Why we can solve the world’s problems with social enterprise
Someone once told me, that if we were to invest the same level of resources into solving key societal issues, as companies do when improving human resource management systems, the world would be a much better place. Why? Because if we applied that amount of money, time and brain power to devising up solutions and innovating to solve social challenges, rather than trying to improve software which ultimately aims to increase a company’s profit, we would all be much better off. In my mind, I was sold on this idea. After some research, I discovered that this concept does exist and there are in fact companies out there that spend all of their time, resources and talent on trying to improve the world that we live in. It’s called social entrepreneurship.
Social entrepreneurship, according to Wikipedia, is the use of the techniques by start up companies and other entrepreneurs to develop, fund and implement solutions to social, cultural, or environmental issues. Essentially, it is a business model that blends philanthropy with social impact to meet the needs of society. Be it issues of pollution, food insecurity, poor nutrition — the lists of problems that exist in our world today are endless.
But why do we need social entrepreneurs, when we have an array of non-governmental organisations and governmental entities with decades of experience already addressing these challenges? It comes down to what Michael Porter, Harvard Business School professor, calls the ‘awkward reality’. According to Porter, the awkward reality is that whilst NGOs and social organisations are unique and important, and indeed ‘enormous innovation, enormous energy, enormous talent now has been mobilised through this structure to try to deal with all of these challenges’, the issue is that progress is not happening fast enough at a large enough scale. And this comes down to a lack of resources. We therefore have to confront the reality that these resources lie in business, because resources are overwhelmingly created by businesses. And businesses aim to profit. So it makes sense to apply this strategy to social missions — to generate as much profit as possible from a social cause so it can be redistributed back into society.
An example of a successful social enterprise is Rekindle, based in New Zealand. The idea of Rekindle is to divert wood waste from landfills and demolition sites, and turn it into New Zealand designed and crafted furniture, whilst in the meantime using that process to equip disadvantaged youth with skills and jobs. I also recently met the team behind Shanghai Young Bakers, who through their social enterprise program, offer half-day bakery classes, bread and pastry catering and technical consulting. The purpose of their business is to provide fully-sponsored French bakery and pastry training to underprivileged youth from rural areas in China, in order to provide them with the skills needed to find qualified jobs or to start their own businesses. And the more successful these enterprises become, and the more profit they make, the larger the impact they can make in society. Now imagine if a social enterprise could become as big as, say, Coca-Cola? Imagine how big of an impact that could make.
Thus according to Hilde Schwab, chairperson and co-founder of the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship: ‘Social enterprise models combine the financial discipline of market capitalism with the passion and compassion required to create a more fair and just world.’ And to me, the key is therefore collaboration. It is not only a collaboration of a traditional business approach with social aims, but I also believe that existing businesses have to collaborate with NGOs or social enterprises in order for big changes to happen.
Already, there are many accelerators and funds, such as The Hult Prize, that want to support and see social entrepreneurs succeed. Hopefully in the future, we can see more people taking their ideas and turning them into successful and impactful businesses to make the world a better place. I certainly hope that I can be one of those people one day.
Check out Michael Porter’s TED Talk about business for good here: