Written by Eliza LaJoie
With its motto “Create the Day,” children’s discovery museum Imajine That has always aimed to provide opportunity for youth and families in its hometown of Lawrence, MA.
And like the visitors to her museum, CEO Susan Leger Ferraro, has always been curious: Curious to learn about other mission-driven businesses, their definitions of impact and their strategies for uplifting their communities. Leger Ferraro’s efforts to tap into national networks of likeminded peers led her to first apply for the Inner City 100 program in 2014. From her first experiences with the Inner City 100 network, she noticed in fellow participants not only a focus on tangible impact, but on potential future impact, especially when businesses worked in concert with their communities.
The emphasis on finding “opportunity in [underserved] areas that are going to make big impact on average human beings is something I love,” she noted.
Inner city opportunity has long been a focus for Leger Ferraro’s team. Based in a repurposed mill building alongside the Merrimack River, Imajine That leverages public-private partnerships to serve students and families in Lawrence, a state-designated “Gateway City.” Leger Ferraro’s team has worked with the local public school system to deliver on-campus before- and after-school programming for Lawrence’s low-income students. She also collaborates with Sal Lupoli, a local entrepreneur whom ICIC recently recognized for innovative economic development work, to provide employees of Lupoli’s Riverwalk Properties with childcare while they access GED or ESL classes.
As Imajine That’s educational programs expanded to Boston and beyond, Leger Ferraro continued to wonder about opportunities to formalize the company’s impact, and scale it to new communities. This winter, Imajine That took a key step towards these goals by becoming a B Corp, joining a community of firms that meet rigorous standards of environmental and social responsibility set forth by the nonprofit B Lab. With the recognition, Imajine That joined a list of more than 1,400 B Corps in 42 countries, including household names like Ben & Jerry’s, Patagonia and Etsy.
With the certification, Imajine That also joined an array of Inner City 100 alumni with B Corp status, including three fellow 2015 Inner City 100 winners: Oaklandish, a Northern California civic pride retailer, Impact Makers, a management and tech consulting company in Richmond, and AE Works, a Pittsburgh architecture and engineering firm with a triple-bottom-line model. Leger Ferraro said she feels that Inner City 100 firms are often uniquely suited to be B Corps due to their simultaneous focus on pragmatism and altruism, or “doing well while doing good.”
“They’re working in inner cities, creating abundance and opportunity, it’s not just about the finances,” she said of her fellow Inner City 100 winners.
The frequent appearance of inner city movers and shakers on the B Lab roster is definitely no accident, according to Katie Holcomb, Director of PR at B Labs, because the B Corp certification process assesses key metrics that impact urban communities, including local sourcing, community banking and creation of high quality jobs. At least 60 percent of certified B Corps are located in urban markets, according to research ICIC conducted in 2014.
For Leger Ferraro, the road to certification began over a year ago, and the process of preparing and documenting all aspects of her company’s impact was “strenuous, but one of the most enlightening experiences” of her career, as it pushed her to consider accountability and impact in very specific, quantifiable ways.
“Everyone has opinions on how to be socially and environmentally progressive, but [B Lab] maps it out to create real accountability,” she said.
Like many of her Inner City 100 peers, Leger Ferraro sees her fast-growth firm expanding rapidly into new national and international markets – she hopes to soon leverage unused school building space in New York and New Jersey for enrichment programs.
For such expansion-minded businesses, the Business Impact Assessment (BIA) that leads to B Corp certification can be a key step in planning for the future, according to Holcomb, who said that Leger Ferraro’s journey of self-reflection was B Lab’s ideal. She noted that the BIA “will identify the companies’ strengths, benchmark them against thousands of other business, help set goals for the future and make it easy to track progress as they move forward.”
Yet even as Leger Ferraro’s curiosity continues to drive her participation in national communities like the Inner City 100 and B Corps, the core of her business remains in Lawrence with her team, over half of whom live in the same neighborhood as Imajine That headquarters. When the firm’s B Corp status was confirmed in early 2016, the company hosted a community party that celebrated the team’s impact, and Leger Ferraro aims to keep celebrating every step of the way.
“It makes the employees feel so supported and it’s recognition that they’re part of something bigger,” she said. “They’re part of an organization that is making an impact on things that are important to them.”
For over seventeen years, ICIC has been recognizing and celebrating the fastest-growing businesses located in America’s inner cities through our annual Inner City 100 list. We are now accepting applications for the 2016 Inner City 100! Apply online.