(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of two articles spotlighting entrepreneurial programs at two private universities in Nashville. This and the first article were completed prior to the COVID-19 pandemic that has drastically altered programs and classes at most Tennessee universities.)
Rob Touchstone’s entry into the entrepreneurial sector came in an unusual way. It was driven by his strong faith-based roots and a vision for creating a business with a social enterprise focus.
“I wanted to create a coffee shop to better live out my faith in the marketplace,” he explained. At the time, Touchstone was a Youth Minister who was also pursuing a Master’s in Divinity degree at Lipscomb, and he captured the vision and plan as part of his capstone coursework.
In mid-2012, he and a group of friends made the dream a reality, co-founding The Well Coffeehouse, a chain that has grown to four stores in Nashville and a fifth in Indiana. On his personal webpage, Touchstone describes the venture as “a social enterprise that turns profits into hope for those in need globally while creating an inclusive space to love people locally.”
Specifically, The Well Coffeehouse dedicates profits from its sales to providing clean water for residents of impoverished countries where access to that critical asset is limited or non-existent. The business’ name – The Well – underscores the focus on drilling wells to provide water.
“Thousands of people now have access to safe, clean drinking water because of you,” the company declares on its webpage in a tribute to its customers.
Today, the same faith and true sense of making a difference that have built The Well are guiding Touchstone’s work with students as Director of the Center for Business As Mission (BAM) at Lipscomb.
One might say that the role that he has held since January 2015 came, not as an accident but rather as a life’s purpose for the then Adjunct Professor of Bible at Lipscomb.
“I had a chance meeting with the Dean of Business at the university,” Touchstone says in describing the late 2014 occurrence when he was on campus. “After only an hour of conversation, he cast a vision for me to come and teach students how to do business as mission and to create a Center for students to engage experientially.”
The first priority for the new Director was to build-out an entrepreneurship minor. It’s a 15-hour curriculum that includes three required courses from this list – “Introduction to Business,” “Principles of Business as Mission,” ”Social Entrepreneurship,” “Faith and Culture,” and “Creativity: Faith, Vocation, & Co-Creation” – along with elective options.
“We built it as a framework to teach students how to do good in the world as they live-out their faith in business,” Touchstone explains.
An important part of the work starts in the “Introduction to Business” class where teams of students, mostly freshmen or sophomores, are loaned $200 to launch a business. The profit they earn becomes start-up capital for aspiring global entrepreneurs who lack access to business resources and funding. Students then have the opportunity to go abroad and connect with these entrepreneurs.
More recently, Lipscomb launched the BAM Fellows program that is designed to offer students academic training, experiential learning, mentoring, service opportunities and global learning experience. There were 12 students in the initial “deep dive,” as Touchstone describes the program.
“It’s rigid enough that it will appeal mostly to students who genuinely desire to go deeper academically and experientially,” he says. “This program is attracting some of our very best students in the College of Business.”
Under the program, the BAM Fellows are partnered with an existing business or social enterprise that provides a two-way learning experience. Students learn mission-driven entrepreneurship from the enterprise while also offering the business owner something of value in return. The latter comes in the form of a consultation project that will help the enterprise.
The 2019 Fellows spent a full month helping a Jamaican woman start a shoe business in one of the poorest parishes in the country.
“It’s a win-win for everyone,” Touchstone says, adding that “the students see they can help, but also come back as better business entrepreneurs.”
Always on the cutting edge, Lipscomb held its first “Business As Mission Conference” in September that more than 350 people attended. Planning is already underway for another one on October 1.
Touchstone’s philosophy is probably best captured in his strong belief that everyone matters, businessmen and women should always do things ethically, and programs like BAM Fellows help individuals be more sustainable in some of the most poverty-laced sections of the world. Ensuring that others do their part is clearly what drives him.