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Interview Issue

Ted Williams: Radio Personality, Internet Star

The last few years have been strange for Ted Williams. That’s possibly an understatement for a man who went from panhandling to afternoon cable—or as he likes to say “drinking Cobra to Grey Goose”—in a matter of minutes. But as quickly as he shot into the public’s consciousness after Doral Chenoweth III’s simple video of [...]
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The last few years have been strange for Ted Williams. That’s possibly an understatement for a man who went from panhandling to afternoon cable—or as he likes to say “drinking Cobra to Grey Goose”—in a matter of minutes.

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But as quickly as he shot into the public’s consciousness after Doral Chenoweth III’s simple video of his amazing radio voice went viral, he was written off—skewered by Dr. Phil, plagued by relapse, shamed by past arrests, and preyed on by shady managers. In many ways he’s a modern parable; the insatiability of our pop culture demands quick categorization. Should we root for him? Should we dismiss him? Does he deserve all of this?

It turns out the space between never-was and has-been was as thin as the soles of his shoes, the ones that plodded up and down a thin highway island in search of cash—cash that would spend little time in Williams’ pocket before making its way into the hands of a crack dealer.

Funds were just as transient after his re-discovery: money from gigs with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Kraft never really arrived, instead destined for the coffers of unreliable promoters and managers who descended on the viral star virally, leaving him just as broke as he was three years earlier—except this time with the specter of a failed second chance hanging over his head.

Yet, Ted Williams is probably the happiest he’s been in his whole life. He’s clean and sober, and has a reality show in the works that aims to offer second chances like the one he received.

“Hey Ted!” the man says—a familiarity in his voice that I will hear a lot over the next two hours, never knowing whether they know him or just feel like they do.

To tell the third (or fourth?) phase of Ted’s story, we go right back to where the second phase started—that thin stretch of grass near the I-71 ramp, where he used the only thing un-ravaged by addiction and depression—that golden voice—to get by.

I’m standing there, too. Those big hands shake mine, before extending toward a slowing car. The driver reaches out with a business card and hands it to the erstwhile celebrity, who can’t help but be a little disappointed there’s no money in his hand.

Some habits are hard to break.

Open, eloquent, passionate, and humble, Williams looks me directly in the eye when he talks, his attention only broken by passersby and well-wishers—which are frequent during our interview.

“Stop for a minute,” Ted says to his manager. We’ve only been en route from his offices on Main Street to the Hudson I-71 overpass for a minute when he sees a homeless man on the street. “Hey Ted!” the man says—a familiarity in his voice that I will hear a lot over the next two hours, never knowing whether they know him or just feel like they do.

[I want to] facilitate a place for homeless people to be able to do their laundry. It’s one of the worst things, to lug around your clothes and they’re dirty. So I want them to at least have that opportunity to wash some of their most important clothing items. And it’s all going to be absolutely free through my donations.

Ted takes a call from one of his daughters, one of his nine children. “Daddy’s in the company of a magazine editor and I’m riding out to my infamous corner of I-71 and Hudson…Oh no, honey, no, not under the bridge…if you give me about 20 minutes or so, honey, I promise you I’ll call you.” She asks for his address and he declines to give it to her, and feels compelled to explain it to me.

The reconnection of family I’ve found can be beautiful, and then it could have some very detaching moments, and that’s one of those detaching moments. I don’t want my daughter to know where I live so she can come and disrupt me or get me out of focus. She’s going through some things now where she’s starting to feel like she’s being slighted—unresolved anger, resentment, all of those words fit what my children are going through. And this is a child that I’ve had no dealings with—no hands-on with upbringing—but I have in these past three years tried to connect, and each time I’ve tried to connect, it wasn’t the way I thought it would be or envisioned. I thought when you don’t see a child for 16 years and you come into their life that it was party time, celebration…it’s not that way. I’m, on the other hand, trying to reach out to her with things that I don’t have yet: money. I’m always trying to give away money. [My manager] even gets mad at me now because he asks me, “Ted, what do you need money for? You’ve got a place to live, you’ve got food in your refrigerator, your clothes are clean and everything…why do you need money?” ’Cause he knows that I’m the type of person that if I got $10 and I see a guy standing out there looking like he could really use 10 bucks about now, I’m not thinking about what he’s going to use it for, I just know that this man needs 10 bucks. OK, I’ll give it away.

