People: Leaps of Faith

Meet five entrepreneurs whose companies reflect their beliefs

Religion is surging in American life, and with it demand for all manner of religious-themed goods. Entrepreneurs are answering the call with companies that are outgrowths of their own faiths. "Part of the growing mindset of our society is, `If I am a person of faith and live a life of faith, I want to connect my professional life with my faith,'" says Andrew Wicks, associate professor of business administration at The Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia. Many founders see their companies as a form of ministry. Says Alan Oirich, who started Electric Comics, a line of comic books featuring Jewish characters: "I use the American cultural mythology of superheroes to teach kids about their Jewish identity and values."

Experts are reluctant to point to any single reason for the interest in faith-based companies, but a number of factors appear to be in play. One is immigration. As Indian citizenship in the U.S. grows, for example, the market for Hindu services does as well. There has also been a cultural shift in regard to spirituality, with many politicians forcefully expounding on their personal beliefs and large corporations promoting their ethics. The economy has a role, too. "Business owners' optimism has been greatly reduced because of concern over Iraq, credit issues, and the housing market," says Bob Hisrich, director of the Thunderbird Center of Global Entrepreneurship. "In any sort of downturn, we tend to have a little more religion spring up in our culture."

Whatever the impetus, blurring the lines between business and religion can be good for the bottom line. Sales of Christian and gospel music, for example, have grown to $700 million in 2006 from $188 million in 1990, according to the Gospel Music Assn. and Nielsen Christian SoundScan. And more than 60% of those sales took place in mainstream outlets. For the entrepreneurs on the following pages, who represent the five major religions, a higher calling may lead to higher profits.

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