Entrepreneurs interested in making social changes across the world as well as growing their bottom line are an important part of Connecticut’s economy, and their dedication and hard work should be rewarded.
That was the message of the evening Tuesday at The Society Room in Hartford for the fourth annual Social Enterprise Awards, where prizes were awarded to several Connecticut-based social enterprises — businesses focused not just on making a profit, but also on spreading positive social changes throughout the world.
The Hartford-based Social Enterprise Trust — or reSET — the nonprofit organization that sponsors the awards, is dedicated to preserving and protecting social enterprises in Connecticut, making them an important building block of the state’s economy.
“Why social entrepreneurship?” Kate Emery, the reSET founder and CEO, asked during her opening remarks. “The world needs it. The world has a lot of problem and businesses need to get behind” the solutions.
ReSET awarded $50,000 in cash and in-kind service prizes to this year’s winners, Emery said. More than 40 sponsors made donations this year, she said, which was very overwhelming.
“This demonstrates that this is an idea whose time has come,” Emery said.
Connecticut is the perfect place for social entrepreneurship because it fills a niche that could be different from businesses in New York or Boston. There is a rich history of social entrepreneurship in Hartford, Emery said, as well as a rich education system and a lot of wealth. There are people who don’t just want to see financial returns on their investments, but social returns, too.
Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra, praising reSET during his opening remarks, said that he grew up in poverty and went to college to get degrees that would help him take on the social issues in Connecticut.
“Had I known you’d be here tonight I’d have pursued my lifelong dream for a career in acting,” Segarra said.
The 2014 Social Innovator Award was given to Will and Chris Haughey, co-founders of Tegu Corp., which manufactures high-end wooden block toys with magnets inside each piece. Although the American offices are based in Darien, production takes place in Honduras, and profits are used to facilitate reforestation.
Will Haughey, who also gave the keynote address, said prior to the ceremony that they didn’t even know they were up for the award until they were told they won, but they were very pleased.
“It’s not every day you win an award,” Haughey said. “It’s a really prestigious prize.”
Tegu’s goal is to create jobs and products in Honduras, Haughey said, transforming existing resources into something with a higher value. Honduras has a lot of trees, and their wood is a valuable product.
Tegu employs 150 people on two shifts in their Honduras facility.
The Haughey brothers traveled a lot as children and were exposed to poverty early in life. They chose Honduras because it has a 65-percent poverty rate and is the most dangerous country in the world not at war.
“It’s a forgotten country,” Haughey said during his remarks to the capacity crowd at The Society Room. If a country doesn’t produce things critical to the world, it is not relevant, he said. “We wanted to make Honduras relevant.”
It’s also important that the toys be of a high quality, because they want people to buy them for their quality, not just because it’s a for a social cause.
Haughey said the impact of their operation has been tremendous. “I’ll never forget walking around a corner and seeing machines humming and people at work,” he said.
Still, he said, they are a small company and have a long way to grow.
He also spoke about the psychology and mindset of entrepreneurs.
Many enterprises start with an idea a person can’t shake, and many times that leads to the birth of a vision, Haughey said. From there it becomes a compulsion, in that a person needs to create this enterprise.
He said he was delighted to see so many people at The Society Room on Tuesday who had reached that third phase, where they see a future where their product should exist, so they create it.
There are many ups and downs in forming a business, he said, both personally and as part of the business. The important thing, he said, is for entrepreneurs to make sure their worth isn’t derived wholly from how it relates to the enterprise.
“The challenge is to be a successful entrepreneur amidst the likelihood of failure,” Haughey said.
What is important, he said, is to bring about a greater variety of social enterprises and to set the standard for others to follow.
Six other businesses received awards from reSET. Tuckerman & Co., a New Haven-based clothing company, earned the reSET Connecticut Social Enterprise Award. Tuckerman & Co. wants to make clothing while improving production and having a positive impact on the world. Clothing production is the second-largest polluting industry in the world, after oil and natural gas, Jonas Clark, co-founder of Tuckerman, said during his thank-you speech. They will combat that by using 100 percent organic cotton and using local, responsible manufacturers. The Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign for their first product, a dress shirt, starts today.
Two reSET Social Enterprise Honorable Distinction Awards were given to A Happy Life, a Wallingford-based coffee-roasting company that invests all its net profit into coffee-farming communities; and the Shelton-based Verge Awards, an online stage for nationwide public high school talent contests that awards college scholarships to teenagers focused on the creative arts and provides funding for art education to public schools.
Onyeka Obiocha, co-founder of A Happy Life, said they are working right now with coffee-growing communities in Tanzania. Their next plan, his business partner Vishal Patel said, is to open a coffeehouse in New Haven called Happiness Lab. All profits from that also will go to the farming communities.
The People’s Choice Award was given to AdapTac Games of Darien. AdapTac develops mobile and online games for children, including a game that helps children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder improve attention and planning skills. AdapTac also supports women in the fields of technology and entrepreneurship.
Step Stones Jewelry — a New Haven-based company that creates jewelry that measures the wearer’s steps and converts those steps into charitable donations, thus encouraging people to improve their health habits as well as donate to charity — received the Boehringer Ingelheim More Health through Innovation Award.
CivicLift, of Torrington, which provides web-based software to cities and towns looking to grow community groups, neighborhood connectivity, and civic engagement, won the Walker Group Community Impact Award.
CivicLift founder Evan Dobos said Torrington was the first city to approach him about wanting some sort of web-based connectivity for the community. As he researched the project, he said he realized he could do this for a lot of communities.
In addition to community engagement, CivicLift is a self-sustaining program that will pay for itself and generate profits for the community, Dobos said.
They currently have a live prototype for Torrington, and seven communities are interested in a CivicLift system. Once they are tested, Dobos expects them to be deployed next spring.
State Rep. Gregg Haddad, D-Mansfield, received a special award for helping reSET during a three-year campaign for legislation supportive of social enterprises.
“He has a Clark Kent facade,” Emery said of Haddad, “but inside he’s hard-working.”
Emery said 75 social enterprises applied for the award this year, which was about 50 percent more than last year, and 275 percent more than two years ago.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Last year, the Independent Media Network — of which CTNewsJunkie.com is a part owner — won the top award and received a grant to continue its mission of helping news professionals launch their own publications. CTNewsJunkie.com was also one of the sponsors of this year’s awards dinner.