Beyond Q&A: Kimberly Johnston

Kimberly Johnston, National Tax Partner Energy at EY and Founder of Good Works Houston, talks to pePartners’ Annie Hartnett about Houston’s most pressing problems and how to solve them.

You founded  Good Works Houston  in 2016 “to support entrepreneurs in launching innovative market-based solutions for Houston’s most pressing challenges.” What are Houston’s most pressing challenges and how will Good Works Houston address them?

Houston is the most diverse city in America, home to nearly 6.5 million and expected to double in size to 13 million by 2040. Our market is rapidly growing, along with alarming statistics:  In Houston metro with a population of 2.3 million, nearly 75% of our children are considered economically disadvantaged, 46% of households operate below the poverty line and 25% of Houstonians lack a high school education. If we don’t address these upward mobility problems now, they will affect the long-term economic health of Houston.

As a seasoned tax executive, I look closely at government budgets to shape smart tax policy.  I’m becoming more and more concerned with rising deficits and eroding funding sources, while our social problems are rapidly growing. There’s a huge gap.  So, I founded Good Works Houston to foster social entrepreneurship and impact ventures—self-sustaining companies that are making money by doing good.

Houston is the “City with No Limits”—rich in talented workforces, elite universities and innovation—with NASA, the Texas Medical Center and the Port of Houston. It is also the energy capital of the world.  I believe that if Houston can send a man to the moon, we can certainly be the global leader in innovation and entrepreneurship to tackle social challenges.

 So, say I have some equity to invest, but I also have a real social conscience about early childhood education. How can I invest this money in a way that contributes to society and helps others while also getting some return on my investment? Is it possible to do this kind of investing and still get as high a return as you would if you were just going the straight make-as-much-money-as-possible route?

One way people can invest in causes they are passionate about, such as education, is to engage a reputable impact fund manager. Attending impact investment conferences, such as Big Path Capital or Social Capital Markets (SoCap), is a great way to become informed and meet premier fund managers.  I strongly recommend you do your research and due diligence. Indeed, it is possible to earn a financial return while investing in a social cause.  Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN) and major investment banks such as Morgan Stanley have released studies stating impact investments outperform traditional investments.

Good Works Houston does not have an affiliated impact fund yet, but an impact fund is in our plan going forward. Right now we’re focused on bringing awareness to the community and building a portfolio of high growth enterprises.

I know the refugee community presents unique challenges for Houston. Is there an impact venture that addresses that? 

Last year, Good Works Houston supported two ventures, Houston in Motion and The Community Cloth, both empowering Houston’s migrant community to achieve economic self-sufficiency. The Community Cloth helps migrant women to produce and sell high-quality, artisanal products in local retail stores. Houston in Motion developed a platform to connect the migrant community to valuable resources and opportunities to transition and thrive in Houston.

What exactly is Good Works Houston’s role in that?

Good Works Houston engages our community by hosting community engagement forums to raise awareness on upward mobility challenges and convene local universities to foster social innovation. We grow social enterprises by offering a series of programs and providing valuable resources to deliver measurable outcomes tackling upward mobility challenges.

Tell me about high growth impact ventures that Good Works Houston is fostering.

One of the ventures is iEducate, which enhances and cultivates STEM education to under-served youth through in-class mentoring. Good Works Houston helped iEducate expand to more inner-city schools and tap into corporate STEM professionals as mentors.

Another one is OneJump, which connects local under-served high school and college students to transformational employment opportunities nationwide. Last year, the Harvard graduate founder attended our lab with an idea and was incubated out of Good Works Houston. Today, OneJump has developed a robust education technology platform benefiting nearly 3,000 teens from Houston’s inner-city schools.

So, you give them a hand up?

Exactly! We support the founders of these enterprises by improving their overall value proposition, helping them overcome barriers, creating peer-to-peer support and connecting them to concerned leaders and organizations who will advance their mission to empower Houstonians in need.

Tell me about one of the successful impact ventures Good Works Houston has fostered.

Yes! NextBillion empowers people with disabilities by connecting them with industry leadersfor knowledge, guidance and opportunities. NextBillion recognizes that 1 out of 5 people in the world have a disability and there are 36 million people with disabilities in the United States and Canada.  Most face social stigma, isolation, and lack of community resources and guidance. One of the founders of NextBillion is visually impaired, and through his own personal journey he decided to create an organization that would help people with disabilities to thrive.  NextBillion participated in our 5-day business model validation lab, and Houston leaders remain mentors for the Canada-based organization. NextBillion became a finalist for the 2017 SXSW Accelerator Pitch Event that will feature 50 interactive technology companies from around the world. It’s just a real success story!

That must feel good to know that you helped facilitate that!

I attribute the success of Good Works Houston to the seasoned business and civic leaders and corporate community stewards who generously invest in growing social enterprises that empower Houstonians in need by tackling upward mobility challenges.

My hope is to foster a more vibrant community of servant leaders who are empathetic and motivated to care for others. My single mother cared for my grandfather who suffered a stroke after returning from WWI, and my grandmother volunteered weekly for three decades at the St. Vincent DePaul Soup Kitchen, serving the homeless veterans while working full-time to provide for all of us.  My family value to serve others is what drives me to invest in sustainable solutions that empower Houstonians in need.


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