Photograph by Denise GrÙnstein/Gallery Stock

America's Most Promising Social Entrepreneurs 2012

  1. For Profit, for Good

    For Profit, for Good

    Earlier this year, we asked readers to tell us about entrepreneurs building promising businesses that tackle social ills. Over the past few months, we narrowed the more than 300 suggestions we received to 25 for-profit social enterprises. Among our criteria: scope, impact, and the ability to sustain themselves. Read through our picks—then vote for the most promising before July 12 (the voting page is also available at the end of the slideshow). We’ll announce the top five vote-getters on July 19.

    Photograph by Denise GrÙnstein/Gallery Stock
  2. Amethyst Technologies

    Amethyst Technologies

    Baltimore; 25 employees; $1.8 million in 2011 revenue

    Amethyst Technologies helps drugmakers and other health-care businesses in the U.S. and Africa comply with U.S. Food & Drug Administration and international standards. Among its work: assisting the U.S. military in developing malaria diagnostics and vaccines, and setting up labs in remote places such as rural Tanzania. Amethyst is also developing mobile software to help train rural health workers in developing countries. “Everywhere that Amethyst does work we should be benefiting the community,” says founder Kimberly Brown. —JT

  3. Carbon Lighthouse

    Carbon Lighthouse

    San Francisco; 5 employees; $200,000 in 2011 revenue

    Carbon Lighthouse helps offices, factories, and schools cut their energy bills. The company’s engineers collect data on temperatures, air flow, electricity use, and other conditions, then make small tweaks in building operations to increase efficiency. The company targets midsize buildings, between 25,000 and 200,000 square feet, and buys carbon offsets to make clients’ buildings net-zero emitters—a marketing benefit that often outweighs the savings. “It’s not all that sexy to talk about your very clever pump algorithm or what you’re doing with air dampers,” says co-founder Brenden Millstein. “Being net-zero carbon is very cool.” —JT

  4. Frogtek


    New York; 30 employees; $200,000 in 2011 revenue

    Frogtek sells inexpensive mobile software to shopkeepers in Mexico, Colombia, and Spain that connects to their mobile phones and allows them to accept credit-card payments and do inventory management. The company profits by selling data about its software users to food companies and banks. Founder David Del Ser earns a fraction of what his former MBA classmates make, but says his payoff comes in the excitement he sees on new clients’ faces: “I knew mobile phone technology could be put to work to help these small entrepreneurs prosper.” —KK

  5. Green Dot

    Green Dot

    Cottonwood Falls, Kan.; 7 employees; no revenue in 2011

    Green Dot is developing a compostable, biodegradable soft plastic based on cornstarch to replace petroleum-based plastics. The company has shipped nearly 70,000 units of its first product, an iPhone case sold online and through outdoor goods retailer REI, and expects more than $1 million in revenue this year. The cost of the bioplastic, at $4.50 per pound, is competitive with similar materials that aren’t biodegradable. “It doesn’t go in the landfill. It’s toxin-free,” says spokesman Kevin Ireland. “We’re trying to decrease the amount of enduring waste in the environment.” —JT

  6. Harvest Power

    Harvest Power

    Waltham, Mass.; 395 employees; $35 million in 2011 revenue

    Harvest Power processes food scraps, yard trimmings, and other organic materials to extract natural gas and produce fertilizers, mulches, and soils it sells to landscapers, homeowners, and farmers. With 25 facilities, Harvest Power gets paid by municipalities and businesses to repurpose more than 2 million tons of material annually. That’s a fraction of the 500 million tons of recyclable organics produced annually, but it’s a start. “This is a major, major source of renewable energy and most people don’t grasp its potential,” says Chief Executive Officer Paul Sellew. —KK

  7. Healthpoint Services

    Healthpoint Services

    New York; 265 employees; $350,000 in 2011 revenue

    Healthpoint Services sells access to clean water and health-care services to rural villages in India. Patients can consult by video with staff doctors in cities for about 30 cents. Local nurses perform lab tests on site and dispense medicine. “Nobody was willing to go to rural areas” to offer health care, says CEO Amit Jain. Healthpoint reaches half a million people, primarily in India’s Punjab and Andhra Pradesh regions, and Jain expects to expand to Mexico and the Philippines next. —JT

