#ASAE19 Game Changers: Leading With Purpose

Columbus-based food entrepreneurs Jeni Britton Bauer and Joe DeLoss have succeeded thanks to innovation—and by bringing a diverse group of people along for the ride.

Successful organizations thrive on their ability to come up with new ideas. But a challenge accompanies that familiar change-or-die ethos: How do you innovate without alienating the people you’re serving? And how do you make a changing environment inclusive to everybody on your team?

Jeni Britton Bauer learned how to address those questions from the end of an ice cream scoop. Bauer, the founder of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams in Columbus, Ohio, spent the early part of her career in the mid-90s earning accolades for her innovative and flavorful conconctions. Patrons weren’t sure what she’d be selling next at her shop, which was a blessing and a curse.

We created the company we wanted to work at every day.

“When I opened Jeni’s in 2002, I realized that I had to look back and remember what my most popular flavors were, the ones that were most requested by customers, and I had to have those all the time and never run out of them,” says Bauer, a Game Changer at the ASAE Annual Meeting & Exposition in Columbus next month. “I tried to build a reputation on those flavors. And then I added the fun ones that you can taste when you’re here.”

Jeni’s has thrived in the years since its launch, becoming a Columbus institution with 10 shops across the country and a spot in plenty of high-end freezer aisles. But despite the company’s growth, she’s maintained the need for balance, creating space for her own creativity, focusing on the vision and voice of the company when she’s not tinkering with new flavors.

That kind of freedom to think openly, she says, is contagious: “When you are enthusiastic about what you do, and you believe in this vision for the future, people look for that sort of sense of inspiration and belonging.”

Jeni’s has built that inclusiveness into its corporate philosophy, working with organic and fair-trade producers and earning a certification as B Corporation, which maintains high standards for sustainable business practices. “We created the company that we want to work at every day, and that’s the way we wanted to behave,” she says. “We’re actually paying living and fair wages and every city that we’re in. Our leadership team is almost all women.”

A similar sense of purpose defines Hot Chicken Takeover, a popular Columbus restaurant chain that’s been spotlighted for its progressive hiring practices: Nearly 70 percent of its employees are either formerly incarcerated or homeless.

“Most interventions that the community put in place for some really complicated problems were two weeks to two months in length,” says founder Joe DeLoss, who will share the Game Changer stage with Bauer at #ASAE19. “But many people we are engaging with are two to three generations deep in a really bad situation.”

To attract and retain those employees, Hot Chicken Takeover maintains a set of benefits targeted for people trying to find their footing—cash advances, legal and financial coaching, and programs that encourage employees to save for housing, transportation, and education. The expense is offset by a remarkable reduction in churn rates, DeLoss says. “Our regrettable turnover rate is around 40 percent on an annual basis, relative to an industry that’s usually 150-plus percent.”

The appeal of Hot Chicken Takeover’s hiring approach has grabbed headlines in the service industry, but DeLoss says this kind of rethinking of who makes up your team can expand to other industries. “I think it’s 50 percent of adults in the United States have a family member that’s been directly affected by the justice system,” he says. “This is in fact a big part of the American experience right now.”

As fellow Columbus entrepreneurs, Bauer and DeLoss consider their hometown an incubator for this brand of entrepreneurship.

“There are a lot of special places in America right now, but Columbus is a really special place,” says Bauer. “We’re very collaborative in a real way. We have people in every level in the city, in business, in the community, who worked together to make things happen. We all feel a sense of responsibility. We’re inspired by the future of the city, by what we can become.”

Jeni Britton Bauer (left) and Joe DeLoss. (Handout photos)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!