America runs on guys like Ed: Tracing a path fueled by social conscience and coffee
Ed Frechette, the Shea Center for Entrepreneurship's first Social Entrepreneur-in-Residence, has always loved the “exercise of wrestling with ideas.” But it wasn’t until recently that he began channeling his energy toward social impact.
For the better part of 25 years, the ad guy-turned-social entrepreneur was busy building a brilliant career. He spent his formative years at Chicago’s most legendary advertising agencies, heading back east seven years later for the perks of going client-side at Dunkin’ Donuts (free coffee and donuts among them).
Frechette served as Dunkin’s marketing director for 17 years before taking a senior marketing role at Au Bon Pain, trading caffeine and confections for soup and sandwiches. “As I got older, Au Bon Pain was more my speed—higher quality and a bit more healthy—so it was an easy transition to move there,” he said.
Heeding the signs
The fast track in fast food wouldn’t last, however. A pivotal turning point came while Frechette was at Dunkin’ Donuts. Serving on the board of directors for Homestart, an organization that finds permanent housing for Boston’s homeless, he began to feel the pull of public service. And it stuck with him even after the switch to the fast-casual café chain. “The opportunity to impact this population became more rewarding than the opportunity to sell more sandwiches or soup.”
That’s when Frechette made the decision to go back to school to earn his Master’s in Public Administration and “learn more about nonprofits and societal needs.”
As a grad student, he focused on issues like domestic poverty, economic inequality, racial injustice “and the root causes for all. My goal was to determine where I could help an underserved population gain options or opportunities to enable them to move ahead.”
Frechette cites his mother as a significant influence in the new direction his life took. “As we were growing up, my mom volunteered in the community—PTA, Boy Scouts, et cetera—and we would host kids for several summers either from inner-city programs such as Fresh Air—or international students,” he said. “Later on, she served on several boards ranging from local banks to Public Service of New Hampshire and was the first woman trustee at Dartmouth College. As I got older, I really came to appreciate her commitment to serving others.”
Answering the call to serve
Despite working for “just five companies in my entire career” and serving in traditional roles, Frechette’s decision to leave the corporate world to work for a nonprofit “really didn’t feel that extraordinary of a change at the time.”
But for the Keene, New Hampshire, native with the “conventional career path,” it was anything but ordinary. In 2013, right after finishing his MPA at the Harvard Kennedy School, he landed at UTEC, a youth services organization that helps young adults with a history of gang or court involvement, where he “could apply my learnings from the corporate world to their emerging social enterprises.”
Four years later, Frechette’s work at the Lowell, Massachusetts-based nonprofit is taking root. Using steady employment as a success metric, they’re seeing a rise in the number of young adults who stay in their jobs versus “leaving jobs they don’t like after six months.” They call it a win when “our young adults are not unemployed for more than 45 days in their first year, and they have no more than three jobs,” he said.
Working with companies like Whole Foods Market and Keiver-Willard, a lumber yard in Newburyport, Massachusetts, UTEC also offers internship programs that have led to long-term employment. And the successes don’t end there.
“I helped start three social enterprises at UTEC, where our target population can gain real-world work experience in a safe and forgiving environment,” Frechette said.
“We have a mattress recycling business, a wood shop, and a culinary program, that includes a café, a catering program and a commercial kitchen.”
In other words, he has achieved his grad school goal of helping an underserved population move ahead. What’s more, based on all the positive momentum that UTEC is experiencing, Frechette says they hope to open a teaching and learning center in Lowell to educate “other groups or cities interested in doing something similar.”
Blazing trails as a social entrepreneur
Frechette admits the life of an entrepreneur can be all-consuming; the life of a social entrepreneur even more so.
“Interestingly, my wife observed that I worked longer hours and harder at UTEC than I had worked in any of my prior jobs,” he said. “It can be all-consuming, because there are so many facets to the work, there isn’t a road map to follow, and there are relatively few assets you can call on for support.
“At the same time, it is addictively fun and challenging. You have to force yourself to put things down and take a break.”
Today, as the Shea Center's first social entrepreneur-in-residence, Frechette is applying what he’s learned at UTEC to help BC students address societal needs. It’s a reciprocal learning process that he finds both exhilarating and humbling.
“I enjoy learning about new things, and this is an amazing opportunity to get exposure to all kinds of ideas, approaches, and people,” he said. “Along the way, I hope I can add some value for the BC students.”
Frechette calls the sense of energy and passion at the Shea Center “contagious.” “The students are so engaged and smart,” he said. “I think back on where I was when I was in college, and I am in awe of their maturity and poise.”
As for students interested in becoming social entrepreneurs, he has this simple advice: “Do your homework and try to approach the work as objectively as possible. What problem are you solving and what makes your solution unique or valuable?"
Asked what the future of social entrepreneurship looks like, he answers with a mix of enthusiasm and pragmatism: “The sky is the limit! Clearly, as long as there are issues of imbalance or inequality, people will look for ways to overcome them.
“Many of these will emerge through nonprofit organizations,” he said, “but I am guessing more and more for-profit businesses will have a social responsibility component to what they do, and they will be looking for ways to generate meaningful impact.”
For Ed Frechette and the budding BC social entrepreneurs who work with him, that points to a future full of opportunities to wrestle with ideas.