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Apr 4, 2018

Entrepreneur Believes National Scale Can Inhibit Social Impact: Q&A with Amber Runyon, Eleventh Candle Company

Amber Runyon founded Eleventh Candle Company in 2015 as a for-profit spin-off of her nonprofit, Legacy. Eleventh Candle Co. is a social enterprise whose social impact is to redeem, restore, empower, and equip those vulnerable to human trafficking, abuse, exploitation, and addiction. Working in tandem, the social enterprise provides the jobs and the funding for the rehabilitation support provided by the nonprofit.

Amber caught the bug of social impact while serving on a medical team in Ethiopia and observing the pervasive poverty there. She launched Legacy to provide help in Ethiopia but since 2015 has added a strong local focus on victims of human trafficking. Eleventh Candle Co sells a variety of scented candles manufactured by local victims of human trafficking. With annual sales nearing half a million dollars, she uses her revenues to provide employment, support, and training to women recovering from trafficking.

We talked with Amber to learn more about what drives her to create impact through business. A version of this interview first appeared in Columbus Business First in March 2018.

What is the relationship between for-profit Eleventh Candle and the nonprofit Legacy?
I started with $250 and worked without a salary for 18 months running Legacy, which owned the social enterprise candle company. I split Eleventh Candle into a separate for-profit because of the red tape of operating a business as a nonprofit and to help investors see Eleventh Candle as an investment that will return their money. Now I can use the for-profit to provide jobs and to channel its profits to Legacy to address poverty in Ethiopia and to provide trauma therapy and lifestyle training in Central Ohio for women victimized by human trafficking.

Why are you committed to employing only ten women at a time?
I sell hope for survivors of human trafficking, exploitation, and addiction. We believe healing happens only in small groups. That is why we will never employ more than ten women at a time and why we can never be a mass manufacturer of candles and still create meaningful social impact. Because of our approach, women come to us, often by referral from our employees. Our goal is to provide them a therapeutic working experience so they can move on to jobs with conventional employers.

How do you know your small scale approach is effective?
Anyone can see the transformation in our employees. Their faces change from an image of despair to one of hope. They become physically healthier and go from undernourished to nourished. The best indication of our success is that an outsider is not able to tell who is the program participant and who is the CEO.

You have a home-based sales system you believe heightens your social impact. Tell me about this.
We call our salesforce an Ambassador Program. We have people who go into homes to talk about human trafficking and then sell candles. The story comes first: we say when you purchase a candle, you’re changing lives—the once trafficked woman in Ohio is employed, a village in Ethiopia is supported, and orphaned children are welcomed into homes. This connection creates our sales. It could not happen if we were on a shelf at a store. It is a hard way to start but we now have Ambassadors selling Eleventh Candle products in 14 states and have grown our annual sales to over $400,000.

You said starting was hard. What would have made it easier?
Having a mentor right from the concept stage. Only a mentor can help a social entrepreneur know what they don’t know. But many of us don’t know to seek out a mentor. It would be helpful to showcase how mentorship works. I am a nurse; I didn’t know business or investment. We seem reluctant to seek capital often because we are ignorant of the options. We need advice and help on how to go about seeking capital. We need context and the basics of what options are available and how to compare them.

What improvement would you most like to see in the local social enterprise ecosystem?
I would like to see more community and less competition. We are all young companies and we have been drilled to see others as competitors. When social impact is the purpose of our businesses, we become collaborators in building the community. Any purchase from any social enterprise makes Columbus stronger. We need to stop worrying about scarcity and instead celebrate the abundance Columbus has to offer. When a social entrepreneur is invited to an event, call other social entrepreneurs to attend as well. If we all can overcome our fears and start pulling together, we will all be stronger. That is the potential social enterprise has over conventional business.

Learn more about Eleventh Candle Company’s social impact, plus learn about and shop 100+ social enterprises throughout Central Ohio on SocialVentures’ online Marketplace.