The capitalist have left the building. We just can’t find them anymore. Everyone seems to be a social entrepreneur (when they aren’t green investors). Do-gooders with with spreadsheets as they are called. People who take a social need and turn it into a business.
And we have some classic examples to look up to. Aussie Nic Frances whose group, Easy Being Green, plans to cut carbon emissions in Australian households over the next 10 years. The business? He hands out free low-energy light bulbs and low-flow shower heads in return for the rights to trade the carbon emissions the equipment will save. Nic sells the carbon credits to industry, and is now aims to take his business global.
Isaac Durojaiye runs a franchise in Africa. In a continent where children die from diarrhea from bad sanitation, Isaac supplies mobile toilets to slum areas and young people run the franchise in the slum. They keep 60 percent and the rest goes to Isaac. And Africa is a large continent with a huge market to expand the franchise.
Bottom line (no pun)? Their business address a social need AND they make money from the enterprise. Of course, they put more money back into the business to buy more light bulbs or more toilets – a typical business expansion strategy of investing back into your business for expansion. And I am sure they take enough to ensure they don’t suffer too much.
But there are other classic examples of social entrepreneurs. Another classic example of a business idea that started with a focus on a social need and expanded this globally? Wal-Mart. Sam Walton started with a very basic idea of offering the community what they needed and wanted straight after the Second World War – stores that offer goods at the lowest possible prices and that stayed open later during key holidays. He passed on the saving he made from buying from lowest priced suppliers to his customers. A basic social need of the time developed into a business model social entrepreneurs have duplicated ever since – give people what the need at a price they can afford. If it works, give it to more people.
At the heart of almost every large business lies the social entrepreneur. Timberland started from the idea of giving working people a set of work boots they can afford and that will protect them from the elements they have to face in their work. McDonald’s from giving people, who work long hours and earn low wages, quick and cheap food they can have ‘on the run’. Pfizer from the simple need to make medicine taste better. The Home Depot from the need to give people the tools and skills to do the DIY job themselves. These companies were all started by social entrepreneurs.
The challenge for most companies is to remember why they started in the first place and ask themselves – are we still serving a social need? And for our future growth – what social need can we serve to continue to grow as a company, still be socially relevant and needed by society. And no one said you only had to serve one single social need through your business. There is no reason why you can’t give people goods at an affordable price, lower your environmental impact, and provide your workers with health care and pension. Ask Tesco’s, the Body Shop, Ben & Jerry’s or Starbucks – they continue to do that. (By the way, you don’t have to like any of these companies. None of them are perfect. Not even Nick and Isaac will go through life without making a mistake).
Now, if only I can find a social need to package and sell it like Nic and Isaac. Oh, I don’t know – maybe a pill to end poverty, a drink that will end hunger, a shoe that provides shelter, a lipstick for good health, or crops that will end abuse.