As we arrive at Hudson and cross onto the strip of grass between ramps, more than a dozen cars stop and roll down their windows—some to snap a quick, blurry photo, others to offer encouragement or to recall a moment they’ve shared with him over the years. Each time, he beams an authentic smile and turns on the voice: “You know you love it! My man! I’m here with the 614!”

[Even if] you don’t have nothing…a smile is what you have. A smile. You could have a person who’s going through addiction or mental health [issues], and they haven’t had nobody smile at them because everybody down here looks down on them, doesn’t give them any kind of encouraging word: “Hang in there! Hey, pray more! Hey, there’s a free…” anything, anything. And sometimes that’s all I had on that corner in spite of my hairdo and my nasty clothes and my ugly teeth, I still had a smile and a kind word for people, whether they gave me anything or not.

There was people that pulled up on me knowing that they didn’t have not one penny to give me, but they did again have that encouraging word. Like maybe, “I would help you but I’m barely keeping gas in my car,” or “Honey, I just lost my job but I would love to give [to] you.” And I’d still say [radio voice], “When you’re listening to nothing but the best of oldies…” and they’d be like, “My God.” It made them feel like “wow.” So that when this story finally hit, as crazy and as overwhelming as it hit, people was like, “Damn, it couldn’t have happened to a better guy.”

“Hey buddy! What’s up, big man?” The attention he still warrants is enough to make me fear that we’re going to cause a traffic jam.

My purpose was to build a relationship with Christ Jesus. I stood here in spite of my smoking and all—the Bible says “acknowledge him in all your ways.” God ain’t through with none of us yet. I stood here for that reason because I thought this was the lowest form of homelessness, the lowest form of crack addiction, to be standing out here on the street corner begging for money. This was my rock bottom. Dr. Oz’s people, they said, “Ted what was your bottom?” I said, “Standing on that corner.” Because I easily could have went over there and stole a DeWalt drill. Took my chances at it, anyway, as opposed to standing here for an hour, trying to get five bucks to go get me a hit.

“Lemme go say hi to my friends, here! You know you love it!” Ted enters a nearby hardware store and credits the staff with always treating him with kindness. He rewarded them by only stealing from Lowe’s down the street when times got tough. He tells them about plans for his upcoming reality show. It’s an odd reunion, but in the best possible way. They seem as proud of Ted’s story as he does.

My girlfriend would sit on the top of that hill over there, and they never ran her off. But it’d be pouring down rain and she’d be willing to go and turn a trick real quick as opposed to me standing there. I was against it so I would say, “No you sit there, you sit there.” I would find out what days I should stand on this side as opposed to what days should I stand on the other. It was back and forth, back and forth. But guys like these, man, [they] understood the struggle. I’m sure they didn’t like crackheads, but as opposed to running and darting out of Lowe’s with two drills in my hand or something [laughs], I never stole anything out of here.

“Well, that we know of,” jokes one of the employees. “Check the tapes!” Ted says. “I love you guys.” For our photo shoot, I hand Ted a black cardboard sign, and after some thought, he writes, “He Who Was Homeless Will Now Lead Them Home.” He admits that it’s surreal to be back in this same place where he fought every day to survive, especially the aforementioned motorist who handed him a business card.

I have to admit that I thought he had a dollar in his hand. It went right back three years ago. I almost forgot I had a suit on. I almost forgot what this sign actually said, and I was reaching out as if he was giving me some money and disappointed when it was a business card. Those feelings still resonate in my spirit…we were passing off this ramp to make a left to go over to Wendy’s, and my grandson said, “Hey Paw Paw, there’s your job,” and I’m thinking, “Where?” I’d never worked around here…he was actually pointing to the corner. [To him], that was my job.

