Doing The Laundry For Social Good

Originally published on May 25, 2014 11:51 am
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What if you could fix an entrenched social problem and make money while doing it? That's the idea behind a new business that takes a for-profit approach to the nonprofit model. As Zack Seward reports for member station WHYY, one company that combines bikes and laundry will soon try out its model in the nation's capital.

ZACK SEWARD, BYLINE: It looks like any old laundromat in a center city neighborhood, but there's a steady stream of bicycles pulling up onto the sidewalk. Thing is, these bikes are pulling bed-sized trailers with trash cans full of bagged laundry.

JASON JENIGAN: It is hard. Some of them are bigger than others. But it's fun.

SEWARD: Jason Jenigen is ratcheting down a fresh load of sheets and towels. He works for Wash Cycle Laundry, a three-and-a-half-year-old social enterprise that picks up dirty laundry and delivers it clean the next day, all by bike. Founder and CEO Gabriel Mandujano says the company started with individual customers and has worked its way up to small businesses and even a 200-bed veterans medical center.

GABRIEL MANDUJANO: There's a lot of laundry in the world. Everybody thinks about their clothing, but the reality is any time you go to a hotel, hospital, restaurant, gym or spa, or any salon, there's a lot of laundry that goes into that.

SEWARD: There's also a lot that goes into the Wash Cycle business model - doing everything by bike means fewer polluting delivery vans on the road. Partnering with laundromats at off-peak times means an interesting approach to the sharing economy.

But the real social good Wash Cycle delivers is employing welfare-to-work candidates and ex-offenders out of the city's workforce development system. It all adds up to enough revenue and enough investment to bring the concept to another market. Sheila Williams is up from Washington learning how to be a laundry team leader.

SHEILA WILLIAMS: I don't care whether it's folding towels or not, you know, just having the opportunity to be successful, be able to provide for your family, and to be able to at least take care of some basic needs.

SEWARD: Philadelphia is steadily building support structure around the idea of do-gooding startups. Jacob Gray, who leads the Wharton Social Impact Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania's Business School, says the city is firmly in the top tier for activity around social entrepreneurs.

JACOB GRAY: Those groups have always looked for places where you can get, like, cheap rent and have a community. And there's an established community here. So you come here as a social entrepreneur, you're not alone.

SEWARD: There are investors and respected accelerator programs. Even city government is getting in on the act.

Wash Cycle rolled out one of its brand new heavy-duty tricycles for an official sendoff at City Hall. Starting today, a team of eight workers will take turns pedaling the trike truck all the way to D.C. to set up shop in Washington. In Philadelphia, I'm Zack Seward for NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.