Jay Nwachu serves as president and CEO for Innovation Works, a collaborative resource network that works to bridge the racial wealth divide in Baltimore by supporting social enterprises. (Courtesy Photo)

By Megan Sayles, AFRO Business Writer
Report for America Corps Member

A social entrepreneur is a person interested in starting a business for the benefit of the community, not just for the sake of turning a profit. Social enterprises foster social change that addresses unmet needs, and Baltimore-based Innovation Works seeks to reduce the city’s racial wealth divide by advancing social enterprises. 

According to Jay Nwachu, president and CEO of Innovation Works, residents of color have never been given a fair chance when it comes to creating wealth for themselves. While Baltimore is a majority Black city, redlining has historically prevented minority residents from accessing the resources and family-wage jobs they need to buy a home, which is a primary way of building wealth. 

“What we are trying to do at Innovation Works is reduce that racial wealth divide by supporting social entrepreneurs who are addressing some of the most critical challenges in communities that have faced chronic disinvestment,” said Nwachu.

Innovation Works was incorporated in 2017 after founder, Frank Knott, learned about the Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship at Santa Clara University. Knott studied the center’s model and shifted it to an urban focus that could cultivate economic and community development in Baltimore. 

The company first launched with its Social Entrepreneur Development Pipeline, which supports business owners through the full lifecycle of their entrepreneurial journey. The program consists of five stages that include ignite, ideate, create, grow and scale. 

Through the pipeline, social entrepreneurs gain access to three primary sources of resources. The first is in Innovation Works’ curriculum on how to run a business or nonprofit, which was adopted from the Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship.

This component offers insight that ranges from developing a theory of change to sustainably calculating the cost of a new product. Innovation Works delivers this curriculum through one-on-one coaching sessions, workshops and accelerator programs. 

The second resource is Innovation Works’ executive mentor network, in which Baltimore industry leaders volunteer their time to support the social entrepreneurs in strengthening their capacity and advancing their social impact and business objectives. Access to capital acts as the third resource source. 

“Much of the entrepreneurs that we are supporting because of who they are, Black, Brown or women-led for the most part, in the community that they are intending to serve are often the ones with the least access to capital,” said Nwachu. 

To address this gap, Innovation Works launched Ignite Capital, an impact investment fund and subsidiary of the company. According to Nwachu, the fund was created to ensure that all the entrepreneurs in the pipeline can first acquire capital from Innovation Works. 

Aside from the Social Entrepreneur Development Pipeline, Innovation Works has developed a neighborhood strategy, which takes a hyper local approach to clustering enterprises in neighborhoods so that they can grow together. It also works to attract businesses from across the city to base their operations in underserved communities. 

Innovation Works also recently created a sector-based strategy that aims to connect industries primarily occupied by Black and Brown entrepreneurs to one another. The company finds linkages in different sectors so that entrepreneurs in different industries can help each other to grow. 

“The idea about making a decent living while serving the community and being thoughtful about everything you do and how it impacts the environment around you is critically important for the future of Baltimore,” said Nwachu. 

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