Ted knows he’s no saint. Dr. Phil rubbed his face in it—“the criminal-like side of me, the deadbeat dad side of me, the addiction side of me,” as Ted says. He’s transparent, especially regarding his addiction and his depression. Ironically, he’s needle-phobic and pill-phobic and can’t bring himself to take any painkillers, despite a spinal issue. Since his addiction started at the height of his success–his morning radio shows were top-rated in the Columbus market in the mid-‘80s–I ask him what caused the descent.

I was very displeased with my life after I walked out on my children. I walked out on a woman who had four of my children, and I walked out on her to only take on a relationship with another woman and impregnate her with four more, so I wasn’t legally divorced at that point. So I didn’t expect anything good to happen to my life—I would spend my nights haunted by the idea of them wondering if I [was] ever going to walk through their door again. And those things haunted me…[I thought I should just] go all the way out, go out in a blaze of glory, no pun intended. So that’s what I did, I just used that as the one factor in me just going into addiction instantly.

Dr. Phil…I thought at that time he was trying to build me up to bring out the redeeming qualities that I had inside of me. And it wasn’t. I think it was ratings, so exploitative. I was like, “Lord, is that what my story’s all about? Is to let the world see that I’m a piece of crap and at how you can clean up a piece of crap?” And that’s what the Lord said: yes. He said, “I knew your heart, Ted.” Because when I didn’t have nothing to give, I still gave…I saw a guy standing over there, and he had less than a layer of clothing, and it was cold, and I took my coat off. My girlfriend thought I was a nut. “You’re giving this guy your coat? And it’s cold as shit?”…I said, “Don’t worry about why I give,” and I just gave and I walked away, and lo and behold I got a leather coat not too long after that.

Ted believes in karma—or at the very least, the notion that giving is as important as receiving. His hope is to produce a reality show that offers a second chance to people, a premise he compares to Extreme Home Makeover, except more person than property.

I don’t want to “make over,” I want to give second chances to people who deserve them…Let’s say there’s an addict, a homeless man who wants every opportunity in the world to go to drug treatment…Maryhaven’s list is huge. And who knows, I might run into a gifted Ted Williams.

Ted clutches the mustard seed necklace around his neck, a token he’s adopted as a symbol of his faith, based on the Scripture passage that there’s power in faith as small as a mustard seed. Whether his show becomes reality or not, it’s clear he’s achieved some peace in this strange, surreal life of his. After all, Ted has lost and gained and lost again, and survival grants you a certain freedom from everyday fears, a clarity in times of chaos. Ted is Ted again—perhaps for the first time in a long time.

You are honestly getting the real Ted Williams, you are. I feel that clarity…I feel good, I feel confident. I’m just having the time of my life, man, not only reconnecting with family members but going out on that highway just brought déjà vu in many ways. One of the best things that it did bring to me was how people still gave me that, “Hey, Ted, keep doing what you’re doing.” And that just means the world to me, to hug people…

“I love you,” Ted tells me, and he gives me a hug. And then he’s off, down the road again in search of his (second) second chance. 

His potential reality show, A 2nd Chance With Ted Williams, was fundraising on IndieGoGo throughout the month of December.

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Interview Issue

The Interview: Christina Basham

Mixologist / Entrepreneur Even at a young age, Christina Basham carried with her the ingredients for success in the service industry—a gregarious nature, formidable attention to detail, an amiable personality, and the mouth of a goddamn sailor. Basham gives me the grand tour of the winding Middle West Spirits distillery, detailing the various applications of [...]
Danny Hamen

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Mixologist / Entrepreneur

Even at a young age, Christina Basham carried with her the ingredients for success in the service industry—a gregarious nature, formidable attention to detail, an amiable personality, and the mouth of a goddamn sailor.

Basham gives me the grand tour of the winding Middle West Spirits distillery, detailing the various applications of the towering bronze stills that inhabit the prodigious space. Her golden locks flow feverishly down her ‘90s-style, cocktail-peppered shirt as she explains the real difference between regular gin and dry gin while pouring me a 100-proof taster straight from the elephantine still. As the Sales Manager, former Brand Ambassador, and master Mixologist (and I don’t use that term lightly) at Middle West, it’s Basham’s job to know her shit.

