The Defenders Paper Company: A social enterprise teaching African American teen boys to be successful businessmen

What if all Black boys learned to be working men & family leaders? Our social enterprise teaches teens to sell, speak, dress, lead, succeed.

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Founding Story: Share a story about a key experience or spark that helps the network understand why this project got started or a story about how you became inspired about the potential for this project to succeed.

Our community health clinic sees that poor Black boys who lack role models get mad & get in trouble. In Marin County (CA), 50% of African Americans live in Marin City & 30% live in San Quentin Prison. We believe this is a mental health issue, yet most youth programs focus on tutoring & mentoring. To build wellness for children we need to create role models for emotional well-being. In 2015 our CEO recruited Zared Lloyd to help Black boys change their behavior through respect for self, work and family. Of the 50 boys in The Defenders program, 98% lack a father figure, & most live in poverty & public housing. In this voluntary program, the boys attend weekly after-school trainings to learn business, public speaking & financial management. Jordan,* like 95% of Defenders, has no father figure at home. When I met him he was shy & isolated: he didn't look adults in the eye, never smiled, barely spoke. In March he set up a sales meeting with a popular, local restaurant where he "pitched" the benefits of purchasing products from The Defenders Paper Company, which sources from a Black-owned paper manufacturer that uses no toxic chemicals. Jordan closed the deal & got the business. His confidence soared. Each week, boys join as they learn about it from word of mouth. Another Defender spoke about the commitment to get along: each Defender defends every other Defender. He'd fought with a few boys before becoming a Defender, but now they work together as "brothers." *Alias name

Which categories describe you? (the answer will not be public)

  • Black or African American (for example: African American, Jamaican, Haitian, Nigerian, Ethiopian, Somalian)

Website!defenders-paper-company/wn3zv (in development)

Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [State]

  • California

Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [City]

Marin City

Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [State]

  • California

Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [City]

The Defenders Paper Company launched in 2015 in Marin City, a unique community with Marin County's largest African American population. In the 1940s Black working families came here for shipyard jobs. Jobs left. Over decades, welfare & drugs came. Few residents under 40 have any memory of an intact, healthy family. Later this year The Defenders will expand to Bayview Hunters Point, where we opened a clinic in March 2016 to serve San Francisco's largest Black neighborhood with a similar history.

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

Social determinants of health mean shorter, unhealthier lives for low-income youth. In affluent, mostly white Marin County, 80% of African Americans are marginalized, geographically isolated in unincorporated Marin City or institutionalized in San Quentin. Young people lack hope, family support, choices & examples of success at home, school, work. Teachers & counselors don't look like them. Boys raised by single moms fail to learn what it means to be a man: how to work, dress, speak, & show respect to women & elders. Zared Lloyd becomes this role model for The Defenders. Older boys emulate him to become "anchors" for younger members, breaking historic, dysfunctional patterns. In Marin City, the median income is 38% of the county average. The lack of job skills & opportunities creates poverty, which correlates with depression, anger, academic failure, disruptive behavior & incarceration.

In affluent Marin County, 50% of African Americans live in Marin City & 30% live in San Quentin Prison. The average Marin City resident makes 62% less than the county’s average annual income. The community is plagued by unemployment, crime, poor education and no local grocery store. Where children lack hope, they lack health and well-being.

Our solution is The Defenders Paper Company, a social enterprise led by Marin City boys in middle and high school. This program changes long-term behavioral health by teaching Black boys to become men. As entrepreneurs, they learn to provide for, and to "defend," their family and community.

The Defenders Paper Company teaches boys how to work, dress, speak, present, sell, collaborate, and show respect for themselves and others. Defenders learn that they must work in order for their families to eat, live and thrive. Each boy:

  • Develops a healthy, life-long work ethic to succeed in school, home and jobs.
  • Creates change by demonstrating the courage to solve problems.
  • Leads by example in making their African American community a good, safe, healthy place to live.
  • Uses his own experience to become a mentor, teacher and role model to younger boys.

The Defenders motto is: “Each one teach one.” As each boy makes a sale or learns something that makes him feel better, he shares his story with another boy in the community. Marin City attracts attention for poverty and violence. We, especially, need to share stories of success with young people in this community. Each member of The Defenders helps another boy to have hope and to make healthy choices.

