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Jun 27, 2019

Pearl in the Rough:
Social enterprise launches 24/7 video health-care conferencing for at-risk rural populations

When we talked with founder Merry Korn last year, she was planning a beta launch of a new rural healthcare business, Pearl TLC (Tele Life Care), a remote monitoring service providing 24/7 access to healthcare via video conferencing with nurse case managers and support care coordinators. It’s seen as a way to provide access to care to all populations in the face of healthcare workforce shortages and rising costs.

We talked with Merry again recently to learn more about how the business will enable Pearl to expand its social impact.

What inspired you to expand with Pearl TLC? People in rural areas lack access to both healthcare and jobs. We see telehealth as an emerging technology that can be transformative in the way remote call-center technology was when we started Pearl 15 years ago.

We believe it will solve three issues. It will provide additional call-center jobs to those too often considered unemployable. It will deliver healthcare to remote and rural locations where services are sparse. And it will create rural jobs in needed local supportive services such as nurses, social workers, meals, physical therapy and transportation.

It will deepen our social mission of creating quality jobs for disadvantaged individuals while at the same time enabling older adults to remain independent and at home.

What criteria do you use in assessing the success of your business and how will TLC change that? The first is profitability. The stronger the bottom line, the more people we can support. Second, we exist to hire people with barriers to employment. This was easiest when we had only virtual call centers. Now, with 85 percent of our centers in fixed locations, we make sure our first job offers go to people in our target populations: disabled veterans, veterans, military spouses, people with disabilities, Native Americans, and people on welfare.

The actual share of employees from these groups depends on the demographics of the location of the call center. Pearl TLC will allow us to raise the proportion of employees from our target populations because TLC will go into the most geographically challenged areas which by definition have a higher proportion of economically challenged individuals.

Some social enterprises find social impact is the frosting, not the cake, of their customer appeal—is it different for Pearl? I found that leading with our social impact mission is a game changer. In our legacy business, which is government project management and contact center staffing, our hiring priority of a workforce with challenges to work sets us apart in a highly competitive industry.

Our advantage is that we know how to find a qualified workforce among our targeted populations. Our telehealth launch is compelling to federal and state government buyers because we are marrying a deeper social mission of creating access to healthcare while also creating jobs.

What new stories do you hope to tell with this new line of business? Our beta launch is in an area that lost 500 jobs because a local coal company closed. We look forward to having a case study about the impact on healthcare outcomes, reduced emergency room admissions, and the jobs we created by retraining unemployed individuals to be caregivers and call center employees. We soon will have 1,100 employees and $37 million in sales while maintaining profitability and our social mission.

What is the greatest lesson you have learned in making your business a success? Social impact is good business. That coupled with establishing a culture of caring sets us apart in a crowded and competitive market. Our social impact resonates, especially with the federal and state government. Our culture of caring creates an environment where our employees want to stay because they are engaged. Happy employees results in quality outcomes for our customers.

What advice would you give other social entrepreneurs? Stay focused on your profits. The stronger your business model, the stronger your profits, the more people you will impact.

Allen J. Proctor is CEO of SocialVentures. Learn about other central Ohio social enterprises at socialventurescbus.com/marketplace.