Frederick Hutson, Co-Founder of Pigeonly; Britnie Turner, Founder and CEO of Aerial Development Group; and April De Simone, Co-Founder of Designing the WE, sit side by side—unlikely people to be sharing a panel together. At a Social Venture Network conference, Laura Flanders, successful media guru and host of The Laura Flanders Show, interviewed these three champions, showcasing the power of overcoming tragedy through the power of social enterprise.
Meet Frederick Hutson, Co-Founder of Pigeonly
Indicted for the possession of marijuana, Hutson served five years in federal prison. Inside, he was exposed to a world he had no idea existed. While in a halfway house, he called his now co-founder of Pigeonly and described the fundamental inequalities he saw around communication in prison with its link to recidivism.
"People who had the means to pay the expensive costs, whether it be a dollar per minute for a 15- minute phone call or to afford to pay for family members to visit, those people were less likely to return to prison," says Hutson.
Hutson knew there was an opportunity to step into the tech market and lessen the distance and communication gaps between those in prison and those on the outside who support people inside. Pigeonly offers a variety of communication products including photo sharing, information sharing, and a local phone number, which eliminates expensive bills. Making that five-minute phone call, like we see inmates do in the movies, can cost upward of $40.
"Our company will always generate a local number based on the facility so the family always qualifies for local rates as opposed to a long distance rate," says Hutson.
Meet April De Simone, Co-Founder of Designing the WE
De Simone is fueled to create a built environment and design things that beautify and celebrate humanity because she knows what it's like to live in devastation and bleakness. De Simone grew up in the Bronx in a neighborhood that lost 80 percent of its housing options due to the infamous Bronx burning fires and failed policies. Commercial corridors lacked the necessary resources to grow, eventually becoming ghost towns.
"Those of us with assets and privilege, fled. For those who couldn't leave, we stood on the front line of some of the most devastating epidemics this country has ever seen. Heroin, AIDS—which my father succumbed to, crack, and violence made dreaming and having hope very hard. It was these experiences that instilled a tremendous amount of humility in my heart. It made me realize how ugly and how unequal our world is. That's what led to Designing the WE," De Simone explains.
For the last 15 years, De Simone has advocated for social innovation and market-based design solutions. Birthed from this perspective, Designing the WE is a New York City-based Benefit Corporation that facilitates collaborative processes in order to redefine how systems are approached and to identify opportunities for action and co-designs strategies centered on resilient change. They've worked to pass the nation's first Community Bill of Rights and natural gas fracking ban with Groundswell PA, and to create a farm model with Capital City Farm that serves the needs of the local community. To me, their most innovative work is a framework for addressing historic transformations of cities and towns and race in America called Undesign the Red Line. Starting in the 1930s, maps were defined according to areas of ripe for investment. Neighborhoods deemed unworthy of investment were outlined in red. According to Designing the WE, these areas were defined almost entirely on race. Today, this system endures and Designing the WE has created a toolkit for institutions to understand and develop new models.
"If we don't use the design process to influence policy and how we appropriate space, we are going to continue to move into the future on the back of structural inequality," says De Simone.
Meet Britnie Turner, Founder of Aerial Development Group
At 12 years old, Turner dreamed of working with orphans in Africa. She knew she wanted to be useful to them, but wasn't sure how, until she discovered real estate development. She began her career in the middle of the 2008 recession; fast forward to her early 20s, and Turner found herself homeless in Nashville, living in her car, with thousands of dollars of credit card debt. For three years, she struggled to survive. Randomly, Turner met a group of people in rehab who were working in construction. Because she had nothing left to lose, she volunteered her time with them, learning to design, manage, and construct projects. Her vision was to learn to flip houses in order to live overseas to work with orphans. Unbeknownst to her, this was the beginning of Aerial Development Group.
"I learned that real estate doesn't just generate cash, but that approached intentionally, it can redevelop communities and create jobs," says Turner.
That's exactly what Aerial Development Group does. Dedicated to the full-circle revitalization of Nashville's urban neighborhoods, it invests into communities and focuses development in transitional neighborhoods. A full service real estate company, the Group also buys and sells homes in emerging neighborhoods of Nashville. With a percentage of their profits, Aerial Development Group supports orphans in Africa and Nashville-based organizations. Every time they sell a home, they sponsor a child in a Kenyan orphanage for one year in the name of the homeowner. According to their blog:
"This is what motivates our team at Aerial Development Group, It is the why behind our real estate development company."
Listening to Hutson, De Simone, and Turner vulnerably share their tragedies isn't what inspired me and the rest of us at the Social Venture Network gathering. Their tenacity, hard work, and community-based approach—this is what we talked about over coffee the next morning. It reminded me that even in the hardest, most confusing experience there is opportunity to learn, to connect with the community, and to overcome for the sake of others.
Your present challenge might just be your next business.
Tell your family and friends how they can connect with their loved ones in prison through the services of Pigeonly. Check out Designing the WE's Undesign the Red Line toolkit. Read how Aerial Development Group is giving back in Kenya. Join Social Venture Network and attend the next gathering.