Startups, Social Impact, and the Church

Laura: When most people think of startups and entrepreneurship, the local church doesn’t necessarily come to mind. For this episode, we wanted to feature three talks that explore how the local church can become a catalyst for starting local businesses and creating social impact within the community.

Stu Minshew is the Vice President of Innovation Operations at the Chalmers Center. Stu received his MBA from the Georgia Institute of Technology with a focus on strategy, entrepreneurship, and organizational behavior. Over his career, he has started four businesses, trained cross-cultural teams, and led consulting and training projects for over 10,000 professionals.

Stu: So while real income has tripled for the average American over the last 60 years, average happiness has stayed the same. We need a new story.

While real income has tripled for the average American over the last 60 years, the rate of depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues among youth has increased substantially. We need a new story.

While real income has tripled for the average American over the last 60 years, the suicide rate for Americans under the age of 24 has increased by 137%. We need a new story.

So what do happiness, mental health, and suicide have to do with entrepreneurship in the church? It’s because we believe in the wrong story. And for the church to love startups and entrepreneurs well, we need another story.

The wrong story that we believe is a story that our culture tells us. It is a story of the American dream. It tells us that if we gain wealth and amass more things, we will be happy. But from the stats I read earlier, we can see that this story is a lie. As wealth has increased incredibly over the last 60 years, we haven’t gotten any happier as Americans. In fact, we are experiencing rising mental health issues constantly.

The story from our culture has also infiltrated the church. We believe that God is only concerned with our souls, and not with what we do while we’re here on this secular earth; that Jesus came only to save our souls, and that as long as you pray the prayer and go to church, he is less concerned with what you do the rest of the week. While we may not always outwardly admit this, it’s what drives most of our actions, including myself. We love the poor here and around the world by giving them money and things, rather than spending time getting to know, love, and walk alongside them. We run our businesses in ways that seek to only build our wealth so that we can give it away of course, than building opportunities for the poor, the orphan, the widow, and the immigrant to flourish.

The new story we need is a narrative of God’s story laid out in His Word, the story that God created all things. He created people. He created animals. He created plants. He created the cosmos and work. Yes, he created work.

When he created Adam and Eve, he gave them work to do in the garden that was good work. And when he created people, he created them to be in relationship. Adam and Eve were in relationship with God, but they were also in relationship with themselves, how they viewed who they were, and the identity that they were given by God, relationships with others, and relationship with creation, their good work to steward and care for God’s creation. They served as priest-kings enjoying these four relationships and doing good work as part of God’s kingdom.

Then as we know, due to sin, the Fall happens and these relationships are broken. These relationships become complicated, and work becomes difficult, but then redemption comes by way of a hero, God Himself and the person of Jesus, the Son, comes down to redeem all of these relationships. And this is important, not just our relationship to God, but our relationship with ourselves, with others, and with all of creation. See, King Jesus not only brought himself, but he brings the restoration of his kingdom here on earth. He tells us in Luke 4 that he brings the good news of his kingdom. In Matthew 6 in the Lord’s Prayer, he tells us that his kingdom is coming here on earth. While it is not fully here until Jesus comes back, it is here in part and we are members of his kingdom. We are his adopted sons and daughters into this kingdom where God is repairing these relationships. We get to be part of this in living out God’s kingdom here and now.

So if we’re part of God’s kingdom as followers of Christ, that has implications on everything that we do. It’s not just about seeing people reconciled to God through Jesus, but seeing people reconciled to God, themselves, others, and all of creation through Jesus, so they can begin to live out God’s kingdom here on Earth. This means that we should be concerned with seeing all people restore to their roles as priest-kings and flourishing in God’s kingdom. We should not just be concerned with our relationships with people inside the church, but form relationships with those in the community around us and seek to see these relationships, these systems, organizations, and business redeemed as a part of God’s kingdom. And we get to help him in this work since God’s primary way of doing work through his church is through his church, it means God wants us to help redeem the relationships the church has with the materially poor, with orphans, widows, and immigrants. But it doesn’t stop there.

God wants us to help him restore relationships with not just all people, but his creation and our work. That includes the environment, civic organizations, governments, the arts, and business; and business includes startups. Business, and especially startups, transform communities. They provide jobs and create places for people to gather. The church can love them, the church can serve them, and the church can guide them in what it looks like to create work that is dignifying and allows communities to flourish. The church can help these startup businesses create companies that redeem God’s people and his creation.

