Our Meet the Merchant series features Q&As with real-world Clover merchants. Read our full catalog for innovative ideas and real-life stories of small businesses in action.
In this installment, we chat with Jean Paul Laurent. Jean Paul is the founder of the Unspoken Smiles Foundation, based in New York City, a non-profit organization whose mission is to bring oral health care “to everyone, every day, everywhere.” He shares how he started his foundation and what he sees for its future.
Clover: Good morning, Jean Paul. Can you begin by telling us a little bit of the story behind the Unspoken Smiles Foundation?
Jean Paul Laurent: It all started when I was a student at NYU College of Dentistry pursuing a degree in dental hygiene. My goal at the time was to become a dentist. But it was 2010, and the earthquake in Haiti had devastated the country.
As a Haitian citizen, I couldn’t imagine not doing anything to help. But I didn’t have any money, and I didn’t have any support. The only thing I had was the knowledge that I gained in school which I thought would be helpful to the children.
I wanted to tackle one of the less-publicized health issues—substandard dental care. I asked a couple of friends if they could ship in some necessities: toothpaste, toothbrushes, anything that they could provide in terms of preventative supplies. I found myself going back to Haiti for the first time in 6 years.
My brother and I went to a camp near his home. We came in with the supplies and we announced who we were and that we wanted to help children with dental needs. Within two minutes we were flooded with people from the entire camp; thousands of people lined up to receive screening and care. It was an overwhelming moment for me, not just as a student but as someone who could actually see firsthand the level of infection that I was studying in books. It was a really eye-opening moment in terms of what I needed to do as a clinician to support people’s oral health and well-being.
Clover: How did you begin to address their needs?
Laurent: I officially launched a non-profit organization to bring attention to those who have been left behind, starting with school-based projects that taught kids how to brush properly and provided fluoride to help prevent cavities. Oral health is often overlooked, but the lack of it can destroy people’s life: impairing their ability to eat, to function, to go to work or school, and to enjoy life.
It was the duality of my post-earthquake experience in my home country that gave Unspoken Smiles its name. Despite the tragedy and destruction the community had just experienced, the children were smiling as they received the supplies.
When I returned to the U.S., I had a moment to really think about my purpose in life. I knew it wasn’t going to be dentistry anymore; it was going to be traveling the world to bring dental care to people in need. In 2015 we registered the organization. To date, we have served nearly 7,000 children in eight countries across the world.
Clover: On your website, you describe yourself as a social entrepreneur. Can you explain what that means?
Laurent: Absolutely. A social entrepreneur is a person who pursues novel applications that have the potential to solve community-based problems. These individuals are willing to take on the risk and effort to create positive changes in society through their initiatives. It’s a term that was coined a few years ago with the idea that you can do good while also doing well. Being a non-profit doesn’t mean that we cannot create an enterprise—with things like a sustainable revenue model—that can have a powerful, long-term impact.
Clover: What are the income streams you’ve cultivated to support your work?
Laurent: We use an interesting model for our program. Currently, we rely heavily on pro-bono and in-kind contributions. We raise only a small amount of cash online. Through our in-kind contribution partners, such as the American Dental Association, we receive free dental supplies every year. All of the funds that we collect are invested into marketing, or logistics to bring supplies to communities in need. I like to compare it to a startup—to date we have been in our pre-revenue, proof of concept phase. Thus far we’ve seen great results.
Now that we’re secure in our mission, we’ve recently expanded our pursuit of revenue to support our goal to scale existing programs and support new ones. We currently have three revenue streams: Leadership council membership, Merchandising, and Corporate donations and grant applications.
We recently launched a leadership council membership for young professionals who want to participate and contribute to our programs. The leadership council focuses on regular participation, providing for young professionals to contribute cash, resources, or their expertise on a monthly basis. We expect this membership to grow over the next couple years. We’ve already added a lot of young members to our roster.
We are in the process of launching our online store where supporters can buy branded merchandise such as T-shirts and hats to support our programs. People can support Unspoken Smiles in style with gifts that make our work possible. Profits from each item fund our operating costs and help us grow. You can see more here.
Like all good non-profit organizations, we are always looking for new corporate partners and for applicable grants. If you’d like to get involved please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Clover: How does Clover fit into this picture for you?
Laurent: We wanted to have a portable machine for those times when we are at conferences or events so we could take donations by credit card. Clover offers the Flex, which has all the right features and travels easily.
We made our choice thinking primarily about security. Especially as a small non-profit organization, we wanted to assure donors that all transactions with us were safe and their credit card information would be protected. Our banker recommended it and we’ve been very happy. It’s such a straightforward system, so we don’t have to spend too much time on managing it.
Clover: Where do you see Unspoken Smiles going in the future, and has the COVID-19 pandemic affected those plans?
Laurent: With school closures due to COVID-19, our programs are at risk, and our students in particular are more vulnerable during this time. That’s why Unspoken Smiles is rolling out our biggest initiative yet: Virtual Classrooms. Right now we are beginning the process of regional scaling with the long-term goal of a virtual classrooms that can disseminate our message and help improve the oral health and status of millions of children
The Virtual Classroom launched by Unspoken Smiles seeks to connect career role models/Fellows over video chat to facilitate inclusive learning opportunities for children and youth during this period of sudden and unprecedented educational disruption. As parents are now forced to look at options for teaching and learning approaches, Unspoken Smiles has developed a more open and flexible virtual oral health education for the future.
Otherwise, I think my next goal is to really increase funding to build capacity. We’ve done great with few resources, but I think the next move is to amass the funds to hire the right support team. We have built a successful model that can be replicated anywhere around the world, but it’s a matter of having the right team and the right structure in place to scale it to the next level by 2030.