Written by Natalie Lynn Rekstad
Erik Schultz grew up in Southern California, a first-generation Norwegian-American born into privilege as a result of his father’s successful pursuit of the American Dream. Along with the tenacity and discipline that built their wealth, his father brought to America the deep love and reverence for nature that is a cornerstone of the Scandinavian spirit, a love shared passionately by young Erik as he pursued the thrill and challenge of testing his mettle against the elements.
During and after his pursuit of a B.A. in Political Science from UC Davis, Erik took time to escape to the mountains to ski and hike regularly with his best friend, John Sidells, also an avid adventurer. When a freak drowning accident cut short John’s life, Erik plunged into a deep search for meaning combined with new resolve to make life count for himself and others. With newfound clarity, he began to pursue a life that would be expansive, on his terms, with nature at its core.
While working in the family business as a means to support a new marriage and an adventurous lifestyle, Erik learned that his beloved nature can be a cruel mistress. A near-fatal backcountry ski accident left him with a spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed from the chest down, plummeting Erik into unfathomable darkness.
Pitch-darkness is oft a catalyst to profound awakening. For Erik, that awakening came at a staggeringly high price. It also afforded an unprecedented opportunity with his grief-stricken father, and Erik ultimately seized an opening toward making social impact his raison d’être.
The Arthur B. Schultz Foundation is a grant-making organization founded by Erik’s father in 1985 on the idea of compassionate capitalism. With Erik’s awakening came a vision toward greater impact, utilizing the foundation’s inspired but long-abandoned idea that had the power to transform the way the developing world achieved systemic change: Invest in small businesses that will pay it forward. With a ferocity borne of great conviction, Erik strategically redesigned the foundation as an organization true to its roots in compassionate capitalism, but on new terms. On Erik’s terms.
Those terms involved professionalizing the organization, compelling Erik to spend years in the trenches refining the grant-making process to leverage the pay it forward model. When the model had been proven across diverse cultures and businesses, he convened forty stakeholders, including notable funders, board members, staff, project managers from three continents, and wife Linn Kincannon, an activist and strategist with extensive experience in social impact. This collective embarked upon an intensive two-day session to chart a bold course for a Theory of Change that had groundbreaking traction and results in the developing world. The year: 2010. The vision: Fuel economic development while instilling a culture of social responsibility within small businesses. The result: THRIIVE.
Working in several countries throughout the developing world, Thriive co-creates an infrastructure of community prosperity by providing local small businesses with interest-free capital and technical assistance … with one condition. In lieu of repaying the loan capital, entrepreneurs provide an equivalent value of in-kind donations to address the community’s self-selected needs. This has taken on varied forms, including job training, medical and dental care, clean water, school uniforms, and even life-vest backpacks, saving the lives of numerous children annually during monsoon season as they navigate dangerous waters to attend school.
The innovative model is transformational on many levels. By dovetailing economic growth with a culture of “we” among prospering men and women entrepreneurs, Thriive helps to transform vulnerable populations into resilient and self-sufficient communities by providing a framework that awakens the core human need to care, connect, and contribute to the greater good. Notably, a vast majority of Thriive-funded entrepreneurs embrace local philanthropy as a fundamental part of their businesses and identity, continuing to contribute long after the initial loan has been reinvested in their community.
Innovation is the foundation of economic growth. Thriive’s triple-bottom-line model has proven that innovation can leverage that growth by adding the two other legs of the stool: an improved social fabric, and more stable environs, including sanitation, food security and clean water.
While Thriive has become known for its groundbreaking innovation in social impact, what brings Erik tremendous joy is the connection to each community in which Thriive invests. Erik spends much of his year traversing the globe from Nicaragua to Vietnam, from Kenya to Guatemala, cultivating an effective network of change agents transforming their culture, and their world, through compassionate capitalism.
Yet the greatest adventure of all is working alongside his cherished wife Linn, a kindred and equal with a shared passion for global impact. As for the early vow of making life count for himself and others, Erik is a man of his word. And the world is better for it.