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By MegAnne Liebsch

January 10, 2024 When I first met Erica Jeanine, in July of 2022, she was bubbly and bursting with energy for the trove of ideas she had for how to expand her small business, Think Happy Live Happy. She told me of her plans for mental health workshops, a mental health resource app, self-care packages and possible funding streams. Self-aware, Erica acknowledged she had passion, but lacked structure and focus. That’s why she turned to Innovation Works, a Jesuit-sponsored nonprofit that aims to reduce Baltimore’s racial wealth divide by supporting what they call “social entrepreneurs” — small business owners developing solutions to community challenges.   

Through interviews filmed over the course of 2022 and 2023, I watched Erica’s business gather momentum with the support of Innovation Works. She honed her strategic vision, weathered setbacks, and succeeded in rolling out a series of mental health workshops with Baltimore College. More than Think Happy Live Happy’s expansion, I saw Erica grow in confidence and poise as an entrepreneur.  

When I pitched the idea for this video feature in the spring of 2022, my idea was to track the progress of a social entrepreneur in the Innovation Works pipeline for four months (a timeline which ultimately stretched to 12 months). A year and a half later, I think the end product is less about progress and more about accompaniment and community. About the power of one person saying to another: “I believe in you. How can we get you there?” 

I believe Erica’s story personifies Innovation Works and what it seeks to accomplish in Baltimore.  

Erica lived in public housing for nine years of her childhood. As an adult, she’s had to process experiences of childhood trauma—often without access to insurance-covered mental health resources. Her experiences inspired Erica to found Think Happy Live Happy, a for-profit-enterprise that aims to make mental health resources available to communities at a lower cost.  

According to Jay Nwachu, Director and CEO of Innovation Works, investing in people like Erica is the key to social transformation.  

“The notion of social entrepreneurship is: If we start with the challenges you recognize because you lived it, and we know your community needs solutions, it’s a different place of starting, of empowering people based on things they know,” says Nwachu. 

As a post-industrial city, Baltimore has struggled with economic decline, exacerbated by racial inequities. The median Black household brought home $34,000 in 2017 compared to $64,000 for white households. Similarly, majority Black neighborhoods in the city receive six times less investment than majority non-Black neighborhoods.  

This economic reality creates power imbalances, even as non-profits and enterprises attempt to solve issues of poverty, inequality and disinvestment. Often, social organizations in low-income neighborhoods are run by people who have not had these experiences of economic and racial inequality. 

“You have folks trying to design for your life when they have absolutely no clue what you are going through on a day-to-day basis,” Nwachu says. By supporting entrepreneurship within communities in need, Innovation Works “empowers those who are actually living through [social] challenges to be the ones to architect the future and to architect the solutions.”  

Through its entrepreneurship curriculum and programming, Innovation Works helps these “social entrepreneurs” address the challenges in their community and build sustainable neighborhood economies. But it also provides a crucial support network to early-stage entrepreneurs, offering mentors and a community of peers. 

As Erica told me, “Innovation Works is like a family.”  

Learn more about Innovation Works here


 

MegAnne Liebsch is the communications manager for the Office of Justice and Ecology at the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States. She holds a master’s in media and international conflict from University College Dublin and is an alumna of La Salle University. She lives in Washington, DC.