  8. Hub Bay Area

    Hub Bay Area

    San Francisco; 20 employees; $2.5 million in 2011 revenue

    Hub Bay Area supports social entrepreneurs with several businesses: two co-working spaces in the Bay Area; an accelerator program called Hub Ventures; a network of affiliated co-working sites called Hub Cities; and an annual conference. “A lot of the pieces for [the social enterprise] sector are still getting built,” says program manager Evan Steiner. “We’re trying to build the infrastructure for people, ideas, and capital to sit on top of.” —JT

  9. InterSchola


    San Francisco; 10 employees; $3.3 million in 2011 revenue

    InterSchola sells surplus goods for school districts and public agencies on EBay (EBAY), turning unwanted assets into cash. Bidders can buy old food-service equipment, portable buildings, computers, tractors, fire trucks, “you name it,” says founder and president Melissa Rich. InterSchola handles the process from start to finish, determining what will sell, getting approvals from officials, posting descriptions, and ensuring buyers get what they bought. InterSchola takes a cut of about 35 percent; the school or agency gets the rest—about $15 million over the past eight years—“for stuff they were previously paying to have hauled away as trash,” says Rich. —NL

  10. InVenture


    Santa Monica, Calif.; 8 employees; $36,000 in 2011 revenue

    InVenture helps microfinance borrowers track their income and expenses and report the data to lenders through text messages. That helps lenders develop credit scores and manage their risk. Over time, borrowers get better loan terms and will be considered bankable, says founder Shivani Siroya. “To get people out of poverty, what you really need to do is bring them into the formal sector,” she says. Available in India and the U.S., Siroya says it plans to enter Kenya, Tanzania, and Mexico next. —JT

  11. LaborVoices


    Sunnyvale, Calif.; 5 employees; $10,000 in 2011 revenue

    LaborVoices solicits feedback about working conditions from employees via their cellphones, in partnership with local nonprofits. The company markets the information to leading brands in apparel, footwear, toys, and electronics industries and notifies employees who use it about local wages and conditions. “I worked in human rights at the U.S. State Department and knew a lot of workers had mobile phones,” says founder Kohl Gill. “I also talked to a lot of brands who had no visibility into their supply chains, and I wanted to connect these together.” —KK

  12. New Resource Bank

    New Resource Bank

    San Francisco; 32 employees; $8.5 million in 2011 revenue

    Backed by investors like Al Gore’s Generation Investment Management, New Resource Bank focuses its business lending exclusively on ventures with social missions, generally in the $2 million-to-$50 million revenue range. The commercial bank’s goal is to help build a more sustainable economy. “Not a lot of banks know about organic food or alternative energy or solar cells,” says CEO Vince Siciliano. “We know how this works and therefore we have the ability to make loans where some other banks might not want to go.” —NL

  13. Nokero


    Denver; 9 employees; $1.8 million in 2011 revenue

    Nokero founder Steve Katsaros designed his solar-powered light bulb for the 1.3 billion people around the world without access to electricity. The former patent agent has sold more than 400,000 lights and 12,000 cellphone chargers in dozens of developing countries, from shops in Haiti to bakeries in Fiji to door-to-door saleswomen in Uganda. “As an inventor, I’m so thrilled to find a market for this product where it really improves lives and provides a livelihood for local distributors,” says Katsaros. —KK

    Photograph by Julius Kiptarus
  14. Oncology Rehab Partners

    Oncology Rehab Partners

    Northboro, Mass.; 8 employees; $400,000 in 2011 revenue

    Started by cancer survivor and Harvard medical school doctor Julie Silver, Oncology Rehab Partners trains doctors and therapists in cancer rehab. Unlike survivors of strokes, heart attacks, or major traumas, cancer patients often don’t get the help they need to resume their normal lives after treatment. The group has certified nearly 1,000 practitioners and dozens of hospitals in rehab services tailored to cancer survivors. “Our main objective is to make sure people know that cancer rehab is a right,” says co-founder Diane Stokes. —JT

