Jet Fuel Series: A conversation with Larry Cohen, Founder and Executive Director of Point Source Youth
Advancing mission-driven ventures, whether for profit or nonprofit, is first and foremost a comprehensive entrepreneurial journey. Leaving aside their potential to generate systemic change and improve the lives of marginalized and disadvantaged communities, it is about building a successful business that has the right human, financial, and material resources to grow, stay relevant, deliver impact, and create jobs.
Treating mission-driven ventures, especially nonprofits, as small businesses along with for profit ventures is a rapid-pace adopted approach by the entrepreneurs themselves as well as beneficiaries, buyers, and funders. Caravanserai Project has been adamant through our work about the need for mission-driven organizations to adopt many of the strategies used in the for profit sector. The success experienced by Point Source Youth, a social impact organization at the forefront of the movement to end youth homelessness, and its founder, Larry Cohen, speaks volumes in favor of approaching mission-driven work through the lens of a for profit business. In the case of this New York-based organization, this approach has leant itself to audacious but attainable goals, innovative untapped solutions, and an eye to lifting up partner organizations and expanding their success.
It is all about the vision … and the strategy … and the execution
Point Youth Source started as an idea that tapped into Larry’s personal experience. There are 3.5 million youth in the country experiencing homelessness and he could imagine in some ways, being one of them. Larry’s mother immigrated from Guatemala when she was 8 years old with her own inherited trauma and married his abusive father when she was 19 years old. Growing up with some financial instability and lots of emotional instability and unable to speak without a stutter, Larry lived in fear that he would get kicked out for being gay and end up experiencing homeless. Imagining this possibility for himself and his brother not only gave him the passion to work towards eliminating youth homelessness, but also to ensure that the solution involved the voice of youth who were unstably housed.
How the for profit experience informed the way you approached mission-driven work and advancing the Point Source Youth?
Larry Cohen co-founded Point Source Youth (PSY) six years ago with Ronald Johnson and Colin McSwiggen, following his transition from Heartbeat Experts — a very successful global health care software company he founded a few years prior. He says that finding the right co-founders is the first step in setting the organization up for success. Larry’s experience in bringing investors into for profit work also shaped his initial success. Even without a base of proven programs, new nonprofits need to have confidence in raising funds and also in the solutions they present to funders.
“The for profit experience led to the confidence of selling the vision,” Larry said. This experience also influenced the way the organization moved forward with hiring its first staff members, which he says requires the flexibility and intentionality. “The best people are going to lead to the best solutions. Capitalism has clear objectives … In our mission, we used similar lessons to look with clarity,” he said. The organization consistently asked if they had the funding they needed to grow and had a handle on the scope of what they wanted to achieve.
Know Your Customer Base
In a similar manner to for profit businesses which pay particular attention to customer discovery, PSY was also determined to keep the people it wished to serve at the heart of crafting solutions and interventions for homelessness. Current solutions to youth homelessness don’t put youth at their center, Larry said. So, the organization wanted to create interventions with direction from young people. PSY has a 12-member Youth Advisory Council which the organization leans on to learn about the challenges homeless youth face, gain insight into the most beneficial and effective solutions and to connect with partners succeeding in local communities.
Innovative Solutions from Ideation to Implementation:
The Point Source Youth Direct Cash Transfer program
Youth Advisors aren’t just window dressing at Youth Point Source. When the organization hires a consultant, the lowest hourly rate that has been requested is $100 an hour. So, youth advisors are paid what a consultant would receive. They get $100 an hour for their expertise.
The input of youth who have lived experiences of homelessness has led to YPS’s Trust Youth Initiative: Direct Cash Transfers program in New York City. Through this program, 30-40 young adults between the ages of 18-24 will receive $1,250 per month for up to two years. The funds are sent via Venmo, Paypal or direct deposit and young people in the program can choose their own apartments and their own roommates as opposed to having to live in a shelter with no choices at all. This is what Larry would want for himself or for his brother and points out that trust, autonomy and room for creativity allow for other potentially unexpected solutions to follow.
“Youth [advisors] empower us … I don’t need to teach them anything. They need to teach me.”— Larry Cohen, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Point Source Youth
Approach the Issue as an Outsider
As Director of National AIDS Treatment Advocacy Project in the 1990s, which was the first community-based organization to advocate for the combination of HIV/AIDS treatment, Larry also learned to bring an outsider’s perspective to a mission-driven business. The idea of the combination treatment for HIV/AIDS was broached by an outsider and not readily accepted by advocates in the community. However, this approach was ultimately what changed the course of the AIDS crisis.
