to make an impact by securing masks for her community. 

Ramona will also be donating 20% of Ojala’s gaiter sales to Citymeals

If you are looking for ways to help support underserved communities during the pandemic, check out these resources. There is also a GoFundMe run by Ramona to help support the seniors at Mitchel Houses and improve living conditions in public housing. 

Social mission integration

Latina entrepreneur: How your social mission can optimize your business model

Is it important to have a social mission in your small business? Our Guest Contributor Jeff Zhou explains how having a social mission in your small business can help you optimize your business returns by aligning  your social mission with your business model. What he calls “You can have your cake and eat it too.” Welcome, Jeff!

Social mission integration

As a founder, I am always optimizing our limited dollars between competing goals. One area I have never had to compromise is social mission. We are fortunate to have mission alignment: at my company, Fig, our business return is maximized when our customers achieve the highest possible credit score.

What is mission alignment? Simply put, it is the level to which a company’s social mission is baked into its business mission. A company’s business mission will always be to generate return, while the social mission can be anything from improving access to drinking water to making it easier to get a reasonable loan.

When these two missions are not aligned, it can cause internal conflict because social mission activities have real costs, and companies have limited dollars.

With complete alignment, a company no longer has to make trade offs: there is a single path forward.

Let’s look at an example:

TOMS is a shoe company that popularized the Buy One Give One (BOGO) approach. Buy one pair of shoes and they will give one to someone in need.

Toms improving lives social mission

Toms improving lives social mission

It is a fantastic model that provides many shoes to those who need it, but it is not completely mission aligned because giving shoes away is a cost to the company. While the marketing, sales, and other benefits could ultimately outweigh costs, I would argue there is room for more alignment because BOGO is not a core business activity.

TOMS’ core business is making and selling shoes. TOMS then uses a portion of the proceeds to buy shoes / clean water / medical supplies for in-need groups. I can break out these two distinct activities because, from the start, the mission is not baked into the core business.

What if the societal benefits could be irrevocably tied to selling shoes? What if TOMS’ shoes were only made and sold via companies owned by the people that they are giving shoes to today? What if TOMS’ process of making higher quality shoes naturally created clean water as a byproduct?

My ideas might be farfetched, but I am hoping to demonstrate that it is possible to improve TOMS’ mission alignment. If TOMS’ shoes were made and sold by the people they’re giving shoes to today… then TOMS core business of making and selling shoes would no longer be separated from their social mission to support communities in need! In 2013, TOMS started producing shoes in Haiti, a region they were giving shoes to… mission alignment!

How can you find social mission alignment?

The worst (and best) part about finding alignment is that there is no silver bullet: every company is unique. For the little that it is worth, here are the three questions we asked ourselves repeatedly at Fig to get to mission alignment.

1) What is success for our customer?

2) How can we build a business that creates this success?

3) If we do everything (be honest with yourself, everything means everything) to drive business return, how does that impact our customer success outcome?

At Fig, we ultimately found alignment through business model innovation. TOMS achieved alignment through operations. Finding alignment is not easy, but it has allowed us to operate more efficiently and grow without fear of losing our core mission.

Working on social mission alignment or think it is a waste of air? I would love to hear your thoughts and share ideas! Reach out at jeff@figloans.com.

 

Jeff Zhou social mission

Jeff Zhou, Founder FigLoans

 

Jeff Zhou is founder of FigLoans, which changes the way people with low credit experience banking by offering emergency loans and financial stability products in a socially responsible way. He was a peer-selected winner of Village Capital: FinTech US 2016.