How Donuts Led Me to the Power of Social Entrepreneurship

One of my earliest memories is when I was about six years old at my mom’s donut shop in Southern California— I had opened the cash register, which towered above my eye level and took a quarter out of the drawer and slipped the shiny coin into my pocket, closing the register as quietly as I could so that she wouldn’t notice. I went outside and walked a couple of shops over to Target where a Salvation Army worker sat outside collecting change. I shyly walked up to the fire-engine-red pail and dropped my quarter in. I remember that I had quickly walked away, shy but feeling good like I’d helped someone somehow.

When I look back and try to trace the origins of my desire to help people, this is the oldest memory I can resurrect. I’m not really sure how my passion came to be, but I have a theory that it’s a combination of my family’s experience as Cambodian refugees, their struggle to assimilate into American society, my grandfather’s childhood adoption, and good-ol’ PBS programming. I could tell you more stories about donuts and immigrating/emigrating, but this blog is about something else. I wanted to share a little bit about myself to help you try to understand why creating and being part of a project like Commonstake is so important to me.

I’ve spent my whole life witnessing poverty, injustice, and climate change, all of which have shaped me into the person I am today: someone deeply concerned about the wellbeing of our planet and other people. I’ve often felt deep sadness over the suffering of others and about the destruction of the planet, the one place we all call home. It’s always been heartbreaking for me to learn about how companies continue to exploit communities and the environment. Every time I learned that a factory full of sweatshop workers burned down, I felt like that could’ve been my mother who had also sewn clothes for the industry when I was a very young girl. Every time I learned that there was an oil spill, I imagined the destruction of the beach I grew up on and loved near my hometown in SoCal. It seems like I’ve always cared about people and the environment (shout out to Sesame Street and Captain Planet!) and felt things deeply within me. It was as if I was connected to these events no matter how far away they occurred or whom was affected. Some call this phenomenon interconnection: to most, what happens over there affects us here as well, while some are unable to distance themselves from happenings abroad, good and bad.

The concept of corporate social responsibility (CSR) is nothing new— in the 90s, a certain shoe company was called out and shamed for its inhumane labor practices and working conditionsin Indonesia. A news article published in 1991 forced this company to turn their practices around for the better, but only once the public became aware of what was happening (Business Insider). This is the only way citizens can force companies to do better: they have to know what’s happening, and then they can make demands from companies. Companies have to follow their customers to avoid going belly-up.

While labor conditions have somewhat improved around the world, little has changed in other ways, especially when it comes to sustainability. Observing this lack of responsibility, I’ve often felt powerless about what I could do to help make the world a better place. To be honest, I’ve often given in to apathy, too.

Then, a few years ago, I let go of my heroine complex and individualism, realizing that I couldn’t change the world by myself while I could certainly do my part. I met one of the cofounders of Scalechange seven years ago when we connected over our dream to make a difference (dancing on top of a speaker at a club in San Francisco). We decided to team up and started out developing a nonprofit organization.

 A volunteer from the S.E.M. Foundation helping us raise seed capital through a yard sale at Pequash Beach in New York circa 2011. 

A volunteer from the S.E.M. Foundation helping us raise seed capital through a yard sale at Pequash Beach in New York circa 2011. 

We quickly realized that business — specifically social entrepreneurship and therein, technology - was the best way to make social impact because it is a rare space that can bring together consumers, companies, and causes together in a powerful way that government and nonprofit institutions can’t imagine. We understood that we needed to advance tech trends than empower individuals and advance democracy — like crowdfunding, crowdsourcing and digital activism — to stimulate social change.

In this era, a single person can feel like a small fish in a big pond. Make this small fry a young woman of color who advocates for positive social change and that voice can sound more like a whisper. Companies don’t care about what I think — they care about my shopping decisions; oh, how my money talks. If I want things to change, I have to invest in people and businesses that are doing good.

One way I continue to empower myself as a human being, a consumer, and a woman of color is to use my money to support businesses that value what’s important to me. I use cash to put my money where my mouth is and shop as sustainably as I can, whenever I can afford it; however, knowing which companies are doing good can be challenging, because there’s so much information out there, and it’s often about quantity rather than quality. Commonstake helps me sift through the CSR lies that companies spew out. It's the place I go to read about and discuss what they’re really up to. I know I can become more informed and empowered through this platform because it features bottom-up information, not just top-down propaganda from companies that exploit to deceive the masses.

We started developing our platform 7 years ago and, this May, we finally launched Commonstake! We're currently beta testing.

For me, Commonstake isn’t just a platform for people to share CSR news or even to connect — it’s about empowering regular people to become changemakers by doing what they’re already doing — socializing and learning through social media, sharing information and of course, shopping.

As for companies and B Corps, we’re working on creating mutually beneficial partnerships so that businesses can gain more exposure and green products can be made more available to more people. Commonstake aims to close the Mainstream Green or Green Gap— moving sustainability from niche to normal. We’re well aware that products for better health, communities and the environment are too expensive for most people and often those who need it most are priced out. We intend to change that by making products more affordable to consumers through our partnerships with businesses that are sustainable enough to hook up with us.

The most exciting part of Commonstake is that we are here to empower users by helping them evolve from being consumers to impact investors. Most people are used to giving all their money away to companies and never getting anything in return; through Commonstake, users will be able earn points that act as a credit — dividends in the form of a credit called $calechange — based on their user activity on Commonstake and by shopping with our business allies. Users can then “invest” $calechange credits into mission-based startups and nonprofit initiatives, giving them the opportunity to support changemakers that are making a positive impact in the world.

I’m so grateful to be part of a project that challenges people to move out of apathy and into action. We are 99% sure that we can really stir shit up; we just haven’t had the tools to do it until now.

You have all the power within you to help make a difference. Join us and join Commonstake as a beta tester this summer. We need you and your valuable feedback. Let’s pivot towards a greener, friendlier, less schizophrenic economy together!

Kimberly Phan // Creative Director, Scalechange