It has been four years since Matt Shaw first felt the spark of something bigger stirring in him. That spark, he says, was the planting of a seed that would eventually grow into Charlotte's first street magazine. Aimed at giving a voice to the voiceless, Speak Up magazine assists homeless and vulnerably housed individuals, or those whose home situations aren't permanent, with an opportunity to sell issues of the magazine for income and, hopefully, gain a second chance for financial independence. Volunteers fill it with photography and local news coverage focused on poverty and social justice issues. The paper also features stories of homeless people.
Speak Up got its own second chance when it won a grant earlier this month from SEED20, which stands for Social Entrepreneurs Empowered. The competition works with social entrepreneurs, or individuals and organizations tackling social issues, offering cash prizes for innovative ideas that influence change. This year, SEED20 awarded Speak Up $10,000 to further its mission that, until now, has subsisted on faith and passion but suffered from sporadic funding.
After quitting his job as a fifth-year high school language arts teacher in 2009, Matt and his wife, Speak Up co-founder Lana Shaw, found themselves in the publishing business.
"The calling [to create Speak Up] came from a moment I had with God," says Matt. During a period of contemplative thought, a clear message, based on a Bible passage, came to him: "Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves."
"It wasn't just about the poor, it was about giving a voice to the poor," he says.
Vendors, often homeless people, receive copies of Speak Up, which they can sell for a profit. Or, they can re-invest into more magazines, which they purchase at a discount. Speak Up is not a new concept: An estimated 122 street papers exist in over 41 countries. Matt's parents also had experience with the papers. As missionaries in the Philippines, they started one called The Jeepney.
The Shaws began their journey without a plan, strategy, money or network of resources. It launched at a snail's pace, nearly two years after Matt thought of the idea, and paperwork to create the nonprofit took well over a year to complete. The couple worked odd jobs to keep themselves afloat, doing anything from construction to selling copper wires to teaching Internet skills to elderly women.
The couple set up shop in April 2011 in the small business incubator offices of Area 15, located off North Davidson and 15th streets. Speak Up published its first issue that October with the help of friends, family and volunteers.
The first issue was promising for the nonprofit and its vendors. Lives changed. One woman was able to buy a new set of teeth with her earnings; another made enough money to regain her truck driver's certification and financial independence.
But operational costs were getting in the way. Printing and overhead approached $20,000.
"It was emotional and unpredictable, not knowing what was going to come in," Matt says. "Sometimes, I wasn't sure how we were going to put gas in the car or how a bill was going to get paid."
Matt tried for a SEED20 grant for the first time in 2011, during a search for additional funding. He was unsuccessful.
Publishing the second issue was also a struggle. Lack of funds and resources kept pushing the publishing date back. One month, then two, until an entire year had passed between issues.
"We would dread our vendor meetings, when we had to tell our people that we didn't have a magazine for them to sell," Lana says.
The second issue finally did publish in October 2012. That month, too, Speak Up had a second chance to participate in the SEED20 competition. They were selected as one of 20 organizations to compete, and were eventually awarded the $10,000 cash prize. SEED20 pairs organizations like Speak Up with "coaches" to help them develop a three-minute pitch for their business, which is presented and judged by a panel of Charlotteans that includes venture capitalists, radio talk show hosts and the CEOs of several nonprofits.
"First and foremost, we look for passion," says Mike Elliot, venture capitalist for Noro-Mosely Partners and a SEED20 judge. "We also consider the innovation of the idea and its social impact on our community."
Matt hopes that the financial boost will help Speak Up become a more sustainable entity that can continue to serve those who need it most.
"We tread a fine line between faith and foolishness on our journey, but we have learned who we are in this process," he says.