In Pursuit of Profession: Not your grandfather’s United Way

Question: what do you get when you combine the hilarious guys from the Four Day Weekend comedy troupe with a bunch of folks from the United Way and other non-profit organizations, social investors, business mentors, and six groups all vying for seed money to develop their socially innovative programs in Tarrant County?

Answer: You get KERNEL LIVE!, which was held at Four Day Weekend’s theater in downtown Fort Worth and the culmination of the hard work of those involved with the United Way’s KERNEL initiative. “KERNEL was created by United Way of Tarrant County as a way to engage the community and create significant social change that had a lasting impact. It was designed to be separate from our normal funding processes to allow agility to address current and new social issues and work with a broad cross-sector of people, organizations, non-profits, for-profits and entrepreneurs. We feel that together we can solve big problems that no one organization could do alone,” said David Frederick, Vice President, Marketing & Communications, United Way of Tarrant County. “We’ve partnered with TechFW and IDEA Works FW to create a synergy in the business startup and innovation communities. Together with their assistance, KERNEL will provide new social innovation that has a lasting impact for our entire Tarrant County community.”

So while the United Way of Tarrant County could have used a more traditional approach to award startups and innovators with seed money for their programs, they chose to amp things way up by going with a Shark Tank-style event hosted by Four Day Weekend. The six finalists would pitch their ideas to a panel of socially conscious judges who had the chance to ask them questions about how their programs would continue to change lives using the money. At the end of the night, the judges had $35,000 to distribute to the finalists as they saw fit - they could have given the whole amount to one or divvy it up to a few of them. “This isn’t your grandfather’s United Way,” said TD Smyers, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of United Way of Tarrant County. “Many people think of us as an old school charity, so we’re using events like KERNEL LIVE! to help change the face of our organization. It takes new ideas and social entrepreneurship to initiate change. It takes partnering with other agencies to move the needle in a positive way.”

The magnificent six

The six finalists not only had different social problems they were addressing, but they each approached their challenges in unique ways:

Catholic Charities of Fort Worth presented their Children’s Savings Account Pilot Program through which students and their parents can save for college. “Children with even a small amount of college savings are three times more likely to enroll in college and four times more likely to graduate,” said Director of Evaluation and Research Corinne Weaver during her presentation to the panel. They were awarded $10,000 in seed money and will use those funds for various programs to teach financial literacy at low-income elementary schools in Fort Worth.

Founder and Chief Executive Dreamer Kam Phillips of Dream Outside the Box, who was the big winner of the night with $15,000 in seed money, presented her Dream Delivered Program to the “sharks.” The program is a monthly subscription that delivers children boxes containing items relating to various career pathways. For each box purchased, a second box is given to a child who lives in what Phillips called a, “dream desert” where they lack exposure to certain careers because, as Phillips put it during her presentation, “you can only dream what you’ve seen.”

Bullying was the issue for the Bee Friendly Boot Camp presenters. “Bullying affects one in four children and special needs kids are targeted 35 percent more often than typical children,” said CEO Kristi Kennedy. “It can also lead to suicide, which is the leading cause of death among children ages 10 to 14.” The Bee Friendly Boot Camp program is a technology-based approach that partners with elementary schools and their staff members, parent s and kids to develop character and leadership skills.

Suicide concerning older adults was the focus of the Meals on Wheels Inc. of Tarrant County’s presentation. “One in five elderly adults in America commits suicide,” said Case Manager Steven Cook. “Homebound seniors are more vulnerable because they are often isolated from society.” With the seed money, Meals on Wheels wanted to develop an initiative to provide various levels of suicide prevention training for their staff and volunteers, including QPR (Question, Persuade, and Refer) training for 5,000 meal delivery volunteers.

Kirsten Ham, Director of Social Enterprise Programs at the Presbyterian Night Shelter (PNS), leveraged her background in entrepreneurship and her desire to create social change to win $10,000 in seed money for her Clean Slate program. “Clean Slate is an opportunity for the homeless in Tarrant County to secure employment through PNS,” said Ham. Area companies provide job opportunities in such areas as commercial janitors, commercial kitchen rental and garbage services to members of the Clean Slate program. PNS staffers that work with the Clean Slate Program help potential job candidates with resume and interview preparation and job training.

UTA’s Department of Computer Science and Engineering partnered with Tarrant County Ambassadors for Aging Well for their Take Me Home program. The program uses facial recognition technology to help police officers and first responders identify lost or wandering people with Alzheimer’s and dementia, and other disabled people who cannot speak or do not know their name or home address to take them home. Seed money from the event would have been used to make enhancements to the program.

Seeds for the future

With KERNEL LIVE!, which will be an annual event, United Way of Tarrant County has not only kick started new interest in social entrepreneurship in Tarrant County - they expect a fifty percent gain in KERNEL applications next year - but they’ve also made those in the tech industry take notice that Fort Worth is a tech savvy city filled with opportunity. “For many in the tech industry, solving social problems using technology is their mission,” said Hayden Blackburn, Director of IDEA Works, a mixed-industry incubator that focuses on job creation and entrepreneurial development. “Events like KERNEL LIVE! help communicate to the tech crowd that Fort Worth is open to innovation and if you have an idea, there are plenty of ways to get help or partner up with various groups here to bring that idea into fruition.”