Building a Better Company

Being a socialentrepreneur used to be a lonely endeavor. I grew up believing that to be in business meant leaving your soul at the front door -- being ruthless, shrewd, and above all focused on profitability at any cost. But as a businessman, I found myself less interested in the bottom line of profit than in the bottom line of community impact. For example, I started Busboys and Poets as a restaurant and gathering place, but also a social enterprise -- a business with a conscience -- in Washington, D.C.'s U Street neighborhood.

Having grown up in D.C., I was amazed at the dramatic changes that swept various neighborhoods in the 1990s. The U Street corridor in particular was undergoing some of the most vivid transformation.

Dubbed "Black Broadway" back in the early '40s and '50s, this neighborhood was the lifeline for the African-American community in a racially segregated city. It was the stomping ground for some of the early 20th century’s most notable African Americans, including Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston. But in the wake of the 1968 riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the once-thriving social and cultural mecca of the African-American community became a drug haven, as businesses shuttered their windows and went elsewhere.

The boom of the 1990s brought about a huge influx of young white professionals and new buildings and businesses, all taking advantage of relatively low real estate prices. I remember driving on U Street, awestruck at the dramatic shift. I did a double take when, at the base of a new apartment building named in honor of the great composer and bandleader Duke Ellington, I saw a tanning salon. The tension around such a business was palpable. "These people just don't get it," an African-American friend confided. "This is the ugly head of gentrification showing itself; they're trying to erase our history," another added.

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