We will hear more about what this looks like from Phil and Jose later on, but as you listen, consider how your church can support the startup community. Can your church provide a space that is typically empty throughout the week to a startup business or nonprofit? Can your church implement a program like co-starters that we’re going to hear more about later on? Or can they implement a program like Launch that equips people to start businesses in your community? What can your church do to support startup businesses and help usher in God’s kingdom?

Laura: Phillip Roundy is an assistant professor of entrepreneurship at the UTC College of Business. He received his Ph.D. in corporate strategy from UT Austin. His research focuses on understanding how entrepreneurship can be used as a tool for economic and community revitalization. Through his research and consulting, he has interviewed and worked with hundreds of entrepreneurs and investors across North America.

Phillip: Stu initially asked me to talk about the intersection of faith and entrepreneurship. Can you guys hear me? Okay? So the topic I was given was faith and entrepreneurship. So a massive, massive topic. And he said you’ve got 10 minutes, and you can’t use PowerPoint. So as a professor, a long-winded professor, that’s like tying both of my hands behind my back and making it impossible. So I’m going to try to push through and wrestle with this big topic in 10 minutes.

I was doing my Ph.D. at UT Austin. I was very early in the process, and I was a Christian. I was struggling with, how do I unite my faith with the study of entrepreneurship? My Ph.D. was in corporate strategy, which in the way I looked at it was, how do large corporations out-compete one another for profits? And at the time, in my naive view of things at the time, that didn’t seem particularly godly to me. I didn’t see how that was a kingdom-building activity, looking at large corporations and even small corporations, entrepreneurs, and how they out-competed one another.

So I was really struggling with this, and I was living in Austin, and Austin is often compared to Chattanooga. A lot of people say Chattanooga has a similar vibe as Austin, that there’s similarities, but there’s some ways in which Chattanooga and Austin are kind of mirror opposites. And one way is, Chattanooga as of 2017 or 18 was listed as the most church city in the United States. Austin is historically the exact opposite. It’s typically the largest metropolitan area, most unchurched largest metropolitan area. So it’s at the exact opposite end of that list. And what’s interesting about that is there’s a very large social entrepreneurship community in Austin. And as social entrepreneurship got on my radar, I thought, okay, here’s my topic.

Social entrepreneurship seems like it’s kind of the mirror opposite of corporate strategy. Corporate strategy is all about big companies and profits, and social entrepreneurship seemed to be about solving the world’s biggest problems, helping the poor, addressing environmental issues, businesses that have very strong, explicit social missions. And so I thought at the time, that’s going to be my topic. That seems to be a clearly kingdom building topic.

But what’s interesting is, as I began to study social entrepreneurs, and many of the social entrepreneurs in Austin were Christian, which was kind of unusual. That even more clued me into thinking, this is my topic, as a Christian professor, this is the topic I should be studying. But what’s interesting is, as I studied social entrepreneurship, and I studied why Christians became social entrepreneurs and how they connected their faith and entrepreneurship, what I found is that I had sort of been putting social entrepreneurs on a spiritual high ground relative to other forms of entrepreneurship.

I had been treating it as if there’s kind of a pyramid of entrepreneurship, and the social entrepreneurs are closer to God in some way, or because they have a social mission, they’re more kingdom building than regular entrepreneurs. And what’s interesting is I found from the entrepreneurs that I talk to that that’s not the case. And so one of the main things I’ll be talking about in my limited time is how all of entrepreneurship, while social entrepreneurship was a very good thing, it’s something I’m very passionate about, all of entrepreneurship can be redeeming and community revitalizing and kingdom building.

So I’m kind of getting to the end of my story. But as I said, I did a big study of social entrepreneurs because I was fascinated by them, and still I did in depth interviews with about 50 Christian social entrepreneurs. And I found that typically when they united their faith and their entrepreneurship, they went through five stages in doing that. And those stages very much matched a lot of what I was experiencing.

So first they exhibited a desire to integrate their faith with their work, or to integrate their faith in their entrepreneurship. Then they experienced disenchantment with their current work. They felt like their current job, oftentimes it was a corporate job, they called it a cubicle job. They felt like that wasn’t allowing them to integrate their faith in their work. Then they had an epiphany, and the epiphany typically revolved around finding social entrepreneurship. And they said that, once I realized there was this thing called social entrepreneurship, that seemed to be the answer to what I was searching for. Then they started to bridge those two worlds through social entrepreneurship. They started to unite their faith and their entrepreneurship, but then they hit this fifth stage, which I think was the most interesting, which I, for lack of a better term, called the enlightenment phase.

