Horace Mann junior helps moms fight poverty with hats


Ryan Jonas isn’t your average Horace Mann student.

Rather, he’s a dynamo of sorts, an industrious young fellow who started Bronx Built, a nonprofit focused on eradicating poverty. And, he’s teaching other young people about what he calls “social entrepreneurship.”

Making the case video games and television aren’t the only things he and his high school-aged peers care about, the 16-year-old Jonas spends his free time educating other students on how giving back actually yields rewards.

In fact, he’s so passionate about it he penned a book on the topic — “What Is Your Impact? Become a Social Entrepreneur.” It’s an introduction to the world of entrepreneurship, geared toward young readers, chronicling the adventures of a clear-eyed, fresh-faced character named Lucy.

His penchant for service traces back at least to middle school when he co-founded Bronx Built. The organization teaches struggling, indigent and otherwise under-resourced people how to crochet, crafting dazzling yarn hats — which Bronx Built pays them for — before selling them at stores and on its website. Profits from selling the hats are reinvested into Bronx Built.

Jonas hails from Manhattan’s Upper East Side, but “giving back to my Bronx community was something I’m still passionate about,” he said. It’s also what motivated him to team up in 2015 with his sister to found Bronx Built.

But along with helping them scrape together extra cash by creating hats, Bronx Built offers participants a “stress-free, bilingual environment,” with child care and a wholesome meal not just for them, but their families.

Classes take place at two Bronx sites each week, including at the East 149th Street offices of LIFT — the Lavine Family Innovation Fund — and a second at Sanctuary for Families, which describes itself as New York’s leading advocate for survivors of domestic violence, sex trafficking, and related forms of gender violence.

Classes typically draw about 10 people, but can accommodate as many as 15 — “mainly moms,” some of whom bring their kids, Jonas said. And they’re free to jump in whenever they want.

“It’s a really special experience to see these families come and make something that they really like doing,” Jonas said. “And also special to see them interacting with other members of the community, which wouldn’t have happened without our class.”

It seems to have all started with a middle school trip to Greyston Bakery in Yonkers, where he learned about the bakery’s “open hiring” process — employing people without considering interviews, resumes, background checks or applications.

For Jonas, it was a kind of watershed moment.

“I learned about their open hiring program, and the difference they’re making in their community,” he said. “I was able to see firsthand how one company could change lives. And I knew that that was something that I wanted to do.”

But what exactly is social entrepreneurship?

It’s “a type of business that, while making money, deals with social impact and helps do good, like Warby Parker,” Jonas said. Since its 2010 launch, the glasses company has prided itself on lofty objectives like offering designer eyewear at accessible prices, and distributing a pair of glasses to someone in need for every pair of glasses sold.

“I knew that by making money, but also doing good, I was able to bring those two (objectives) together,” Jonas said. Yet, he’s also hoping down the line he’ll apply a similarly “innovative” approach to tackling not just poverty, but also recidivism, saving the environment, and other “big issues,” although he’s still fleshing out some of the details.

“Social entrepreneurship is something not a lot of people know about,” Jonas said. “I love that I’m able to spread this message, and open up young people’s minds to the world of giving back. It would be great for other students to create their own businesses as well, because if many people created socially conscious businesses, I think the world could be a better place.”