Is your model focused on any of the following traditionally underserved communities?

  • Communities of color
  • Low-income communities

Does your model work within any of the following sectors?

  • Child and Family Services
  • Community Development and Empowerment
  • Criminal Justice
  • Education
  • Mental Health

Year Founded


Project Stage

  • Start-Up (a pilot that has just started operating)

Example: Walk the network through a specific example of what happens when a person or group engages with your solution.

Mark* lives with aunt and uncle. He was a “crack baby” at birth, and both parents were addicts. His mom is still using and his father is trying to get his life together. Mark was spending time with a group of friends, one of whom was in The Defenders. Zared Lloyd, Defenders Program Facilitator and our nominee, has a question that he asks every young man he meets: “Do you know what you were born to do?” Mark could not give an answer, but his face lit up as he said, “I really like this guy.” Zared told Mark what he tells all young men: “You were born to change the world. How are you going to do that?” In August 2015, Mark joined The Defenders, which is a voluntary program. *A real boy and his real story, but not his real name.

Impact: What was the impact of your work last year? Please also describe the projected future impact for the coming years.

Activities focus on long-term improvement in behaviors & learning. Since 2015, teachers report 92% better behavior at school & 84% increased academic performance. Parents and guardians report 95% improved behaviors at home. Zared meets each Defender's parent or guardian. When he met Mark’s aunt & uncle, he learned that Mark was one of the most troubled youth in the community, known for anger issues, getting into fights, & being disrespectful to adults. At the time he was attending a special school for children with behavioral problems. Since then, Mark has undergone a complete transformation, noticed by his caregivers, teachers & neighbors. This fall, Mark will attend public high school with other Defenders and Marin City youth. Future program impact includes expansion to area high schools (MOU signed with Tam H.S. for fall 2016) and to SF Bayview Hunters Point middle school.

Organization Type

  • nonprofit/NGO/citizen sector

Annual Budget

  • $1mil - $5mil

Financial Sustainability Plan: What is your solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

The current project budget includes a FT program facilitator + expenses for the summer Road Trip ($127,900 total for FYE 6/30/16). Sales of household products generate program revenue and pocket change for each boy to see the impact of "his" sale. Our vendor is African-American-owned and eco-sourced. An e-commerce site will be critical to making the purchase easier for consumers, and building sales volume to create sustainable revenue.

Unique Value Proposition: How else is this problem being addressed? Are there other organizations working in the same field, and how does your project differ from these other approaches?

The Defenders Paper Company uniquely combines mental/behavioral health support, cultural sensitivity and job training to build youth leadership: we combine primary health for African Americans with community economic development. While some excellent programs teach job skills (like coding), academic success (through tutoring, music or art), or offer programs for youth "of color," The Defenders program is part of mental health services provided by Marin City Health & Wellness, a community health center founded by African Americans to serve the needs of Black families living in public housing.

Reflect on the Field and its Future: Stepping outside of your project, what do you see as the most important or promising shifts that can advance children’s wellbeing?

African Americans have a shared heritage in U.S. cities, & one that is unique from Latinos or other ethnic groups. Over 50 years, Black communities have changed from working families to dysfunction: plagued by lack of jobs, housing restrictions, influence of drugs, & incarceration. We believe that healthcare + health education + enterprise zones = regenerative communities and families. Everyone needs to buy toilet paper and anyone who learns sales will always be able to find a job: The Defenders Paper Company is a scalable model of youth health & well-being that can create generational change.

Source: How did you hear about the Children’s Wellbeing Challenge? (the answer will not be public)

  • Article in the news
  • Email

Referral: If you discovered the Challenge thanks to an organization or person other than Ashoka, who was it? (the answer will not be public)

Nonprofit Times (?) daily summary with link to


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Photo of Duffels4Kids

This is a great concept! As a resource, look into 5000 Role Models, which was started by Rep. Fredericka Wilson in Miami. Perhaps some of the activities/initiatives undertaken by 5000 Role Models can be applied here. Website link:

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