    Photograph by Joseph Sywenkyj/Bloomberg
  15. Organic Valley

    Organic Valley

    La Farge, Wis.; 600 employees; $719 million in 2011 revenue

    The Organic Valley cooperative includes 1,700 member farms across the U.S., or about 10 percent of all the country’s organic farmers. Many farmers have joined since the recession, says CEO George Siemon. By selling milk, cheese, eggs, meats, and other products, the company helps family-owned farms compete with larger agribusiness. “Part of our mission has always been about making sure organic agriculture also represents economic sustainability for our farmers,” Siemon says. —JT

  16. The Paradigm Project

    The Paradigm Project

    Colorado Springs; 14 employees; $700,000 in 2011 revenue

    Clean-burning, highly efficient wood or charcoal cookstoves reduce deforestation and long treks for firewood. Distributing the stoves in Kenya and Guatemala through retailers, distributors, and rural cooperatives, the Paradigm Project hopes to sell 5 million by 2020. United Nations-sanctioned auditors document how much emissions the stoves save; Paradigm sells the carbon offsets the auditors award it. “Cookstoves allow us to leverage capital in carbon markets to create a profitable business and help families save 50 percent on fuel and reduce toxic smoke in their huts by 50 percent on average,” says co-founder Gregory Spencer. —KK

    Photograph by Austin Mann
  17. PlanetReuse


    Kansas City, Mo.; 5 employees; $500,000 in 2011 revenue

    Housing construction and demolition waste account for 40 percent of what’s going into landfills. Nathan Benjamin and Willow Lundgren want to shrink it to 30 percent by 2020. PlanetReuse consults with architects, contractors, and building owners and sells technology to reuse centers to rescue materials during demolition and find homes for reclaimed materials in new projects. “Perfectly usable materials are buried,” says Benjamin. “Our aim is for owners to think ‘used’ before ‘new,’ and to make reuse the obvious alternative to landfill.” —KK

  18. REpurposingNOLA


    New Orleans; 1 employee; $100,000 in 2011 revenue

    Shortly after Hurricane Katrina, Traci Claussen grew sick of seeing useful building materials being wasted, so she started repurposing them in her own home. In 2009 she founded REpurposingNOLA, to turn fabric—from coffee sacks to banners—into apparel and accessories. Claussen designs the products and contracts with local workers to sew them. “We have corporate sustainability customers and also sell directly to customers on our website and in retail locations,” says the former radio marketing executive. —KK

    Photograph by Dalton Paley
  19. Retroficiency


    Boston; 20 employees; about $500,000 in 2011 revenue

    Buildings account for about 40 percent of U.S. energy consumption, but relatively few are being overhauled to make them more efficient. “The problem is, today it’s an extremely manual process” to find potential energy savings in existing structures, says Retroficiency founder and CEO Bennett Fisher. His company makes software that crunches data to do just. Since launching in March 2011, he says Retroficiency, with clients including Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL) and Schneider Electric (SBGSY), has analyzed about 130 million square feet of commercial building space and identified more than $110 million in annual energy savings. —NL

  20. Simple Energy

    Simple Energy

    Boulder, Colo.; 13 employees; under $100,000 in 2011 revenue

    Simple Energy encourages utility customers to use less energy by comparing their power usage to their neighbors’ in an online game. Participants can earn prizes for themselves or play on behalf of a local school, for example. “We’re using different kinds of behavioral drivers to get people to save the energy,” says co-founder Yoav Lurie. The goal is for utilities around the country to use the game to help meet efficiency targets set by states and pay Simple Energy to participate. Simple Energy piloted it with San Diego Gas and Electric and expects to roll it out to half a million homes this summer. —JT

  21. Sourcemap


    Cambridge, Mass.; 5 employees; more than $100,000 in 2011 revenue

    What is the social and environmental impact of products we use? And where do their raw materials come from? To tackle those slippery questions, Sourcemap uses public data and information individuals post to its website to make educated guesses in map form. Sourcemap makes money by selling subscriptions to its software for $1,000 to $10,000 a month to about a dozen multinationals, including EADS and Office Depot (ODP), to help them communicate with their suppliers and calculate the risk operations could be disrupted. “There was a huge opportunity because no one wants to buy something without knowing where it comes or what it’s made of—the consumers don’t want that and neither do the corporations,” says founder and CEO Leonardo Bonanni. —NL

