Opposable minds want to thank David Brooks for his editorial How to Leave a Mark editorial in the New York Times on January 27, 2015. He talks about changing the way we do business by having “opposable minds: part profit-oriented and part purpose-oriented.”
I started one of these hybrids, The Walker Group, a technology services firm, 30 years ago; it is now one of the largest in Connecticut. I restructured it as a social enterprise in 2007. Among other commitments, The Walker Group now gives one third of any distributed profits to community, one third to employees, and one third to shareholders. I also founded reSET (SocialEnterpriseTrust.org) to protect Walker’s status as a social enterprise and to promote this new business model.
Today reSET is the largest center for social enterprise in New England. It offers programs in social enterprise development, an investment fund to help startup social enterprise, co-working space, and other resources to help social entrepreneurs get the resources they need to start, grow, and flourish. Last year we awarded more than $50,000 in cash and prizes to startup social entrepreneurs. We also spearheaded passage of the most comprehensive social enterprise legislation in the nation, which makes it easy for companies not only to establish themselves as a social enterprise but to protect that status in perpetuity if they want.
For the skeptics who say we’re better served by having business focus only on the profits I suggest telling your kids the only thing in life that counts is grades. Tell them nothing else matters and however you manage to get the A’s is fine so long as you get them. Try that and let me know how it works out. I’ll give you hint from the business world - Enron.
All market innovation is a response to a problem. And while we can argue about the reasons for the number and depth of the problems we face today, nobody denies that we’ve got problems. And when the problems confronting a company, a country, or a species get big enough the only choice left is evolution or extinction. Steady as she goes becomes less and less of a viable option.
Alternative solutions are springing up but many require complicated, long term-fixes and cooperation from factions so dysfunctional they make the Hatfields and McCoy’s look like bosom buddies. Social enterprise is different. To start a social enterprise you only need an idea and social entrepreneur who wants to bring it to life. And a social entrepreneur is just someone who is looking to make a positive difference in the world and who is willing to build a business to help make that happen.
We’re waking up to the fact that we can build a businesses to be something more than a money making machine. We can ask for a double or even triple bottom line; and while measuring social and environmental impact is tricky, it doesn’t make it any less important. As Einstein wisely put it - Not everything that counts is countable.
And to those out there who say that the business of business is solely to make money for shareholders, I say - “it’s a free market! You have your goals, we have ours. May the best business win.” Increasingly, customers, employees, and investors are saying they want more than just a financial return. They want to be part of the solution rather than a cog in someone else’s money making machine.
Social enterprises are impact driven businesses with a purpose beyond profits. Profits are important, but as a means to an end. It’s like our health. We work hard to stay healthy, not because health itself is nirvana, but because it enables us to do all the other fun/important/fulfilling stuff we do.
Will there be problems and abuses? Of course. Greenwashing is rampant - expect the same for goodwashing. But when you get people talking the talk, then they’re increasingly inclined to start walking in the right direction. It’s a start.
No single fix, no single model, no single law will solve every problem. The road to equality for non-white, non-male people did not reach it’s desired goal with the passage of a law and the road ever since has been fraught with speed bumps, detours, and highway robbers, but that’s how it works. We start where we can and tweak as we go. Martin Luther King taught us that the arc of the universe is long, but bends toward justice. Social enterprise helps bend the mighty arc of business toward something that better serves us all.
That’s evolution. And it’s working. Momentum is picking up. If our social enterprise bill had passed the first year we introduced it just three years ago we would have been the 8th state to recognize this new business type. When it passed just last year we were the 26th state to do so. That’s momentum.
Business is arguably the most powerful force on the planet right now and through social enterprise it can be a force for great good.
The social entrepreneurs we see and serve at reSET are every age, from kids coming out of school who want to make a difference with their business degrees to encore entrepreneurs who have retired or been retired from traditional businesses and are looking to do something meaningful with the next chapter of their lives. We also see a lot of women including mothers returning to the labor force after raising a family but not wanting to return to their old unfulfilling jobs. This kind of entrepreneurship is not limited to young white men of means. These are people of all stripes who are passionate about a particular social issue and who are willing to work hard, using business as the engine for change.
At reSET we’re teaching people with a dream how to make it happen in Connecticut. Other states have similar programs. And soon this way of doing business will become less alternative and more mainstream.
We tend to think that “business as usual” is how it has always been done and the way it must continue. But business is culture and paradigms change over time - slavery was once acceptable business practice, as was child labor, as was firing airline stewardesses on their 30th birthday.
Someday we’ll look back on the single-minded focus on profits that characterizes business today and will regard that era with equal parts disbelief and dismay. Really? Were we once so limited that our only tool for measuring success was money? Thank god we evolved those opposable minds!!!