Thursday, February 24, 2011

A Miner Miracle on Union Square-Where Giving is Fashionable

While many businesses are popping up with philanthropic purpose, more and more philanthropies are starting businesses to fund their operations.

No, the word miner is not a misspelling, but the last name of a social entrepreneur, Karen Miner, who has founded a non-profit and a philanthropic business that supports its namesake charity A Miner Miracle.

Tony, touristy Union Square in San Francisco is often a contrast in images of homeless people blending in with tourists and high end shoppers. Amidst the Saks Fifth Ave and Nieman Marcus quadrant stands A Miner Miracle SHOP, that features designer clothing such as Marc Jacobs, Calvin Klein, Ann Taylor and others offered at enticingly discounted prices and which is also a home base for the non-profit bearing the same name.

I stumbled upon this shop when I was staying at hotel in the area for a business meeting. This gave me the great opportunity to meet the founder of the non-profit and supporting business, Kathy Miner. Kathy gave me an on the spot interview that gave me an insider's view of her mission to help low-income men and women re-enter the workforce by dressing them for success.

The non-profit came first. In a former life, Kathy had been in the fashion retail industry and walked away from it swearing " never again" as she looked to do something more meaningful in her life.  Using her expertise in  clothing and image consulting for professionals, Kathy launched the non-profit, A Miner Miracle in 1995  that would give that same kind of service to a more disadvantaged population.  She first began the operation in a rent free storefront with roll down security gates on the edge of the Tenderloin district, where many of these clients lived. In order to fund her mission she operated a modest clothing store on the site, manned by volunteers and recipients of  the program. Overhead was low, all profits could go towards supporting the charity. 

With the boom, that area was developed into the trendy SOMA, with stores like Bloomingdale's, upscale hotels and restaurants, museums and hip condominiums. Jokingly to me Karen said, "never say never", she went back to her beginnings in the fashion industry with the challenge of scaling up and opening a clothing boutique in the most popular shopping area of San Francisco.

While visibility in the new location is greater, so are the operating costs. Kathy did not hide the fact that this model of social venture has challenges. Although she negotiates directly with the design houses, which helps Kathy keep the prices low, the rent is low and she now has to employ her sales people. The further challenge comes when the profits need to be plowed back into maintaining the quality inventory.  

The store site still continues to serve the dual purpose being a thriving business that has a philanthropic mission and as a home base for the nonprofit, where the services have expanded beyond men and women to include young adults and in transition youth. It also serves as the headquarters for fund raising for the charity through special events and as a channel of creating public awareness.

Kathy's picture of herself  as she received the“Oprah Angel Network” award proudly hangs on the wall in the store above the cash register. While seeing the photo with her and Oprah is inspiring, seeing on the website, the heartwarming photos of the clients before and after their image makeovers, can only prove how a "miner/minor" miracle is a major one for everyone involved.

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