  22. Sseko Designs

    Sseko Designs

    Portland, Ore.; 43 employees; $430,000 in 2011 revenue

    After seeing extreme poverty while living in Uganda in 2008, Liz Forkin Bohannon started sandal maker Sseko Designs to help poor women with academic promise earn money to pay for university. “Uganda, like a lot of developing economies, is very cash-based,” says Forkin Bohannon. “So you’re basically paying for your tuition up front or you’re not going.” Sseko teaches participants how to sew; after working for a nine-month stint at the company’s Kampala factory, they leave with enough money to attend the first year of school. More than 20 women have completed the program, and Sseko is now Uganda’s largest footwear exporter. —NL

  23. SVT Group

    SVT Group

    San Francisco; 1 employee; $155,000 in 2011 revenue

    Sara Olsen likens her consulting firm, SVT Group, to an accounting firm. But rather than keeping track of a company’s money, she tracks its social and environmental impact. “Not everyone identifies as green or a social justice advocate,” says Olsen. “Increasingly, doing things in a manner that ignores [social responsibility] turns out to be less stable financially and riskier. Sometimes you win big, but at what cost?” Olsen teaches workshops explaining how her discipline works, and SVT has created systems for measuring the environmental or social impact of about $2.5 billion worth of private equity, debt, and grants. Since she founded SVT 11 years ago, dozens of businesses and institutional investors have used her services, from startups to community banks to pension funds such as Calpers. —NL

  24. Tegu


    Darien, Conn.; 105 employees; $1.5 million in 2011 revenue

    Toy manufacturer Tegu makes magnetic wooden blocks in Honduras, one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere. Driven by their desire to lift locals there out of poverty, brothers Chris and Will Haughey launched the business in 2009, importing specialized manufacturing equipment from the U.S. and setting up a factory. Will says its factory is hiring, pays about 10 percent more than others, and is developing health-care benefits. These are “jobs with living wages and jobs which allow our factory workers to support their families,” says Will. “Many wouldn’t have work at all if we hadn’t hired them.” —NL

  25. United by Blue

    United by Blue

    Philadelphia; 7 employees; under $700,000 in 2011 revenue

    Rather than start an environmental group to clean up polluted water, scuba-diving aficionado Brian Linton started an apparel brand, United by Blue. For every product it sells, the company promises it will remove one pound of trash from waterways during cleanups it organizes. United by Blue’s measurable approach—it has removed more than 120,000 pounds since it launched in 2010—helps explain why it can charge $34 per T-shirt online and at retailers like Nordstrom (JWN). It also explains why Subaru and Sperry Top-Sider partnered with United by Blue to make co-branded apparel lines earlier this year. “[They] can position themselves in a much bigger way than they would be able to if they were simply donating to a nonprofit,” says Linton. “They [have] a great story to tell their consumers.” —NL

  26. UniversityNow


    San Francisco, 50 employees, $400,000 in 2011 revenue

    Instead of providing school loans, Internet-based New Charter University makes college affordable: Through dual enrollment with Patten University, a regionally accredited associate degree is $3,700, vs. $15,000 to $37,000 at other online colleges. The college keeps costs down with self-paced learning and social media marketing in lieu of billboards and TV ads, targeting working adults without degrees. “I grew up in a housing development in the inner city and I saw how not having an education impacts lives. People shouldn’t have to mortgage their futures to get a degree,” says CEO and co-founder Gene Wade. —KK

  27. Time to Vote!

    Time to Vote!

    Now that you’ve browsed the finalists in our fourth annual roundup of promising social entrepreneurs, vote for the business you think holds the most promise. Voting ends July 12. We’ll announce the top five vote-getters on the Small Business channel on July 19.

    Click on this link to vote.

    Photograph by FPG/Getty Images