A new nonprofit in East Palo Alto teaching single mothers and young women entrepreneurship through micro-businesses is helping to transform their economic status and the young women's self-image.
Guided by professionals, the organization EPAMade is the latest example of how young Silicon Valley and Bay Area professionals are engaging in social entrepreneurship to uplift residents economically and set them on the path to economic parity.
Launched last fall, EPAMade funds micro-businesses through donations. But founder Allen Lu said that, unlike the traditional nonprofit model, he expects each enterprise won't have to return to donors for additional funding. Each is to become self-sustaining and, when profitable, will return the donor's investment by giving 100 percent of profits to other East Palo Alto nonprofit groups, he said.
EPAMade has established order-fulfillment operations such as a book-distribution service for authors and enterprises that include T-shirt silk screening, jewelry, home decor and clothing. The organization has plans for a thrift shop and possibly a community cafe and a salon.
On March 28, it held its first pop-up sale at a home on Weeks Street to familiarize the community with the group and its products. Additional pop-ups are planned at the home every two weeks from 9 a.m. to noon, Lu said.
Lu is an eCommerce professional with a degree in information systems from Carnegie Mellon University and marketing credentials. He launched two online brands for American Eagle Outfitters, developed eCommerce brand strategy for GNC and worked as vice president of technology, supply chain and distribution at ModCloth before producing the film "Linsanity" on basketball star Jeremy Lin.
His wife, Ayaka Lu, co-chief steward, holds a degree in communication design and human computer interaction from Carnegie Mellon and has worked in education design, including for the Pittsburgh Penguins and Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood company.
The Lus previously founded TL Made, a similar program in San Francisco's Tenderloin neighborhood that spawned successful businesses such as TL Clean, which partners with the city to clean parks, he said.
"We feel that sustainable businesses create a healthy ecosystem versus charity," Lu said during a tour of the micro-workplaces last Saturday. Some of the assembly takes place in sheds; more complicated processes are handled at the nonprofit New Creation Home Ministries for single mothers, he said.
In a shed near an old greenhouse, volunteers and young mothers hand-painted clay pots filled with flowering succulents, purchased from a friend of Lu's who has a nursery in Half Moon Bay. EPAMade plans to sell the arrangements online to groups and at events such as San Francisco's Urban Air Market. The organization is also in talks with Whole Foods Market, Lu said.
EPAMade's model looks at the needs and tastes within the community it serves. In the Tenderloin, it took advantage of residents' creativity to start cottage-industries such as handmade leather goods. The same industry is beginning in East Palo Alto, with resident-made knit caps and jewelry. EPAMade's online store even offers jewelry pieces named after the city's Gardens neighborhood streets: "The Jasmine" earrings and "The Wisteria" necklace, to name a couple.
Some of the greatest opportunities are business-to-business, Lu said. EPAMade is doing distribution and packaging of 5 million of "Crazy Love" author Francis Chan's books, has partnered with a soy-candle company and makes lip balms, whole-leaf teas and other home-decor items.
In keeping with fostering dignity, it produces "I (heart) EPA" T-shirts and baby wear as well as throw pillows with an adorable sea otter design.
But the Lus' vision is about more than making money; it's also about creating a secondary, affordable economy that serves the needs of residents and keeps money local, he said. Corporate businesses and those with owners residing outside of the city have "no vested interest in the community," he said. And many goods and services within East Palo Alto fail to address the economic needs of residents.
"Many people here can't afford to shop at Nordstrom Rack," he said.
EPAMade strives to address that issue by offering goods and services that residents can truly afford. That's why he's looking at a space for a thrift store, he said.
A secondary economy would help keep capital from bleeding out of the community, and it could help fight higher costs of living.
East Palo Alto residents especially face gentrification and housing costs that are disproportionate to their wages. An Able Works study found that a single parent needs to earn $70,000 to stay in the Bay Area, Lu said.
Higher wages are only one part of the solution, he said.
"If we are providing free child care and food for employees, we can fight the challenges of marginalization. It frees up their capital," he said.
Lu said he hopes that EPAMade will also spread to other communities.
"Our bigger vision is replication. We want to develop business templates and send staff to train people to put together these models," he said.
But he is mindful of the stereotype of the outsider who comes into East Palo Alto and tells residents what to do. Lu said whil he plans to move to East Palo Alto, he is "willing to serve, but I'm not here to prove anything."
More information about EPAMade is available at epamade.com.