Basham has racked up over 15 years of experience in the service industry, from shaking drinks at local dives, managing the beloved but departed Wall Street Bar and Buckeye Bourbon House, and hosting her uniquely inspired craft cocktail pop-ups, to judging prestigious cocktail competitions. A Goliath of her trade who has put in her time and moved up the ranks, Basham’s eyes are now fixed on the position of president of the Columbus chapter of the United States Bartenders Guild.

The relationship between the ingredients in your glass and the person shaking them isn’t always important, but it’s almost always interesting. The folks who expertly distill, produce, blend, pour, and/or create your delicious intoxication juice are more than just faces behind a bar—they are influential figures representing the best our city has to offer.

“I felt like, to the world, I never made a lot of sense. This is a place where I can live in all of my weird, and I was supported. People are into it.”

What experiences helped sharpen your teeth in the industry?

Christina Basham: The answer is twofold—I was 21 when I started working at Applebee’s. I wanted to go back to school, so I started serving, eventually moving behind the bar. I still remember that they made us wear these horrible pink and purple t-shirts that said “Half-and-Half Happy Hour” where half of the letters were garnishes. I just remember thinking, “What did I do…. This is not who I am.” I was a young, queer-identified woman working alongside a lot of people who were, well… not that. And it was very challenging.

What really cut my teeth in the industry was years of working corporate turn and burn and managing a nightclub [Wall Street] that served as the last stop on the train for many people—the people you see at their absolute darkest moments, their most booze-induced moments.
Then I moved to Denver in 2011 for a relationship that didn’t work out. I interviewed for a job for the Edible Beats group. I didn’t have the chops just then. It took four to five months, but I got there. The leveled of curated hospitality in that space and attention to detail was something I had never seen before and I was in love. This is what I was waiting for.

But when I moved back home, I didn’t have the network. Sure, I had the gay kids, the turn-and-burn kids, and the club kids, but I didn’t have the fine dining and craft cocktail kids. I needed to create a secondary network that let me be that part of who I really was.

How did that relationship building begin?

CB: I was working at Barrel 44. At that time, we were voted best cocktail list, and I was so curious because at that time they were still putting club soda in their Old Fashioneds. I remember them looking at me like I’m a crazy person for shaming them because I had come from Wall Street nightclub where I only poured three styles of flavored vodka into a glass.

The turning point was working at the Kitchen at German Village. Anne [Boninsegna] and Jen [Lindsey] very quickly became family to me, two older sisters I never knew I needed. I had access to all of these ingredients I’d never had before, and they just let me do what I wanted.

Over the course of two years, I split my time between selling and organizing events, organizing the bar, and bartending two or three events a week. That’s when I decided to join the US Bartenders Guild.

You decided to throw in the bar towel and start in sales for Middle West Spirits. How do you think they stand out from other distilleries?

CB: We are the first post-prohibition distillery in Ohio. It’s even cooler when you consider prohibition started in Westerville. I think we are honest about what we do. Every drop we make is made here. We source our wheat from Ohio, the same place that Ritz, Pillsbury, and Donatos get their wheat from. It’s funny, nobody who originally invested in the company is from here; they just fell in love with the state and decided to move. There is something great about drinking local— putting money back into the city and the local economy. I don’t think any brand loves the agriculture in this state as much as Middle West.

Columbus has seen a renaissance recently in the way of spirits and cocktails. Why do you think cocktails are an important part of Columbus culture?

CB: Cocktails allows creatives to live in a space where they can really shine. You’re giving them a stage to be expressive. That is what is so amazing about food and beverage and hospitality is that people can be who they really are. I love feeling a part of the underdogs, that secret society. Even though there is a bit of a chip on your shoulder, there is something sexy about that, ya know? I felt like, to the world, I never made a lot of sense. This is a place where I can live in all of my weird, and I was supported. People are into it.
Craft cocktails have made us relevant on a national level. People like Annie Williams Pierce and Alex Chin, these people who have competed and done really well. When you compete, you are just a name and a city. It’s not just you.

