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Ben Thomases ’03: Social-purpose business leader
Prior to business school, Ben Thomases worked with nonprofits that relied on government and philanthropic funding. “I started to learn about the growing number of social ventures that support themselves through the sale of goods or services,” he says. “The Social Enterprise Program looked like the place to start.”
Thomases came to Columbia Business School in 2001 and landed a summer internship in Yonkers at the Greyston Foundation, a leader in community development. Greyston generates revenue both through its affordable housing developments and through the Greyston Bakery, which is the sole supplier of brownies for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.
Course work within the Social Enterprise Program also helped Thomases explore his area of interest; two such courses were Financing the Mission-Based Business and Social Entrepreneurship. “These courses opened my eyes to the fact that a lot of nonprofits have been generating extraordinary revenue for decades,” says Thomases. “They just tend to be arts and educational nonprofits, like the Metropolitan Opera or Columbia University. The real challenge is to try to build an antipoverty program that is not overly reliant on government and philanthropic support.”
After long months of networking and interviewing, Thomases got a cell-phone call during the graduation reception in Uris Library. He was offered his dream job: president of FirstSource Staffing, the only full-service, social-purpose staffing company in New York. Founded by three nonprofits in 1998, it is designed to generate income for the founding organizations and to employ graduates of community-based job-training programs.
Managing FirstSource provides Thomases with all of the challenges of building a small business and all of the rewards of building an antipoverty program. As he says, “I have seen people holding back tears of joy when they come to pick up their first paycheck. It gives me an incredible sense of purpose.”