- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 30, 2008

After watching Casa-blanca” when he was 12, Robert Egger dreamed of owning “the greatest nightclub in the world.” He explains: “I wanted to be an agent of change for something profoundly huge and big and good, and I was going to use showbiz to get it.”

After high school, he pursued the dream by working in D.C.-area nightclubs and music venues, but life had other plans. While Mr. Egger was volunteering with a Georgetown church that was delivering food bought from Safeway to the homeless, he saw an opportunity: feeding the homeless with excess food from restaurants while also training the recipients for restaurant and catering jobs. For him, it was a “beautiful circle.”

Within a week, he had a business plan and was firing off letters to every foundation he could find. He initially was greeted by a chorus of nays, but after dozens of rejections, a $25,000 check arrived from the Abell Foundation. Mr. Egger used it to buy a refrigerated truck.

It was coming up on Jan. 20, 1989 - the eve of George H.W. Bush’s inauguration - so Mr. Egger cold-called the Republican National Committee. Soon, the former punk-rocker had a deal with the incoming administration to donate all the excess food from the inauguration and its inaugural balls. The story caught the attention of the local media, including a young reporter named Katie Couric, and with gallons of lobster bisque splashing around Mr. Egger’s truck, D.C. Central Kitchen (DCCK) was born.

Today, D.C. Central Kitchen is a nationally prominent social enterprise. With the mission of using food to “strengthen bodies, empower minds and build communities,” it gathers and reprocesses about 2 tons of surplus food, sending more than 4,500 nutritious meals to shelters, drug treatment centers and children’s after-school programs every day.

The chefs are formerly homeless, incarcerated or addicted persons who enroll in DCCK’s Culinary Job Training program and then join as full-time staff with a starting wage of $11.75 per hour. Members of the 71st class received their graduation certificates last week after completing the 12-week, five-day-a-week program. Among last year’s graduates, 95 percent found jobs, with an average starting salary of $10 per hour. After six months, 85 percent had retained their first job.

As recent graduate Betty Johnson says, “D.C. Central Kitchen saved my life. … They took my little hope and turned it into a great big hope. Now I know for a fact that I will be somebody, somebody that I can be proud of.”

D.C. Central Kitchen also is harnessing the entrepreneurial energy of young people in colleges nationwide through the Campus Kitchens Project. Operating on 12 university and high school campuses (and growing), the project has prepared and delivered more than 700,000 meals while teaching culinary skills to underemployed men and women. It also is an excellent service-learning opportunity for the students, who have volunteered more than 180,000 hours - preparing them to be the next generation of agents of social change.

Meanwhile, DCCK has given Mr. Egger a platform to be a provocateur in the nonprofit sector. Using money earned from speaking across the country - in part about his book “Begging for Change” - he initiated the Voice, Value, Vote Campaign. V3 aspires to dramatically increase the nonprofit sector’s influence on local, state and national elections. The goal, Mr. Egger says, is to “awaken America to the power and potential of our sector and the vital role we play.”

Trotting out numbers to prove his point, he cites the $260 billion donated annually to 1.9 million American nonprofits - which in turn employ more than 14 million people and use more than 80 million volunteers.

“We cannot wait any longer for our leaders to lead us,” Mr. Egger argues. “We have to make [change] happen ourselves.”

Though it may seem far removed from his childhood dream of starting the world’s greatest nightclub, Mr. Egger sees a connection: “It’s service. I’ve always done service. I also know shows, and this is a show. The kitchen can’t solve anything. No one nonprofit can. Our job, our only job, is to make the impractical, the improbable, the impossible - possible, plausible, doable.”

The proof is in the pudding.

Christopher Gergen and Gregg Vanourek are the co-authors of “Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives” and the founding partners of New Mountain Ventures, an entrepreneurial leadership-development company. They can be reached at authors@lifeentrepreneurs.com.

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