And in that enlightenment phase, they would tell me, and this was typically a social entrepreneur who had been a social entrepreneur for a while, that they had gotten to the point where they felt like they could drop the social; that they didn’t know if the social in social entrepreneurship was particularly useful. That creating this distinction between regular entrepreneurs that are just creating businesses and social entrepreneurs wasn’t particularly helpful, and it wasn’t necessarily needed in order to bridge faith and work. And so that to me was kind of eye-opening, and it very much influenced what I then started to research, and it influenced my interests from that.

So since that study and some others that I’ve done, probably my last 10 to 15 studies that I’ve done are on entrepreneurial ecosystems. So not explicitly focused on social entrepreneurship, but focused on how do cities and regions improve their entrepreneurial spirit, improve their entrepreneurial communities in order to engage in economic development.

I’m from Northeast Ohio, from the Youngstown area. Youngstown is the epicenter of the rust belt. It still is a very struggling economic climate. Most people, when they think of the rust belt, they think of Detroit. What I typically like to say is, Detroit is further along than many of the rust belt cities in Northeast Ohio because there’s a lot of people who think it’s kind of sexy to move their business to Detroit, to help revitalize Detroit. Or if you’re a VC, I’m going to set up a small office in Detroit. That’s kind of a cool thing to do. No one’s moving to Youngstown to set up their startup, typically. No one’s moving to Warren, or Lordstown just lost a big General Motors plant. So I’m particularly passionate about how our regular entrepreneurs who are creating coffee shops, restaurants, other small businesses, they may not have an explicit social mission, so it’s not necessarily a coffee shop that explicitly works with the homeless or that hires refugees.

While those are very worthy things of social entrepreneurship, these are just regular businesses. How did those operate to help to revitalize communities that are really in despair, that are broken communities? The communities that I typically look at in Northeast Ohio have opioid overdose rates that are 30 to 40 times what the national average is. Their unemployment is probably five to 10 times the national average. Poverty rates are much higher than the national average. So how are these cities, through entrepreneurship and through encouraging entrepreneurship, through encouraging people to create just regular businesses, helping to mend these broken places?

I’ll go into more depth about that, probably in the round table portion or the panel portion, but what summarizes my approach to this, I think it’s not just me, was a statement that a couple of missionaries made when they visited. So I go to Mountain Fellowship, which is on Signal Mountain, that’s PCA Church, and we had a couple of missionaries visit a few weeks ago, and one of them, they’re actually Business As Mission missionaries. So they’re missionaries who are going to go to another country, create a business, they’re going to create a coffee shop, very much like Camp House or Caden’s Coffee, and they’re going to be missions through that coffee shop. But one of them said that they realized that missionary work, when you boil it down to its core, is ordinary people doing ordinary things with gospel intentionality.

And when I heard that, I thought, well, A, I’m going to steal it. I’m going to use it in a talk and probably have papers and things like that, but B, I’m going to change it a little bit for entrepreneurship. So I’m going to say that entrepreneurs who get that they can unite their faith and entrepreneurship, I think what they ultimately realize is that they’re ordinary people doing entrepreneurial things with gospel intentionality. So it’s very similar to what the missionary said.

The other thing I’ll say is that there is a distinction between productive and unproductive entrepreneurship. So always want to bring that to people’s minds, that there’s people like me who are entrepreneurship professors who, kind of a rah-rah about entrepreneurship, and we want to qualify, that’s entrepreneurship that’s creating value for society. And that’s why we get excited about entrepreneurship because it’s people who are finding innovative means to create value for society. If you’re a J. R. R. Tolkien fan, he talks a lot in his writings about how when we engage in acts to redeem broken things in the world, we act as sub creators, and so entrepreneurs are a form of sub-creator and what they’re creating is businesses.

Laura: Jose Alfaro is the director of growth at Co-Starters, where he works to build strong and sustainable business models. He’s an experienced operations director who has successfully scaled organizations in the community development and hospitality industries.

Jose: Thank you Stu and the Chalmers Center for having me here. Something that Dr. Phil said, I do want to share. I was born again in 2009, my family grew up Catholic and I kind of just went different ways in college. And when I found the Lord, I’ve always had this niche that my work was my calling. And every single time I went to church or went to a Bible study or met with a pastor, for some reason there were three distinctions. Your work, your family, and your church. And for me, I was like, why? That’s not what scripture says.

