CSR and good business easily intersect at the fringe of winsome Gastown in Vancouver’s gritty Downtown Eastside (DTES).
Jennifer Potter, my group’s convivial Tours by Locals guide during TED 2014, says that a major revitalization is occurring throughout the city thanks to a surge of social entrepreneurial startups that are taking CSR to the next level. Inside many of the dapper Victorian buildings are give-back businesses whose sole purpose is to circulate any monetary or social gains back into the community.
The Lost + Found Cafe is one case in point. Here, locals can bask in local art, travel books and products made by NGOs from around the world. Indulging in what could only be called high-end traveler’s food—fare inspired by founders Kane Ryan and Salomeh Jalali’s global travels—could very well help seal the deal on any business transactions occurring in the cafe’s private backroom. The banana ginger cardamom lassi smoothies and almond apricot truffles nudged my group into a collective swoon. “We didn’t know how we were going to help but we knew being in this community we had a pretty good chance of it working out,” Ryan responded, when asked why he and wife Jalali dropped anchor in Vancouver’s DTES.
At night, the vast bohemian space, with its breathy 14-foot ceilings and rich hardwood floors, is a creative option for events of up to 150 people. Ryan said film screenings, dance parties, culinary classes and art shows are just some of the events held in the dynamic space. “We really wanted to open up the space to artists,” he explained. “Galleries sometimes charge up to 50 percent—here, we don’t charge anything to hang and 15 percent of commissions go directly to charity.” The charity Ryan refers to is the Dirty Wall Project Foundation, a non-profit serving the needs of Mumbai, India’s slum communities.
Scurrying down the street, Potter whisked us into Potluck Cafe & Catering and we huddled around diner-style tables as Executive Director Heather O’Hara shared her “right to food” philosophy: fresh, local, nutritious and tasty. The cafe serves thousands of meals annually to the neighborhood’s most nutritionally-vulnerable residents. A “right to knowledge” undertone played out simultaneously through a high-hung flat screen TV that streamed live TED talks into the financially strapped DTES. O’Hara says that the cafe’s business model—that of employing neighborhood residents instead of relying on volunteers—has set a standard throughout the community that is widely embraced by other local businesses.
Consequently, hiring O’Hara and her team to cater your meeting or event is also the most coveted CSR gesture. But for those still pining for something more hands-on, twice a month community dinners promise an eye-opening evening. Locals pour into the cafe for the Community Kitchen project where they collaboratively prepare a meal. O’Hara paused to confidently call the hangout “a true neighborhood cafe,” adding, “we don’t do business for business’ sake, but to fulfill a commitment to the community.”
Exiting Potluck with a bit of pride in her stride, Potter buoyantly guided us to East Van Roasters, an organic bean-to-bar chocolate/coffee house. The social enterprise provides training and employment to marginalized females who live in the Rainier Hotel directly above the shop. To date, over 130 women from the Rainier Hotel program have integrated successfully back into society after coming out the other side of mental illness and addiction. Only organic fair trade beans are used in the coffee/chocolate making process, which in itself provides a window for tastings and team building. My group experienced chocolate in the buff as we carefully winnowed cacao beans, separating the husk from the nib, before sampling bars made from imported Dominican Republic, Madagascar and Peruvian beans.