Natasha Kirsch was volunteering at an alcoholic and addict recovery home when the idea—and a well-timed phone call — came to her.
Sitting in the business office, Kirsch said, it would not be unusual for eight to 10 women to be sitting on the couch outside, asking for help finding and getting a job. They needed the income and the stability — many had several kids and few resources.
But there was a problem: Most were high school dropouts with low reading levels, many had felonies on their records. What job skills could they market? And who would hire them?
The phone call was from her mother, who ran an animal grooming salon in Iowa.
"She said to me, 'I will do anything. I just need any warm body to walk through that door and I will train them,'" Kirsch remembered. "And I realized at that time that there was a market demand that was not being met, and I had a social demand that was not being met.
"So I started to wonder if the market was the same here in Kansas City and did some research, found out that it was, that there was a huge market demand for animal groomers, that animal groomers made a living wage, that they could have family flexible jobs, which was very important for our mothers, single mothers, and that they would accept people with felonies because the demand was so high."
The result is EPEC — Empowering the Parent to Empower the Child — a new not-for-profit that plans to enroll its first group of nine students in animal grooming training this January. Currently, the organization is renovating space near 59th Street and Troost Avenue. Once the program starts, it will partner with other organizations to provide housing assistance, child care and job placement support.
Kirsch spoke with KCUR as part of the Innovation KC series. She said that starting up a not-for-profit is in many ways similar to building a for-profit business — and in some ways even more challenging:
On developing a business plan and community partnerships
It was a lot of networking in the community. We knew that the partnerships that we wanted to have to make our school successful were child care and housing. So that's me going out to child care and housing and talking to them. When we first started, which is kind of funny, we wanted to do it all. Large-scope, we were going to do child care, housing and job training, because we knew that's everything that needed to happen for a family to succeed. We're a two-generational approach, we're going to work with the family and the child at the same time. And we quickly realized that was going to cost about a million dollars. We had called ourselves Parenting Out of Poverty, until we realized that the acronym for that was POOP.
So we, after doing some research in the community, realized that no, there's great child care out there. There's great housing organizations out there. There's not a lot of great job training out there for what we're trying to do. And in fact, there's none for dog grooming.
On hearing 'no' and competing for limited funds
We've had a lot of people say no. A lot of nos. For partnerships. For funding. The whole works. I've been rejected for three years now. The nos for partnerships — a lot of it was they see us as a threat to their funding, which is troubling for me, because I feel like for any real change to happen, we all have to work together to make it happen.
I've seen more competition in the nonprofit side than I have in the for-profit side. I've been in both. And it was a huge shock value for me when I first got into the nonprofit world. Because I thought everybody's this touchy feel-good type of thing, everybody's trying to help, but that is not always the case.
On the financial sacrifice required of social entrepreneurs
I quit my paying job in May. And in June, I was able to start taking a small stipend from EPEC. So I was able to rearrange my finances a little bit. I took out more on my house so I could pay off all my debt and just have a house payment to pay.
I think that with any business that you start, it's a personal sacrifice, and in the nonprofit world, it's normally financial sacrifice. But it's also a huge learning experience, and I feel like the investment now that I'm making in this business and in myself will pay off later.
This interview was part of Innovation KC, a series of conversations about innovation and innovators in Kansas City. To suggest Kansas City innovators for future interviews, send us an email, tweet us, or find us on Facebook.