What is the difference between a good drink and a great drink?

CB: I think the service is the catalyst for the drink. That and intentionality. You can serve a highball cocktail, but if it’s served with intentionality, it’s just different. You can feel it and sense it. There’s just a level of exceptional…. Something that makes it different. Of course when it comes to cocktails, fresh juice over frozen, quality ingredients—you can’t take a great recipe and put a shitty vodka in it, it’s just not going to be the same. People are simplifying nowadays. You don’t get a high five for adding 17 styles of bitters in a cocktail. Nobody cares. It’s booze, it’s not rocket science.

Tell me about Bubbles and Agave.

CB: I’d always hoped for more time to do private cocktail events and at-home cocktail classes. I really love all of that stuff, and I’ve been doing it as a side hustle for years. Once I was able to balance my work life and home life with my job at Middle West, in October I got a surge of energy and said, “I’m gonna do this.” So I filed my LLC and I’m working on getting the website up. Basically I come and do craft cocktail classes—I bring the tools, everything you need. I love empowering people to make the most of their home bar. Going out and dining is amazing, but it’s not the most friendly to your budget. If you can figure out how to make a simple syrup at your house and get really creative, or if you can feel comfortable mixing drinks, it’s an amazing feeling—like knowing that you have secrets in your pocket. If I can send people home with that feeling, well, that is what really really excites me.

Look for Basham’s website, bubblesandagave.com, coming soon!

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Interview Issue

The Interview: Nicole Kraft

Journalist / Teacher / Innovator It’s the day of the interview and I’m scrambling to make sure I’m ready. Is my recorder ready and charged? Yup. Do I have my list of questions? Check. A little mint gum before the interview? It’ll be gone before I start my questions. Extra pens just in case mine [...]
Mitch Hooper

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Journalist / Teacher / Innovator

It’s the day of the interview and I’m scrambling to make sure I’m ready. Is my recorder ready and charged? Yup. Do I have my list of questions? Check. A little mint gum before the interview? It’ll be gone before I start my questions. Extra pens just in case mine dries out? I got ‘em.

A great book about the art of interviewing, Always Get The Name Of The Dog: A Guide To Media Interviewing, once taught me to always show up to an interview at least 10 minutes early. Whether you’re a person who is always late, or just need a few moments to set up, it’s always best to beat your interview subjects to the location. It sets a level of professionalism and lets your subjects know you respect them and their time.

These are all things that you should do in good practice as a writer or journalist. So you can imagine my embarrassment when I arrived to Panera 15 minutes early to find Nicole Kraft, author of said book, sitting at a table, checking emails, sipping coffee, and patiently awaiting my arrival for the interview. But what else would you expect? She quite literally wrote the damn book on interviewing.

“I don’t know who said it, but they said, ‘If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.’ And I’ve never worked a day in my life.”

Giving Kraft the title of just author is not only disingenuous, it’s a disservice. Beyond publishing her digital interviewing book Always Get The Name Of The Dog in 2013 as well as a lengthier and updated print version set to release in January of 2019, Kraft is a communications and journalism professor at Ohio State. As an Apple Distinguished Educator, she spearheaded the arrival of iPads for freshmen on OSU’s campus. She’s the director of the Sports and Society Initiative. She’s an active writer for The Columbus Dispatch and the Associated Press. She specializes in media law and ethics, and she’s a mother and wife. It might seem like Kraft sleeps standing up with her eyes open so she can be ready for the next task to conquer. But to her, the high workload never feels like a chore because she’s able to do the things she wants to do.

“I don’t have any hobbies; everything I do is a hobby in its own way,” Kraft explained as she finished up working on a lesson plan for the Spring semester. “I don’t know who said it, but they said, ‘If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.’ And I’ve never worked a day in my life.”