There’s a lot of other reasons why that’s done. But I thought about that because that’s kind of been my passion, is why do people think business is bad? There are evil people maybe, or they have evil intentions, greedy, their greed, they’re insecure, they want to see success at any expense. But business at its core and its philosophy is solving people’s problems. That’s at the core of what it does. And so as I share this with you, I want you to think it from that framework, is business as solving people’s problems.

So I want to talk a bit about, my role is going to be more talking about instead of what I think, but more what Co-Starters does. Co-Starters is not a forward facing Christian or faith based organization. We are a for profit organization that supports entrepreneurs. And what we do is that we work in the intersection of economic development and community development. So what does that mean? Well, we work with cities, organizations, different economic development organizations or community development organizations to really provide them with the best tools, proven resources, and supports for them to support those entrepreneurs in their community. I and my team believe that we can not support entrepreneurs miles and miles away. It has to be that local community that supports those entrepreneurs.

So how do we do that? We go into a city and some cities like, Hey, our downtown is deprived. We have no local entrepreneurs. We need help. And so we go into the city and we say, okay, what can we do for you? How can we support you? And we have tools and we hav these ways to support entrepreneurs, what we call being unstuck. There’s a big piece to this, is that we train organizations on how to support the entrepreneurs, but it’s connecting the ecosystem. And a lot of issues in these cities and municipalities are that they’re all fragmented. There’s a lot of organizations out there that work to do the same work. And what I mean by that is that you have traditional economic development, SBA, SBDC, the Chamber, which do great work, but are against incubators and accelerators and other community foundations or CDFIs. And what we are closer to trying to do is saying, Hey, these individuals who want to start businesses don’t really care what you think. They need help.

And there’s a real reason that I bring that up. There’s a real reason why I bring that up right now. Because the entrepreneur who wants to start a business, they actually have real life issues. They’re a mother, they’re a father, or single mother at times or a single father, they just lost their job. They’re not happy at what they do. They’re not connecting their faith through their work. They’re working in a cubicle, or they really have a passion to solve somebody’s problem.

So instead of talking to you about the philosophy of why Co-Starters works and why we do good work and why the church should be involved and the intersection of the church community in economic development, I’m going to share with you three stories, three distinct stories. One from a community, one from an individual entrepreneur, and one from an actual municipality. And how using entrepreneurship transformed these individuals’ lives.

The first one is a community out in Nashville called Corner to Corner. Will [Akov 00:24:07] is a man of faith. He loves God with all his heart. I’ve never met anybody so passionate about God and people, and he uses entrepreneurship as a way to support marginalized communities. Will Akov and his organization support a hundred entrepreneurs a year. It’s amazing. 100 entrepreneurs in an area that has been forgotten, an area that there’s no really economic vitality, but he believes that these individuals need hope, and he believes that he can bring the gospel to them through entrepreneurship.

So as we were talking, he was telling me, Hey, I’ve kind of hacked your Train the Trainer model and I’ve done it a little bit different, but I think you’re going to love it. And I was like, what did you do? I was really scared. I’m like, what did you do? What’s going to happen here? But he created a discipleship model within the Train the Trainer. So the way that it works, Co-Starters has facilitators like Stu is, and we facilitate the process for entrepreneurs. So Will Akov at Corner to Corner support 100 other entrepreneurs. Well, he takes a few of those entrepreneurs that went through the course that year, have them to start their businesses, and in the following year they become facilitators. But there’s something interesting, is that these facilitators ask him why Will Akov does what he does? And he says, because God mandated me to do that.

And there’s a whole… we can talk more about it later, and these individuals start crying. He’s telling me story after story how these individuals start crying. I thought God had left me. I thought God wasn’t here. I thought, God, they didn’t love me. I can’t believe God still believes in me. And he’s given them hope, by the way, that they can also support other entrepreneurs through discipleship, through Train the Trainer model. And what ends up happening, what he told me is that the new entrepreneurs come in, the facilitators that have been trained and have gone through the program, they have this bond and this connection, and they become lifelong friends, not only in business but in the world and just in life, and they can do life together. That’s one way that intersecting culture, the entrepreneurship culture and the faith based culture can really just change and transform people’s lives. Just one event at a time.

