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Devin D. Thorpe
Devin Thorpe

This Social Enterprise Does More Than Sell Books–It Saves Lives

Most teenagers find themselves facing important life decisions about where to go to college or trade school. Kids who find themselves on the wrong side of the law or in the foster care system often face starker questions, like where to sleep tonight or how to find food to eat.

Such youth face additional challenges in the form of drugs and alcohol that allow them to self-medicate to avoid the pain associated with lives turned upside down, often by circumstances beyond their control.

More Than Words is a social enterprise that sells books but does so much more. The nonprofit employs youth who have been involved with the criminal justice system or foster care, teaching them life skills that can mean the difference between surviving as an adult outside the system and not.

Founded by Jodi Rosenbaum, the organization is proving to be such an effective intervention that when Boston brought Amazon executives to the city to show off all it had going for it in a failed attempt to woo the company’s second headquarters to the city, a stop at More Than Words was on the agenda.

Be sure to watch the full interview with Jodi in the video at the top of this article.

Interview with Jodi Rosenbaum, the Founder and CEO of More Than Words.

The following is the pre-interview with Jodi Rosenbaum. Be sure to watch the recorded interview above.

For-profit/Nonprofit: 501(c)3 Nonprofit

Revenue model: Young adults work approximately 20 hours per week managing our online, retail, pop-up and wholesale book-selling businesses, running a high-end event space, and gaining critical life skills and work experience while generating ~$4MM in earned revenue that offsets program costs. Youth facilitate peer-led training and weekly team meetings, manage sales, and plan and host events. Youth are also out on 3 trucks doing daily pickups at donation bins, homes, businesses and institutions in the community, sourcing over 3M donated books annually to run their businesses. Through the Business job, young people learn marketable and transferable job skills, including customer service, technology, inventory management, as well as critical professional skills such as showing up on time and working as a team.

Scale: FY19:  400 youth served; retail storefront 40K books; online inventory 140K books; youth ship ~800 books/day all over the world; 7K book pickups; $4MM gross earned revenue sales from all businesses;

What is the problem you solve and how do you solve it?

Eighty percent of low-income minority youth in MA are unemployed, and national research shows that 43% of women and 74% of men who age out of the foster care system will be incarcerated at least once in their lifetimes. These young people are bursting with potential but there are numerous factors contributing to their disengagement. These are the youth that MTW serves.

All of the youth at MTW are 16-21, have compounding risk factors and are in need of an empowering life experience to help them transition into a successful and self-sufficient adulthood. All are low income and represent all racial and ethnic groups. Across both our Boston and Waltham sites:

  • Nearly 70% have recent or current involvement with the foster care system (DCF).
  • Nearly 40% have recent or current court involvement.
  • Approximately 80% do not have their HiSet or H.S. Diploma and are either not pursuing it or struggling with school. All are behind academically with significant patterns of failing grades, absenteeism and lack of engagement in education.

MTW has developed an innovative work-based social enterprise youth development program to empower the most marginalized youth to reach positive outcomes in education, employment, and self-efficacy and is shifting perceptions about their potential. Our model consists of 3 components:

Business Job: MTW youth work paid jobs as part of a team generating over $1M annually by managing their online and retail bookstores approximately 20 hours/week, and are integrated into all aspects of the business. Youth facilitate peer-led training and weekly team meetings, track financials, manage sales, guide tours, plan and host events, manage marketing/promotions, and source the 2.4 million books per year needed to run their business doing daily pickups at donation bins, homes, businesses and institutions in the community.

“You” Job: Youth have a second equally important “YOU” job – deliberate transition planning and case management to ensure they have life essentials in place and move on to meaningful jobs and higher education. Youth attend weekly youth development shifts and gain exposure to potential jobs and post-secondary education through site visits with partners at hotels, banks, businesses, trade schools and universities. Youth participate in workshops, mock interviews, dinners with community leaders, and regular meetings with Youth Development Managers. By tackling personal barriers in their lives and gaining exposure to new opportunities, youth are able to craft their own action plans with concrete steps for earning their diploma or HiSet, securing post-MTW employment, and pursuing post-secondary education.

Graduate Program: Once youth graduate, after 6-12 months in the core program, they continue to receive intensive case management from Youth Development and Education and Employment Managers who support them toward higher education, door-opening credentials, or growth-focused pathway employment, and track data on achievements in education and career pathways for 2 years.

We have shown that when we put young people in charge of running a business – in roles where they can make tangible contributions – they are inspired and empowered to take charge of their lives.   

Read the More Than Words  Annual Report.

More about More Than Words:

Twitter: @MTWyouth

Facebook: facebook.com/mtwyouth/

Website: MTWyouth.org

Instagram: @mtwyouth

More Than Words is a nonprofit social enterprise that empowers young adults who are in the foster care system, court-involved, homeless, or out of school to take charge of their lives by taking charge of a business.

We believe that when system-involved youth are empowered with authentic and increasing responsibilities in a business setting, and are given high expectations and a culture of support, they can and will address personal barriers to success, create concrete action plans, and become contributing members of society who live, love and own their futures.

Jodi Rosenbaum

Jodi Rosenbaum’s bio:

Twitter: @jodiMTWyouth

Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/jodirosenbaum/

Jodi Rosenbaum piloted MTW as an online book-selling venture with several teenage boys in foster care in 2004, and then worked with the youth to grow MTW into a vibrant retail and online bookstore and café and a platform for youth to radically transform their lives. Jodi has over 16 years’ experience with youth in the juvenile justice and public school systems and served as a Teach For America fellow. She serves on the state-wide Advisory Council of the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families and the MA chapter of the Social Enterprise Alliance. Jodi was selected as the Advocate of the Year by the MA Providers’ Council in 2009, The Rising Star by Germaine Lawrence in 2010, and received the Next Generation Award by the Social Enterprise Alliance in 2010. She received a political science degree with a focus on juvenile justice policy from Emory University and a master’s in education in risk and prevention from Harvard. She resides in Waltham.


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