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Turning boundaries into bridges

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By Elizabeth Clark

Onstage in Minneapolis, a designer costume draws rave reviews; offstage, its rental helps support community theater.

In El Paso, Diseńos Mayapán, a garment-manufacturing facility operated by El Puente Community Development, employs low-income immigrants to make medical scrubs for health-care workers.

And on O’ahu, Hawaii, youth of the Wai`anae community manage an organic farm offering affordable produce to low-income residents.

The concept of nonprofits reaping profits may seem anomalous, but a three-year program at Yale University reinforced Cynthia W. Massarsky’s theory that what works for business can work for organizations dependent on grants and gifts.

Massarsky, president of SocialReturns Inc., is founder and former co-director of Yale University’s Partnership on Nonprofit Ventures, a three-year collaboration that offered the National Business Plan Competition for Nonprofit Organizations.

Award-winners included such projects as the Minneapolis costume rentals, the El Paso garment manufacturer, and the youth-managed farm on O’ahu .

Massarsky founded SocialReturns in November 2005, building on Yale’s success and transforming the national competition into a global one.

She’s also developing a university consortium to research and help nonprofits.

Massarsky invites sponsors to support the competition, which offers cash and consulting awards.

A nonprofit itself, SocialReturns is dedicated to educating people about social enterprise and entrepreneurship and helping “innovative nonprofit, philanthropic, and private sector organizations build their entrepreneurial skills and use them to affect positive and lasting social change.”

With 30 years of experience in revenue generation for nonprofits, Massarsky seems a natural leader for the social-enterprise movement.

Cynthia W. Massarsky

Job: President, SocialReturns Inc.

Education: B.A., early childhood development and child psychology, Simmons College, Boston, 1976; MBA, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, 1981.

Born: 1952, Brookline, Mass; reared in Newton, Mass.

Family: husband, Barry Massarsky; son, Benjamin, 20; daughter, Jill, 15.

Hobbies: Community theater.

Favorite musical: A Chorus Line.

Favorite movies: The Big Chill, Forrest Gump.

Favorite book: “The Little Engine That Could.”

Inspiration: Maternal grandmother, Pearl Gertrude “Gertie” Rotman. “She was a real go-getter, a fascinating woman who saw something that needed to be done and she’d figure out how to do it.”

She’s accustomed to moving between the business world and nonprofits, and putting business-school terminology to work in new settings.

Social enterprise, she says, is “business with a social purpose.”

Reflecting on her life and career, Massarsky sees themes that continue to inspire.

A working mother “from the beginning,” she has a portfolio of ideas that includes projects inspired by necessity.

“I’ve done a lot in the early childhood area,” she says, including starting an after-school program for older kids in Massachusetts, running a day-care at Harvard Business School, and working for the Ms. Foundation.

“Throughout everything I’ve done there’s this theme of innovation and entrepreneurship, working outside the box, doing something that’s new and challenging, and trying not to get frustrated,” she says. “There’s also the theme of the link between the for-profit world and the nonprofit world, and where there’s common ground, there’s also quite a blurring of the sectors that’s going on these days.”

Growing up in Newton, Mass., she observed her college-educated parents, Harriet and Ronald Wilson, multi-tasking as they raised their children and supported Ronald’s family’s scrap-metal business.

“My dad, in his business, had to wear a number of hats, from invoicing to driving the truck to delivering the scrap metal,” Massarsky says. “And, he was head of his trade association.”

She says her mother also handled multiple tasks.

“So I have the business and entrepreneurial genes,” Massarsky says. “I know how to do something with a little bit of a different twist, how to create something, grow it, build it, add something to it.”

Massarsky, who says she doesn’t like to be placed into a category – or a cubicle – enjoys helping build bridges “from faculty to students, and from nonprofits to people in the business world who realize they don’t operate in a vacuum.”

Led by Massarsky, SocialReturns aims to become an agency of change, transforming social and economic boundaries into much-needed bridges.

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