What a dizzying decade it’s been: in 2000, the tail end of a high-flying dot-com boom created instant gazillionaires… and now, chronic long-term unemployment competes for attention with homeowners struggling to avoid foreclosures. While bad, the news isn’t all bad, and in fact the green shoots of social entrepreneurship born in the fervor of that turn-of-the-century boom give real hope that our busted economy will emerge not just revived, but transformed.
NPR marks a decade of social innovation through business with a story highlighting major trends of the movement. In “Change You Can Invest In: Social Entrepreneurship,” reporter Larry Abramson tracks the converging impulses from 3 different sectors:
- traditional wealthy donors who aren’t satisfied with giving sums to direct services charities or non-profits because they also want to address root causes of injustice;
- burgeoning corporate social responsiblity programs who spin off employees with corporate culture know-how in combination with social mandates;
- turn of the century (circa 1999) creation of a particular kind of Silicon Valley millionaire with San Francisco Bay Area progressive values and high tech skills.
It’s a uniquely American phenomenom where opportunity and inequality chafe, and in a hopeful way, provide the necessary creative friction to find solutions. In America, we have the opportunity to create enormous wealth in a stable business environment, and we feel an even stronger need to create meaning by workng to reduce poverty and injustice. A service that closes the nutrition gap between rich and poor schoolkids by providing organic hot meals that is also making money? A site that helps you become a microlender to someone in the developing world, or even one of those people struggling to make ends meet at home? For more profiles of socially responsible businesses:
Says Abramson, “according to one estimate, 500 professors are teaching courses on social entrepreneurship worldwide.” The demand that business do no harm at least (Google’s motto is “do no evil”) and at best, put entrepreneurship to work solving social ills, has trickled up from students enrolling at business schools.
…the current generation of young people also has a strong sense of social responsibility, said Thomas Moore, dean of the College of Business Administration at Northeastern, which has some 200 students enrolled in social enterprise programs.
“There’s a lot of interest in social enterprise at the business school, and I think it’s partly generational,” Moore said.
“These days students don’t want to wait; they want to make a difference now,” he said. “This is the curriculum that prospective students expect, and if you don’t give them the opportunity to get involved in it they will do it for themselves anyway.”
If you look beneath the radar of the mainstream corporate business press, you’ll see numerous conferences springing up to cultivate this entrepreneurial energy and match a passionate business builder to a funder. One of the oldest business-school based contests is the Global Social Venture Competition, organized by UC Berkeley’s Haas Business School. The Social Venture Network brings fledgling businesses and established ones together, advertising conferences and other opportunities like the ones listed here. There are vibrant communities of business people coming together to “marry meaning with money” and get out of “two pocket thinking”–i.e., making money however you can, then paying for philanthropy out of the other pocket. Social enterprise instead aligns profit to purpose, highlighting green values, fair trade practices, and offering solutions to social justice problems both at home and in the rest of the world.
Those businesses eager to distinguish their value-driven missions from mere corporate greenwashing have even designated a special form of corporation–a “B Corp” designation–to signal their deep, bottom line commitment to a minimal carbon footprint, fair trade and hiring practices, and profitability. [Disclosure: Care2.com is a B Corporation company. A good thing!]
In some ways, the 2007-2008 meltdown in the financial services sector is the flipside (or karmic turn of the wheel) for business schools that produced greedy Wall Streeters dabbling in risky ventures that jeopardized people’s homes, pensions, and jobs. It’s reassuring that young people, experienced serial entrepreneurs, and anybody with a business idea that’s also a social good sees possibility in doing good, and perhaps even doing well at it.
Maybe it’s finally time to stop looking at corporate America to create jobs, and try launching your own socially responsible business to create jobs of your own.
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