Whether you want to call it a labor of love, a hobby, or a job—one thing is for certain—Kraft is a go-getter. From the ripe age of eight, she had already began printing her own local newspaper, “The Bicentennial Times,” that she would hand out to neighbors as she was dressed as Betsy Ross. Once in high school, she said she watched All The President’s Men and was instantly set on becoming an investigative journalist. This flash of insight led her to becoming an editor with her school newspaper, a dream internship with the Philadelphia 76ers, and was eventually what brought her from the West Coast to Columbus.

But the move to Columbus wasn’t as easy as it sounds. Kraft’s husband, Brian, wasn’t too keen on the idea of moving from the West Coast to the East Coast. Initially, Kraft was hoping to land a job in New Jersey with Hoof Beats, which she had read avidly since childhood. She knew she was perfect for the position as she had spent her life around horses. So, she submitted a letter and resume, and took her shot. Unfortunately (or fortunately if you are Brian), a move to New Jersey wasn’t in the cards. But through the application process, Kraft’s name was forwarded along to an editor who found her an associate editor position in good old midwestern Columbus, Ohio.

In Brian’s defense, Nicole wasn’t exactly thrilled about Columbus at first either.

“When I came here for my interview, I flew from the San Francisco Airport—I’m from Napa Valley—into Columbus and the flatness of it…. I cried when I got to the hotel that night,” she recalled. “I called my husband like, ‘It’s so flat here!’ ”

It didn’t help that when the Krafts first moved into Clintonville in 1995, it was still dry. Needless to say, there was some culture shock. But after 24 years in the community, she said she doesn’t see herself anywhere else.

“We swore we’d only be here for two years; that was it. And now I don’t think we’ll ever leave.”

This little anecdote about her career path is another example of an on-brand moment for Kraft. She’s always wanted to do whatever she wants to do, and her way of achieving this goal is relatively simple: put yourself out there.

“I always say yes. I never believe I can’t. And that’s the type of things I tell students all the time: ‘Just say yes. What’s the worst that can happen?”

“I always say yes. I never believe I can’t. And that’s the type of things I tell students all the time: ‘Just say yes. What’s the worst that can happen?’ If I send him a letter and he says no, the worst thing that can happen is he said no,” Kraft explained about the Hoof Beats
application process.

That’s how the process went for her second installment of Always Get The Name Of The Dog, too. The first book was put together after she had been trained on how to use iPads. It was a chance for her to play around with the technology, try something new, and show people how to engage in meaningful one-on-one conversations. The second book, however, materialized simply because she was asked to turn it from a digital book into a print book. Her response? “Yeah, of course. That sounds awesome, I’d love that.”

(Even better: she bought copies for her class so students don’t have to shell money out of pocket to gain access to the information.)

While most of the world looks at mobile devices and social media as a plague that is destroying millennials and other generations alike, Kraft sees them in a different light. Her expertise includes mobile technology and iPad learning, and her classroom model incorporates a little bit of everything. Instead of a roll call attendance policy, students check in using a hashtag via Twitter. If you follow her on Twitter, you’ll often see her retweeting articles posing ethical questions to students, or simply tagging a tweet as #osunewsclass to generate conversation. She also uses a “flipped classroom” where students read and watch videos at home, then come to class to discuss, displacing the lecture time traditionally spent in class.

“When I first started teaching, I didn’t come from academia, so I think that [it’s] different that I came from that real-world setting. I tried to be the professor that I wished I could’ve had, which is somebody who recognizes that the world is important, and that education and the things we do in education have to mirror the world to a degree, and we have to integrate it,” she said.

She’s also a huge advocate of using social media for more than just memes and Tasty cooking videos.

“When we ignore what is real and what’s in front of us—you know the fact is three-quarters of this [Panera] are on social media—that’s where people live, that’s where social networks are made. It’s not called a social network for nothing,” Kraft said, gesturing around the room. “By excluding it from a classroom experience, we’re really cutting students off from a main pathway that they have both to communication and socialization. The other big part is they are going to use it. I have to teach them in my view to use it for good and not evil, and to realize how beneficial it can be for them.”

