The Social Enterprise Changing Lives in Minneapolis

By Lee Schafer
Star Tribune (Minneapolis).

Like a lot of small businesses, Elpis Enterprises could really use some capital to buy a piece of equipment, in this case maybe just a bit more than $40,000.

That would buy an automatic screen printing press and related equipment to knock out lots of customized T-shirts, greatly boosting productivity for one of Elpis’ two business lines.

What makes this interesting, though, is that Elpis isn’t a small business, it only looks like one. It’s a nonprofit trying to help homeless teenagers get back on a path to a full-time job and a stable place to live. One of the ways it achieves its mission is by lining up screen-print jobs for the teenagers to complete.

And it could really use an automatic press.

The “social enterprise” nature of Elpis makes it a bit unusual, but the reason to visit a bootstrapping little nonprofit like Elpis is that it’s far more representative of the nonprofit sector in Minnesota than the big health care providers atop the Nonprofit 100 list.

Leading a small nonprofit out of its development stage looks to be as much of a challenge as that faced by an entrepreneur trying to launch a company. The big difference, of course, is that when the nonprofit finally blossoms there won’t be big financial rewards for the boss.

Elpis won’t quite reach its $325,000 or so goal for revenue, as some hoped-for grant money didn’t come through, said Executive Director Paul Ramsour. On the other hand, it will finish 2015 close to its target for customer sales.

Of course, Ramsour is full of optimism about next year.

Elpis, named for the Greek word for hope, occupies about 3,300 square feet in an industrial building in St. Paul that’s been turning into an upscale space for offices. There’s nothing upscale about Elpis. Small business owner and board chairman Tim Dyrhaug described the Elpis operation as “bare bones.”

Visitors enter through a storage area for woodworking and then step into another room taken over mostly by T-shirt printing. To the left is the small interior office Ramsour shares.

In our last conversation, Ramsour was having a typical small business operator’s afternoon, taking customer calls and stopping our conversation to answer questions from one of his supervisors. And he had forgotten to brush the saw dust off the front of his golf shirt.

Elpis got its start in Minneapolis more than 20 years ago as a program of the Minneapolis Jaycees Charitable Foundation.

Ramsour considers early 2014 to be the start date of the current rebooted Elpis. That’s when, thanks in large part to the Otto Bremer Foundation, he was able to go full time as executive director.

The organization’s mission hasn’t changed, and that’s to give homeless youth something to build and sell. The first initiative had them building small wooden birdhouses and bird feeders. That’s still a principle line of business, with the young workers from Elpis now leading woodworking sessions for younger kids in schools and park programs and selling wood products.

That same idea of providing meaningful work was behind the expansion into custom screen-printing T-shirts. More than 500 customers have purchased shirts from Elpis so far.

There’s no shortage of young people who could work for Elpis, Ramsour said. One recent count came up with about 200 homeless youths 21 or younger just in Ramsey County.

By the time they get to Elpis, typically referred there by other social service nonprofits, the immediate crisis may have passed, but they still need a lot of help building a stable life. That includes some money in their pockets. A $9-per-hour part-time internship at Elpis could be a big part of that.

The instincts that got them through a day on the streets make them so distrustful, Ramsour said, that it can be difficult at first to even make eye contact. Those survival instincts can get in the way of being an effective employee in a business.

Elpis “is designed for them to be able to understand the small business from start to finish,” Ramsour said. “Through that process they pick up these soft skills that they need, skills that are absolutely transferable. Teamwork, communication, critical thinking, being reliable.”

This isn’t a job training program, with a young person sent out with a certificate and good wishes upon completion. Ramsour said his young interns have often been in a cycle of finding and then losing jobs, so at Elpis they stay until another solid job gets lined up, usually in three to six months.

Elpis could employ more young people if only it could grow its sales. That’s another task that usually falls to Ramsour, a 54-year-old former hotel company manager who’s been working on the program since it was part of the Jaycees.

Other local nonprofits have been good customers, he said, but cracking the corporate market lies ahead.

Ramsour said he asks for just 10 percent of any buyer’s T-shirt business, hoping they see a chance to get the shirts printed while also lending a hand to the young workers who come through the Elpis program.

That’s where that automatic press would help. Ramsour doesn’t just want to print more T-shirts faster, he wants his staffers to spend less of their time manually printing them. Then they could help with customer service or design, or even sales.

Learning how to do those things would make them more valuable to their next employer.

It’s not been easy to get the money for the press, as Elpis is still too small to get the attention of most foundations.

Ramsour has been encouraged by talks with potential donors and hopes 2016 will be the year some grants come through.

His immediate plan to get bigger and become more attractive to foundations is a simple one — growing sales, one customer at a time. The number of new accounts doubled in 2015, to about 100, and he’s hoping 2016 is even better.

“He’s making headway with it,” said Dyrhaug, principal owner of the fencing company Keller Residential and an admirer of Ramsour’s tenacity. “He’s just on the front end now of some really good things.”

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