Revising Social Impact Spurred A Decade of Growth
Pearl Interactive Network operates, staffs, or manages call centers for Federal agencies and prime contractors. It gives hiring priority to skilled and talented disabled veterans, veterans, military spouses, and the disabled. When Merry Korn founded Pearl Interactive network in 2004 as a for-profit social enterprise, the concept of basing a for-profit business on the creation of social impact was totally new in Central Ohio. As a pioneer, she built her business without the extensive ecosystem of accelerators, mentors, training, and investors that have emerged in the past few years. Despite this lack of local awareness, she has built Pearl Interactive Network into an $11.7 million business employing over 400 people located in 21 states.
With her success she is now raising $5 million of capital to extend her call center services to coordinate health and homecare support services in rural and underserved areas.
We sat down with Merry Korn to talk about what drew her into forming a large and successful social enterprise. A version of this interview first appeared in Columbus Business First.
What led you to focus on employing disabled veterans for call center work?
It came in two steps. Early on I found that my most productive and reliable employee was a quadriplegic. I started asking for referrals to disabled workers in need of a job. I soon learned that a major client wasn’t drawn by a focus on disabled folks, but was drawn by a focus on military veterans. I combined the two concepts and went to the Federal government and won a contract to employ disabled veterans. The Ohio Rehabilitation Services Commission contacted me that, if I developed a business plan for a call center employing disabled individuals, they would fund the equipment and a rehabilitation engineer to develop assistive technologies. From there on we revised our social impact to focus on call center services for federal agencies and prime contractors who had hiring preferences for our employee profile.
Describe the social impact you are making and how you know you are making a difference?
We provide access to jobs for a national workforce niche that has multiple challenges. Since inception we have given hiring priority to skilled and talented disabled veterans, veterans, military spouses, people with disabilities, and people living in geographically challenged areas. We have developed an expertise in how to find our niche workforce and how to manage them. Sixty-five percent of our home-based workforce comes from this niche. We make a difference by creating accessible employment that is long term and provides career pathways, competitive salaries, benefits, and training.
You are moving to an new expansion phase. Tell us about it.
We are planning to beta launch an initiative to provide supportive care and telehealth remote monitoring services. Coordinated through our call center structure, 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.
How has the social enterprise landscape changed since you launched in 2004?
There was no one else in for profit social enterprise in Central Ohio in 2004. The nonprofits which had earned revenue weren’t yet using the term. There were no investors to be found and absolutely no training. SocialVentures’ annual Positioned to Prosper event is a game changer in creating a sense of a social enterprise community. Now there is excitement and a flourishing social enterprise ecosystem. Social enterprises are popping up everywhere.
What are the most critical needs if Central Ohio is to attract successful social entrepreneurs?
The most important is to have strategic partners who believe in social impact and who have wealth and skills they are willing to channel to social entrepreneurs. We also need to have structured funding and systematic ways for entrepreneurs to get in front of investors. It is not enough to involve only the foundation community in funding social entrepreneurs. That is why I was so encouraged by the launch of Social Ventures Fund last summer.
Your focus on helping disabled individuals reach their potential has led you to a special effort on behalf of local entrepreneur Zachary Lawrence who was severely injured in a car accident in March 2017. What are you trying to do?
It is about doing the right thing. Zach is severely cognitively disabled and has been relegated to only custodial care. Cognitive rehabilitation requires regular stimulation. I am working with folks at Rev1 Ventures, Zach’s former employer, to set up a software program that will schedule Zach’s supporters to come to visit, read, play music to get him the stimulation the healthcare system is not currently providing.