That being said: it’s not strictly all work and no play for Kraft on social media. Before each semester, she searches her students on social platforms to get a better idea of who they are, while also pointing out that most of the information they post is accessible by anyone, including potential employers. It’s great for feeling out what the class roster will be like, and it does shock students when she pulls out little factoids about them from when they posted a one-off status in high school.

As a former student of Kraft’s classes, I can attest that the lessons she teaches are worth more than their weight in gold. Going into my final semester at Ohio State, I needed an internship in the worst way. Of course, Kraft had an answer. A little magazine published by (614) Media Group (maybe you’ve heard of us?) named 1870 Magazine was looking for student writers for the summer of 2017 and she forwarded my name to the editor. Now it’s 2019, and I’m still using all the tools she gave me to tell stories for (614) and serve as editor-in-chief of 1870 Magazine.

I also remember nearly every fresh writer in her class wanting to feature her and all she does for the university and the city, but those pitches were always met with a stern no. But from hearing her war-like stories, seeing her enthusiasm, and catching her infectious drive, can anyone blame a young writer for wanting to tell Kraft’s story? There’s no question here: she had a story that needed to be told. It just had to be done in the right manner.

Well, Nicole. Life has gone full circle. I’m no longer in your class, but I’m still pitching story ideas to write about you. And this time, I got the green light.

Read samples of Nicole Kraft’s articles about Columbus at nicolekraft.com/archives.

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Interview Issue

The Interview: Carter Stewart

Carter Stewart isn’t your average crimefighter, and he’ll surely shun the description as much as he defies the stereotype. Following a career watching broken systems contribute to incarceration, the former US Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio left government service to become a full-time mentor for the social enterprise sector. Riding a borrowed desk [...]
J.R. McMillan

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Carter Stewart isn’t your average crimefighter, and he’ll surely shun the description as much as he defies the stereotype.
Following a career watching broken systems contribute to incarceration, the former US Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio left government service to become a full-time mentor for the social enterprise sector. Riding a borrowed desk at the Columbus Foundation, he’s a one-man Midwest outpost for the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation. He’s also been recruited and charged with identifying worthy causes and applying Silicon Valley ingenuity to philanthropy-focused businesses—all to the tune of more than $100 million.

Imagine if instead of investing in capes and cowls, Bruce Wayne spent a fortune funding innovative approaches to solving long-standing injustices?

Not exactly cinematic, but far more effective by addressing the underlying circumstances that foster it. The shortage of services, access, and advocacy are all predictable indicators for both victims and perpetrators. Equipped with the insights and instincts of a prosecutor weary of always being on the receiving end of avoidable tragedies, Stewart shares his experience and expertise with fellow do-gooders, guiding them from shaky startups to scalable success.

We first met a few months back at Roosevelt Coffeehouse, itself an anchor for the local social enterprise movement. Overdue for a follow-up cup, we discussed the future of “purpose beyond profits” and why Columbus is the perfect incubator for ideas that really could change the world.

A career in criminal justice isn’t the typical résumé for a social justice champion. You’ve seen the world through an entirely different lens. How has your work as a US Attorney informed your search for solutions through social enterprise?

Carter Stewart: It’s not uncommon to leave law to go into the nonprofit sphere, but it is uncommon to leave prosecution. The only other US attorney I know who has done it is in Pittsburgh. I actually surveyed colleagues at the DOJ to see if anyone else had done this, and he was the only one. My desire to help is based on what I’ve seen as a prosecutor as much as my childhood experiences growing up in the South, in Atlanta. So many of the people my office prosecuted came from broken systems—school systems that weren’t adequate, housing situations that were poor. So many people in state and local jails suffer from mental health issues, addiction issues. I felt that if we could fix those broken systems, it would reduce the number of people who end up in the criminal
justice system.

“Not all tension is bad, and there can be positive creative tension between traditional businesses and social enterprises.”

Social media and social enterprise seem to have come of age at the same time. There’s not a mutual dependency, but an undeniably growing parallel between purpose and purchase. What trends in digital connectivity distinguish successful social enterprises from those that fizzle out?

