By Caroline McMillan Portillo
The Charlotte Observer
Carmen Blackmon’s road to entrepreneurship started with a nonprofit.
It was 1999 and Blackmon was an analyst in Charlotte, N.C., for the international container business Sea-Land Service.
Her three children attended public schools and, though they were making good grades, many of their peers weren’t.
“It bothered me a lot,” Blackmon said, “and my heart’s desire was to work with children.”
So, “stepping out in faith,” she left her lucrative corporate job to start a community-based after-school program to help students who needed additional support but whose parents couldn’t afford private tutoring.
She called the nonprofit the Above and Beyond Learning Center and operated out of an empty building behind a Charlotte church.
Fourteen years later, Blackmon, 52, oversees a program that has grown exponentially.
Above and Beyond now has four sites, 54 employees and hundreds of children who spend their after-school time in a nurturing environment where school work is made fun, attendance is rewarded with field trips, and activities such as cooking, chess and choir are championed.
But what’s earning her program state-level attention and praise is the organization’s latest development: a for-profit arm.
Here’s why Blackmon did it: As a nonprofit, the Above and Beyond program relies on grants with stipulations. The two programs based in low-income communities can only serve children who live there, and the two school-based programs can only serve those students.
It was discouraging to have to turn away parents and students outside of those schools and communities who were interested in attending, Blackmon said.
So she found an alternative: If Above and Beyond also had a small-business side that offered affordable tutoring, it could take in anyone who needed help and could afford the fees.
In August 2012, Blackmon made that leap, one that earned her the Excellence in Small Business Innovation Award from The Support Center, a nonprofit financial institution in Raleigh, N.C., that gives small-business loans to underserved markets.
Charles Thomas, director of Charlotte social innovation incubator Queen City Forward, said society has a critical need for well-run nonprofits as well as for-profit businesses that exist to resolve social issues.
That’s why he works with both. At Queen City Forward, founded in 2011, Thomas has helped dozens of nonprofits and small businesses.
“We still need private and public and nonprofit capital to move the needle on these issues,” Thomas said, which is why a hybrid model like Above and Beyond could be so powerful.
A for-profit business that gets investors or loans secures the financing, grows the business and then pays it back, Thomas said.
But even a business with a social bent faces many of the same problems as traditional businesses: namely, raising capital.
In fact, it can be harder to recruit investors because the margins will be smaller, Thomas said. But the right investors “recognize the power of social return and the financial long-term gain.”
Blackmon said she approached banks for funding, but was turned down because her experience was in the nonprofit world.
She said it wasn’t until she approached a friend who worked for The Support Center in Raleigh that she found support and financial backing, for her hybrid project. They gave her a loan for her headquarters, as well as a $60,000 working capital loan, Blackmon said.
“It can be a challenge in our current capital system that may not reward innovative thinking,” Thomas said.
Whether it’s a nonprofit or a for-profit, creating systems is one of the biggest _ yet most critical _ headaches, Blackmon said.
When she started the nonprofit operation, she reached out to her friends in corporate jobs and asked about their operations, from vacation policies to employee handbooks. She called a friend and school district employee about what a field trip permission slip should say.
When she started the for-profit tutoring company, Blackmon reached out to other professional tutors, asking for their advice on starting out and marketing. The response was a little colder. After all, now she was a competitor.
One woman who actually responded said she didn’t want to discuss pricing, Blackmon said. So she approached it differently.
“I said, ‘Will you tell me lessons you learned that would help me? … Mistakes not to make?’ ” Blackmon said.
That’s how she learned to have a standby list of available tutors, because, unlike her nonprofit, these services would be on-demand.
She also learned to budget for the slower periods, like now, when students are off for the holidays and not focused on schoolwork.
She has a group of about 20 students paying for tutoring, which costs about $40 an hour, and is in talks with a nonprofit organization that would foot the bill for an additional 60 students.
“It’s a lot of juggling,” Blackmon said. “But God gave me a vision … to (make) a lasting impact on a child.”