Denver: The Place to be for Summit15
Blue Star Recyclers has two locations, one in Colorado Springs and one in Denver, and employs 35 people (25 with disabilities). The social enterprise was founded in 2009 and returns triple-bottom line results by:
- Recycling over 7.5 million pounds of electronics
- Creating local jobs for people with disabilities in the community
- Generating $2 million in new local revenues and $1 million in taxpayer savings
Bill Morris, CEO of Blue Star, saw two problems when he developed the social enterprise’s model. The first problem was that less than 20% of electronic waste was recycled. Second was that more than 80% of people with disabilities were unemployed. These are the two problems Bill then solved. Coming out of retirement to create social good, Bill found his finest team at Blue Star Recyclers, and he is not alone. A community of social entrepreneurs is creating social change in ways similar to Bill’s, and many of these organizations call Colorado home.
We interviewed Bill to understand more about the social enterprise scene in Colorado, why he attends SEA’s annual Summit each year, and how he became involved in the social enterprise field.
Why should social entrepreneurs be excited to visit Denver for Summit15?
Morris—Denver has the greatest congregation of social enterprises I have ever seen. If you look at the practitioners here in Colorado, the number is amazing. If you are attending Summit15 to learn, Denver is the best place to see social entrepreneurs in action. Colorado is a social enterprise foundry—the climate for social enterprise here is really the best one I have seen.
Why are you looking forward to Summit15?
Morris— I think every time I have an interaction with another social innovator, I feel like I am walking on air. I love the energy of the Summit. Social enterprise is hard work, so it is good for everyone to spend time with each other. The connections made are also key to Summit15. Last year, we formed a national network group with REDF. A group of us were using similar models, so we created a coalition. Because of this network, we won a contract that we wouldn’t have received otherwise.
What are the opportunities and challenges social entrepreneurs now face?
Morris—Our opportunity is that we have a consumer base that is ready for social enterprise. These consumers want to spend a few extra cents on the dollar to trade with us. The good news is that if you’re really good at what you do, you can win business today that you couldn’t have won three years ago. Consumers are ready, and they want to see multiple impacts from the money they spend.
The challenge is finding a way to put ourselves in front of the consumer as a social enterprise. Let’s face it: A person’s vote doesn’t matter that much anymore, but consumerism is the way we can still change things. If a customer decides they are going to buy from a social enterprise, now other businesses have to take note. We have been successful at bidding head to head with business providers, so now these larger companies are going back to the table to determine ways they can generate social impact so they won’t lose business. Creating this customer movement is the next challenge. The consumer needs to realize they can use their pocketbook to change things.
How did you become inspired to create Blue Star Recyclers?
Morris—At the age of 52, I discovered I needed to make a career change. I began applying for jobs that interested me, regardless of salary, and I ended up landing a position as a program manager for disability services in Colorado Springs. The only qualification I had was that my brother was developmentally disabled, and I knew what it was like for him. I was assigned to a building with 60+ disabled people, and most of the employees there were providing services and checking off boxes instead of interacting with clients on a personal level and actually looking at them as individuals.
I noticed a small group of people who were congregated at the back of the building. This group was working intently to take apart electronics, and they were doing a great job. I had fresh eyes on the situation, so I did a bit of research and found that people at autism were good at this and that there was a need to recycle electronics. I created a business plan, found a buyer and soon thereafter Blue Star Recyclers was born.
What makes Blue Star Recyclers unique?
Morris—Blue Star has never received a cent of money from the government, and we will not use taxpayer money for payroll. We employ people with disabilities—unsubsidized by the government and 100% with earned income. Other programs tend to look at clients, find out what is wrong with them, get a diagnosis and then provide services, some of which may include forms of employment. The Blue Star model is not easy. We are employment driven, not a service provider, and that factor is what makes us unique.
Written by Anna Upchurch from the fabulous team at JVA Consulting.