Discouraged about business? The scandals of the last 18 months may be the least of it. Sure, it doesn't boost any businessperson's morale to learn just how many big corporations have been cooking their books or how many CEOs pocketed zillion-dollar pay packages while their stocks tanked. But if the overall economic environment were healthy, the miscreants could be written off for what they are: a tiny minority of corporate leaders caught with their hands in the cookie jar. Of course, the environment is anything but healthy. Consumer confidence remains shaky. The stock market bounces around listlessly. Big companies are reining in spending, as is virtually every federal agency but the Pentagon.

Half the states seem to be going broke.

It all amounts to the cloudiest economic climate in decades, and it colors the popular perception of entrepreneurship as well as of corporations. "With all the bad news that you hear, if you had a 21-year-old saying, 'Hey, I want to go into business,' you'd have to ask 'Why?" says one company owner.

Well, let us offer this mythical 21-year-old an answer: For all its troubles, business can make a difference. And some companies can make more of a difference than others. In fact, let's take this young man or woman out to the streets -- say, the streets of Boston's Dorchester neighborhood, not far from the Fields Corner subway stop. This part of Dorchester is not what you'd call scenic. It's a seemingly random collection of down-at-the-heels housing, low-rent stores, and trash-strewn vacant lots. The brick building at 2-8 Bowdoin Street -- once a lounge and dancehall -- fits right in. Next door is an abandoned auto-repair shop. Across the street is a storefront church. The windows to the building are covered with mesh grates, the doors locked.

But knock on one of those doors and get yourself ushered in. The experience is a little like Dorothy's when she finds herself in full-color Oz rather than dreary black-and-white Kansas.

Right away you're in an office -- no anteroom here, no receptionist -- where half a dozen people are banging away on keyboards or chattering on phones. Open the door into the next room, and your senses are assaulted. The clatter and shouts of a busy commercial kitchen compete with Caribbean rhythms coming from wall speakers. The aroma of fresh-cooked dinners wafts through the air. Shelves along the wall are crammed with supplies. People in jackets emblazoned with a bright yellow-and-black sun logo hurry about. In the kitchen itself, head chef Kenny Perry and supervisor Melucy Barbosa watch over a crew cutting, scooping, and packing on a mini­assembly line. Meat loaf, mashed potatoes, and peas plop into individual containers. The containers go into insulated carriers, the carriers onto trucks. Soon the food will be zipped to a dozen senior centers and other agencies, most of it destined for Meals on Wheels recipients.

This is City Fresh Foods (No. 56), a $2 million entrepreneurial business, and it could be a story all by itself. CEO Glynn Lloyd, raised in suburban Sharon, Mass., comes out of college wanting to make the world a better place. He tries teaching. He works for a nonprofit. Frustrated, he decides to pursue his twin passions, healthy food and helping out a low-income area, by going into business. City Fresh? "It's a vehicle for people to be employed, gain wealth, and at the same time provide a service to the neighborhood," he says. Now run by Glynn and his older brother, Sheldon Lloyd, the company is turning a profit and eyeing major expansion opportunities. People such as head chef Perry, a Dorchester native who has been with City Fresh for seven years, wouldn't dream of seeking their fortunes elsewhere. "I could make more money somewhere else," he says. "Here I feel like I'm needed. And we're growing. We're growing very fast."

Glynn and Sheldon Lloyd are trying to set an example by giving opportunities to people who don't get many.

City Fresh is an example of a different kind of business, one that marries humane values with hard-driving entrepreneurship, that tries to make a difference by offering opportunities to people who otherwise don't get many, that blends idealism with smart management. Need an antidote to gloom and cynicism? You just may discover it among this year's Inner City 100, the fastest-growing private companies in America's inner cities. There, as it happens, you can find businesses like City Fresh sprouting up like spring in a variety of industries.

For a while, what was startling about the Inner City 100 was simply that it existed -- that you could actually find 100 examples of rapidly growing companies in neighborhoods that most Americans were writing off as hopeless. Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter, founder of the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City, which compiles the ranking, was right: Tough as these neighborhoods may be, they offer competitive advantages of labor and location that can't be found in the suburbs. But this year the list is five years old, and Porter's ideas have joined the mainstream. Close to 5,000 companies in 155 cities were nominated for the current list. More than 1,000 applied. The winners are an elite group: They grew at an average annual rate of 55%. They created more than 9,100 new jobs over a five-year period -- and in areas that could use the work.

"I could make more money somewhere else. Here I feel like I'm needed. And we're growing. We're growing very fast."