Dr. Julian Maha re-imagines nonprofits with the visionary focus of a broad-based business start-up.
As with many things of value, the genesis of KultureCity arose from a personal challenge.
Dr. Julian Maha, CEO of KultureCity, and his wife, Dr. Michele Kong, were faced with that challenge when their son, Abram, was diagnosed with autism. Their response has led to the growth of a new kind of nonprofit, one that is making waves across the country and having an impact by making life better for people living with disabilities and their families.
The couple founded KultureCity to make a difference. In the process, Maha has envisioned a new kind of nonprofit that is structured more like a business.
“Coming from my background in medicine and being actively involved in startups in the medical field, I really want to approach a nonprofit from a different angle,” he explains. “Not knowing much about nonprofits when I came in, I felt there were a couple of obvious weaknesses. More often than not the scope of the typical nonprofit is pretty small. So for instance if you wanted to start a nonprofit to help feed the homeless, you would follow your mission statement which negates you from doing anything but that. So the first thing we did with KultureCity was create a mission statement that was very broad and would help us generate the most impact and continuously innovate within the sector.”
“The second thing was to form KultureCity like a startup. When you look at the difference between a startup and a regular business, a business is going to generate revenue but it is always going to have more local impact in its scope. Whereas a startup normally tackles a problem that is transformative, that has potential for national and international impact on a problem that needs to be solved. We took the approach of a nonprofit acting as a startup. We wanted to tackle an issue that could be transformative not only on the local level but that could then be scaled to the national level.”
Accessibility became the issue KultureCity would tackle, breaking down the physical, familial and community barriers.
“The third thing was to put together a really good team. We could not provide equity, obviously, but we could provide something called impact equity. People became involved primarily because they believed in what we were trying to do and they were passionate about us. They would not only volunteer their time, but be invested in it from an impact standpoint.
“So those were the three big things that allowed us create our organization,” Maha says.
In Maha’s view the nonprofit industry has almost been pigeonholed by the problems they want to tackle. “A fifth of the population of the United States have a disability. And of that 20 percent, only 18 percent have visible disabilities, so accessability for them is an issue. But accessibility goes way beyond that and must touch the 82 percent of people who do not have visible disabilities, children with autism or veterans with PTSD or people with Parkinson’s or stroke or early onset dementia. Those are the populations that we as a community sometimes leave out when we plan our cities, plan our venues and plan our social impact. That is really where we want to have an impact that can be magnified many times over,” Maha says.
“The big vision for us going forward is that we want to be the accessibility nonprofit startup. Looking at our sensory initiative, when you go into public venues like Urban Cookhouse you will find our KultureCity sign that tells you this is a sensory inclusive location—also the Birmingham Zoo and McWane Science Center. We want to take that and transfer it to the rest of the world. Right now our sensory inclusion symbol is in nine NBA arenas, two football stadiums, three NHL arenas, multiple zoos across the country, a couple of museums,and it is growing on a daily basis.”
Maha has looked at the nonprofit sector with fresh eyes. “We wanted to think big and innovate within the sector. Almost like launching a brand. We knew to effect change we had to get big and we had to get big fast. So we scaled our initiatives,” he says.
After working on some grassroots initiatives, Maha says they wanted to create an initiative that could actually save lives, be trackable and also engage the public. “That was our lifeBOKS initiative that involved a bluetooth tracking bracelet and other things that we give to families with children with autism to prevent wandering. Because for kids with autism under the age of eight, drowning is the leading cause of death. We shipped out about 4,500 kits in the past year and prevented 33 deaths. So that was trackable data. It also enabled us to engage the general public because if you don’t care about autism, you still care about saving a child’s life. That community engagement led to our sensory inclusion initiative which allowed us to work on a whole new level educating people on the guest experience for individuals with non visible disabilities.
KultureCity’s next initiative coming in October is an all-inclusive app that is designed to tie the disability community together. “So if you or a family member has a disability, you download our app and it will give you resources based on what the disability is and plug you into a community of families in your area that you can interact with. It will give, for example, sensory inclusion locations in your area,” Maha says.
“If you have a loved one with a disability or a food allergy and you’re traveling to, let’s say, Birmingham, the first thing you have to do is Google search what places will be accommodating to your loved one’s needs,” Maha said. “But there is always the question on the reliability of the information, and the need to verify it.” The KultureCity app will aim to cut through all the noise on Google and make sure the information you find is reliable. The app will use GPS data to show you spaces inclusive to people with disabilities and restaurants friendly to people with food allergies. Many children, especially those with autism, have food sensitivities, which makes eating out while traveling difficult.
Maha announced the new app at the annual KultureBALL in July. At the event, Scott Simpson, senior partner at Simpson, McMahan, Glick & Burford (SMGB) in Birmingham, announced the firm would commit $50,000 to the nonprofit’s Sensory Inclusion Initiative over the course of five years. Kulture City has gained national acclaim for its efforts. It was one of just 52 non-profits—the only one in Alabama—to receive funding from Tom’s of Maine, through its Good Matters program. It twice was named best-reviewed special needs nonprofit by greatnonprofits.org. And in 2015, KultureCity was one of just 10 nonprofits nationwide supported by Microsoft for its Windows 10 Upgrade Your World initiative. Maha was just nominated for a humanitarian award by the NASCAR Foundation.
“We want to be a household name,” Maha says. “We want to be the new symbol of accessibility and continually innovate. For lack of a better word, we want to market disability so that the general public wants to be engaged and wants to help. This is not a small issue. It is a big issue that affects one in five people. We as a community need to step up because, bottom line, it speaks to who we are as a community.”