Then I want to talk to you about an individual. I’m going to protect his name just in case anybody may know him here, but he’s from Birmingham and this individual has been always incarcerated since he was a young kid. Can never get a break. There’s a community in Birmingham called Create Birmingham, again, that does the same work that Corner to Corner does. Helps these entrepreneurs find a way and help them in business through our tools and our programs. One day he decided to go to this organization and he… well, let me back up. He went to his church and asked them if they could help him find a job, and the church pushed him away because he wasn’t a member.

Just think about that. The church said, well, we don’t have money for you, but the church had a program that could provide him a job. So he left the church, and he prayed, and he found this community, this organization called Create Birmingham. He went through the program and he went to learn how to become a physical therapist. He went through the program again, because the first business that he tried failed. And he went through the program again. And what he did is that he said, I don’t want anybody to feel hopeless. So he took what he learned and he’s now teaching other individuals not only to do physical therapy but to open a franchise of his business model. So he’s allowing others to become business owners. That story right there is transformational, right? And then he comes back and says, but I’m doing it because I’m creating disciples. And he talks to them about God. Even though the church left him, he still believes in God, and now he’s teaching others about the work that he does.

The last story that I want to talk to you about is a city, Wheeling, West Virginia; a city like Jones, very desolate, very impoverished. It was a Mecca for steel, but as we all know that the industrial age is gone, people are saying the industrial age is leaving, and I was like, the industrial age has gone. We are moving into what we’re calling a connected age. So these areas where there was a lot of manufacturing jobs, these individuals in these cities are actually having a really culture shock and identity shock, because they don’t know what to do without a job. All they’ve been known is, I just need this job. My grandpa worked at that factory. My dad worked at that factory. I used to work at that factory. What do you mean I need to start my own business? I don’t need to start a business. I just need you to provide me a job.

And so then these chambers and economic development organizations say, yeah, yeah, yeah, we’re going to give tax breaks to these big corporations to come and provide jobs. But here’s the problem with that. A year that that organization doesn’t make money, they’re out, and we’re back out in the same cycle. So we’re not only having to transform the community of that city, but we’re trying to have to transform people’s minds, because they think entrepreneurship is bad. They think only greedy men, greedy white men can be entrepreneurs.

So Wheeling, [inaudible 00:29:56] Co-Starters, we transform people’s mentality around entrepreneurship. They had now, actually for three years now, they’ve supported over 50 businesses. Their whole main street has been revitalized and there’s local businesses, a barber shop, a cake shop, a restaurant, a coffee shop, and the city is proud. And Wheeling, West Virginia, you know, where they’re not making that much money. They’re saying, no, we’re going to be committed to our city. We’re going to be committed to our town and we’re going to buy local. We’re going to support our entrepreneurs. That’s what entrepreneurship can do. It transforms people. It transforms cities, and it transforms the thought process of what the thought process of entrepreneurship is.

So I want to leave you with one last thing. This is the work that I’ve been trying to do at Co-Starters, is thinking through entrepreneurs. And my faith. Entrepreneurs are lonely. The job of an entrepreneur is brutal. Entrepreneurs have the highest rate of divorce, the highest rate of suicide. These entrepreneurs put everything they have, their money, their time, their family, into this venture. But here’s what I think is interesting. The church, church leaders, faith-based business leaders, the entire church community has the tools, the resources, and the mandate to support these individuals. At the end of every micro business or small business, there’s always an individual at the end of that, that God loves, and we are mandated to love them.

Laura: Discover a Biblical framework for helping people in poverty through our new online course, Helping Without Hurting: The Basics. You will learn how to walk with the poor in humble relationships, instead of providing temporary handouts. Learn more at


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Laura Haley

Laura Haley

Laura formerly served as the social media manager and designer at the Chalmers Center. She enjoys serving weekly at her local community kitchen and has a desire to see the church build relationships with disenfranchised people. Laura lives in Chattanooga, TN with her husband Tim.


  1. Channing Stowell on March 4, 2020 at 8:15 pm

    aI am very moved by the work and output from the Chalmers Center. I would love to find a way to support these efforts. I am am MIT educated “Applied Data Scientists with 50 years experience in applying data, technology, analytics, market research, to building businesses across virually every business sector.

    Is there anyone I should contact? This has been on my heart since our Bible Study ftst went through “When Helping Hurts” and I devoured three more of your books. I have been praying for guidance as to how God wants me to apply my experience to building His Economy, unifying the Christian Community around Church, family, work as you describe in this moving article.

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