When A Social Enterprise Goes Bust: A Failed Wilmington Business Leaves Unmet Promises to Struggling Communities

In 2017, Ashley Biden, daughter of Vice President Joe Biden launched Livelihood, a sweatshirt line. Socially conscious hoodies, made from organic cotton, sourced and manufactured in the USA. Hoodies described by Biden as “a universal piece of clothing that everybody could get behind”, with 100% of proceeds to be donated to two communities; one in Wilmington, DE and the other in Washington, DC. According to her interview with Refinery29, Biden intended for a non-traditional board to manage the distribution of the proceeds, avoiding the traditional board model of people with influence and money. Interestingly, I could not find a list of or mention of Livelihood’s actual board members anywhere online. Ashley, although individually not of high net worth, carries an influential name that comes with a powerful reach. Every major fashion publication covered the launch of Livelihood.

Livelihood was conceived with the help of the president of gilt.com (a successful white guy), whom Ashley met at one of her father’s speaking engagements.. The sweatshirts were sold on Gilt’s website. Today, Livelihood is no longer available on Gilt’s site and hoodies are being sold at deep discounts online at Saks Off 5th. Livelihood’s domains http://getinvolvedinyourhood.com/ and livelihood.com both currently inactive.

Ashley is a social worker by training and known in Delaware for her work for economic justice, as well as serving as executive director of the Delaware Center for Justice (DCJ), an organization focused on criminal justice reform. In March 2019, Ashley resigned from her role at DCJ, amongst rumors that she would work on her father’s 2020 presidential campaign. In late March, Delaware Online reported that Ashley told colleagues at DCJ that she was resigning to work on her Livelihood brand.

The New Journal reported that Livelihood is no longer registered in Delaware due to failure to pay taxes and file reports, and currently owes $729 in taxes, penalties, and interest. Attempts by The News Journal to secure comments from Ashley, her company’s registered agent, Joe Biden’s campaign manager, and the Biden Foundation went unanswered. The News Journal also reached out to community leaders in Wilmington’s Northeast section of the city, confirming that they hadn’t seen or heard anything about donations from Livelihood.

According to the Small Business Association (SBA), 30% of businesses fail in the first two years. It isn’t shocking that Livelihood failed. And like most businesses, it appears Biden didn’t have a contingency plan for failure or a PR exit strategy.  Although Livelihood intended to serve underserved communities, after a thorough internet search produced zero articles about Biden or Livelihood meeting with community organizers to discuss the brand, ask for feedback, or share concrete donation plans.

If you’re familiar with the terms “white savior” or “white savior complex”, both refer to a white person acting to help non-white people, and in some cases, the help is perceived as self-serving. The communities Livelihood intended to serve are predominantly neighborhoods with residents of color. Community leaders and residents of the neighborhoods appear to be missing from every aspect of Livelihood’s business except the promise of a percentage of the profits.

Dozens of companies have been launched in the pursuit of helping. Many have been successful and praised for their work. But there are many documented cases of communities reporting that the help they were offered wasn’t what they needed or that it never arrived. If a company really wants to be of service and not just be a “savior” it seems to come down to two things:

  1. Asking the right questions at the beginning, such as “Do you need help?” “What kind of help do you need?” “Do you want our help?”

  2. Communicating honestly about what the company will do if they fail.

  3. Communicating honestly about what the company will do if they fail.

 

Accountability is key, and accountability is only possible when expectations are clear and everyone is on the same page towards the same goal.

Amy Loder is a passionate and creative thinker and doer. She is a native of Wilmington, Delaware, growing up in family that valued and worked for racial equality and justice, loved the arts, and instilled in her a deep love for humanity. Ms. Loder works as a personal stylist (http://amyloder.com), has extensive experience in the fields of business development and production. She has lived in NYC, Pennsylvania and Washington, DC.