CS: I can’t say there’s one pattern, but there is recognition of the importance of social media, especially for start-up organizations that don’t have a big budget and want to spread the word as far and wide as possible. Everyone we fund has to have a website. It sounds obvious, but they have to have something up and running. But we still have some organizations that are spread more by word of mouth. ROX, Ruling Our Experiences, is a good example. It’s a program that teaches girls leadership, entrepreneurship, self-defense, self-awareness. The 20-week program is spread, mostly in-person, by the founder, Dr. Lisa Hinkelman, speaking at conferences to school counselors—who then google it. It’s the second bite at the apple. They hear from her first, then they learn more online and decide it’s something they want to pursue. But our organizations aren’t limited to the US, and some are dependent on social media to work. But where it’s critical for everyone is funders, who are more likely to research an organization before contacting it directly. They don’t want to raise hopes or expectations too early. It’s interwoven and social entrepreneurs recognize that.

There can be friction between traditional nonprofits and social enterprises serving the same cause. Ideally, raising awareness creates a larger pie, and everyone gets a bigger slice. How should social enterprises answer the concern that they’re competing for the same donors and dollars?

CS: There is perspective among some funders that there are too many nonprofits—to solve education, to solve poverty. Instead of creating new ones, we should improve and, perhaps in some cases, combine the ones that we have. There’s a degree of creation exhaustion. I happen to disagree. You need constant creation and rebirth, new ideas cycling in. Traditional nonprofits that have never considered the social enterprise model might feel threatened by that new entity going after the same funding dollars. In an ideal world, the new entity inspires the older entity to change and to grow. I consider the YMCA one of the oldest social enterprises in the country because they have a revenue stream. You pay for membership. So even though most nonprofits haven’t had that revenue stream, social enterprises have been around. It’s just been a small slice. I haven’t heard traditional nonprofits wishing social enterprises would go away as much as how can they be more like them and less dependent on philanthropic capital. And I think social enterprises can learn from nonprofits, their leadership structures and governance models. It’s a dynamic evolution that will hopefully lift everyone up.

Traditional businesses can also feel threatened by social enterprises. We don’t just vote every four years for president and every two years for Congress. We vote every day with our wallets. How to both kinds of businesses build brands that inspire their customers to become agents of change?

CS: That competition should help businesses recognize the importance of having a second bottom line. Maybe not a social mission, but a mindset of corporate citizenship. That’s what drives people to Roosevelt Coffeehouse. They know when they spend money, the company does good things with it. It’s a brand they feel good supporting. Not all tension is bad, and there can be positive creative tension between traditional businesses and social enterprises. Draper Richards Kaplan has someone on staff with whom we connect all of our entrepreneurs, to understand that communications is how you reach people, but branding is more, and an essential part of our process. Some folks come with more savvy than others, but in addition to helping build capacity they’re also building a brand. It’s something you should do in the early stages of your organization, so it becomes ingrained in your DNA.

The Midwest often gets overlooked when it comes to venture capital, despite our academic credibility, technological capacity, and desirable test market demographics. What does the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation see in Columbus that many still miss?

CS: We’re a particular type of donor. Not all donors look for what we look for, most don’t. Most foundations I know won’t fund an organization unless they’ve been around for four or five years. And they don’t always look for organizations with the potential to scale. They look for organizations that are well-run, already likely to survive, and succeeding in their mission. We look for organizations at an earlier stage, those that have finished a pilot and want to go big….We look for ideas that have the potential to disrupt, to change broken systems, and not many funders share that desire. But in Columbus, there’s a hunger for it. Social enterprise is a buzzword, and they’ve been in Columbus for years before I got here. But 75 percent of funding still goes to the East Coast and the West Coast, and that’s a huge oversight. People were looking for mechanisms to get national funding to Central Ohio, to build and scale the organizations that are here and those just getting started. There’s a synergy between governments and businesses, nonprofits and social enterprises. It’s an enthusiasm and pride many on the coasts don’t realize is here. I was once one of those people. I lived in New York and California. It was my wife who decided we were moving to Columbus 13 years ago, and I still tell people it’s the best decision I never made.

For more on social enterprises and the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation, visit drkfoundation.org.

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