By Julia Song
Utilizing specific aspects of a given community can truly enhance a sustainable business model, said Gabriel Mandujano, founder and president of social enterprise Wash Cycle Laundry.
The laundry delivery service company has used bicycles as delivery vehicles and created nearly 50 jobs for workers from vulnerable backgrounds since its founding in Philadelphia in 2010, prioritizing environmental responsibility and community development within a profitable business model.
Mandujano kicked off the Global Engagement Summit 2016’s three-part Talk series - our spin on the classic TED Talk lecture. In this first Talk, the social entrepreneur emphasized three key points when it comes to starting a new venture:
1. Look to boring places for some of the most impactful opportunities for social innovation.
2. Root your solutions in the unique assets around you.
3. Getting start-up capital is rarely the obstacle to success.
A "professional launderer" according to his LinkedIn bio, Mandujano became interested in ground-level community development and social innovation partly through volunteer work in Philadelphia's neighborhood development initiatives during his college years. Mandujano felt, however, that publicized ventures were unrepresentative of his experience and those in his local neighborhood.
“They weren’t the things that resonated with what the community identified as its own needs in West Philadelphia,” Mandujano said.
Furthermore, Mandujano’s perceptions about environment-focused initiatives like “sexy” electric cars as luxury goods were stumped when he discovered sustainable transportation does not pose a financial burden, saying that many low cost-ways to solve climate change are not publicized enough.
Instead of simply following popular trends, Mandujano encouraged delegates to form a search criteria based on their own passions, look around their communities for contexts like a concentrated demand for services, and find ways to serve the community’s employment needs.
Wash Cycle Laundry actively hires people from vulnerable backgrounds and approaches this venture from a deliberate, conscientious outsider’s stance to build relationships and appropriately represent the community of beneficiaries at every level from employees to the management team.
“You’ve got to be really, really, really explicit about the assumptions that you have going in and examining those,” Mandujano said. “You’ve got to be conscious of the differences that exist.”
Mandujano emphasized how human growth directly factors into a company’s development, citing Wash Cycle Laundry’s commitment to internal growth - which, in turn, translates back into employee commitment to the company.
Kailash Pandey, a delegate from Nepal working on a food ridesharing system to balance profits in the agriculture delivery sector, aims to apply Mandujano’s combination of efficiency and knowledge of locale to his own project.
“One takeaway from his talk is finding ways to lower the cost to compete with bigger organizations,” Pandey said. “He has really understood his place and established different stations in different places.”
Mandujano noted that social entrepreneurs have agency in not only hiring employees but also gaining investors because they don’t have to convince a majority of investors to fund a project - they just need to convince one or two.
“Investors are a very broad and diverse group of people,” he says. Appealing to all of them is not only unnecessary but impossible.
He described how he met his first investor on a bench in Rittenhouse Square, a public park in Philadelphia, to underscore how capital can easily be found if a person is proficient and always open to making new connections. And management talent is just as scarce a commodity as investments, Mandujano said.
Still, persevering day by day is just as important to taking risks and strides, Mandujano said. He told an anecdote about how a mishap in the computerized laundry system left him sitting in a laundromat filled with a harmless water vapor explosion and considering abandoning his venture (spoiler: he didn’t).
At the end of the day, the biggest takeaway from Mandujano’s talk was that development and social change don’t need to be big, grand projects - oftentimes the most effective projects that create the most impact are the ones that aren’t so “sexy.” They’re often simpler and found only by tapping into a community’s actual lives and needs - and then acting on them.
“For changemakers, actionable is the new sexy,” he said.