Larry noted that by definition he and PSY were outside of the current system of addressing youth homelessness and that impacted the way they approached solutions. While most nonprofits were invested in a shelter system, PSY had no vested interest in the current way of working, encouraging the organization to look at the challenge with a fresh approach. This allowed them to focus on different youth-centered solutions such as Direct Cash Transfers, Host Homes, and Rapid Re-Housing. From his time in the for-profit sector, he knew that prioritizing customer experience was key to providing better services and also for the progress of the organization as an institution. Most of the PSY’s partners don’t track youth once they leave the program, which is mainly due to a lack of funding. Larry’s outside view helped him to recognize this issue and find a solution. The organization now works with the University of Chicago and UCLA to track youth housing outcomes after the program assistance ends.
“In business you wouldn’t work with a customer and then ignore the customer after [you provided services]. You want to be customer driven. With youth experiencing homelessness, you want to ensure that they have the totality of the resources to flourish in life.”— Larry Cohen, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Point Source Youth
In a for profit business, knowing your brand is also a key strategy if you want the public to recognize and support your product. In a mission-driven organization understanding and standing by your brand is just as important. PSY knows not only that what it does is different from other organizations but also why it is doing it. Larry points out that it easy to get distracted, but never forgets that 1 in 10 youth in every community are experiencing homelessness.
Continuing to adhere to the organization’s mission and brand while also looking at solutions that have been successful in other sectors has been a priority for his team. Larry points out that if we can give everyone in the country a stimulus check, we can give 3.5 million homeless youth direct cash. “If you ask me, ‘what are they going to spend it on’, then I’m going to ask you how much of your stimulus check you spent on Chardonnay.”
Invest Unlimited Time in Beneficial Public-Stakeholder Relationships
There are no innovative solutions in the absence of trusted partners and funding sources and the way PSYstrategized around these issues has been a long-term game. Building relationships with key potential supporters is a critical and long-term component of success. Larry suggests that nonprofit leaders identify individuals who will be important to their mission and prioritize them. “Make them like you, fast,” Larry said. Remember their name, where they live, what they like and their birthday. Make a connection with them. Then after that initial positive connection, he encourages investing in long-term relationship building. It isn’t effective to meet a public-stakeholder once and then to immediately request funding; you need a stronger connection.
Meet stakeholders where they are at. If you know they are regularly at city council meetings, then attend them. Ensure that it’s obvious that you are attending as well. He half-jokes that you should wear a fuchsia dress, then sit in the front row, and be sure to shake their hand and thank them after. Having this kind of focus, patience and the discipline to cement these connections over the course of years is how you ultimately get their support.
“When you write [a public stake-holder] the seventh email, after the second year, after they have seen you at 13 meetings in the fuchsia dress every time, then you write in the subject of the email ‘Hi, it’s fuchsia dress Larry’ then they are going to remember you and they will answer it.”— Larry Cohen, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Point Source Youth
It may take five years to build that relationship and you cannot put in this level of effort with everyone, but it will work, and it will be worth the investment.
PSY’s goal of eliminating homelessness for 3.5 million youth is an audacious goal that Larry admits is a hard issue to solve, but whole-heartedly believes he can achieve. However, there is much left to do, and he noted that no one tackling mission-driven issues can achieve their goals without work/life balance. While for-profit business often discourages self-care, it is a challenge that leaders of mission-driven organizations have to meet in order to reach their highest potential.
Larry Cohen co-founded Point Source Youth in 2015. He previously co-founded and sold Heartbeat Experts, a company that connects the world’s leading scientific researchers to the health care industry with offices in 22 countries, now part of IBM Watson.
Larry worked in the healthcare field for 20 years. He broadcasted the first HIV treatment meetings online in the 1990s and was Director of the National AIDS Treatment Advocacy Project, which was the first community-based organization to advocate for the combination HIV/AIDS treatment that would change the course of the AIDS crisis. He holds a BA in Political Science from the University of California at Berkeley.
The Jet Fuel Series aims to bring different perspectives to the debate that currently dominates the mission-driven sector, addressing the needs of nonprofit or for profit entities alike. Caravanserai Project will publish a monthly blog based on conversations we had with various stakeholders such as futurists, community leaders, academics, entrepreneurs, captains of various industries, from different walks of life and locations whose unique experiences and views hopefully will help us and our network reimagine our efforts in order to increase our impact and advance our missions.
This blog was made possible in part by the generous support provided by the Wells Fargo Open for Business Fund. Caravanserai Project is the recipient of a Wells Fargo Open for Business Fund award aiming to provide programs and services that support small business viability through growth, expansion, innovation, and increased productivity. Read more about this award.