14 Social Entrepreneur Ideas That Will Surprise Or Inspire You
This post was originally produced for Forbes.
Over the last several days, the Social Venture Network (SVN), a national association of social entrepreneurs held its spring conference in San Diego and I had the opportunity to attend.
Amory B. Lovins
The membership of SVN has a palpable passion for organic food, protecting the environment and changing the world. Below are some of the messages I picked up at the conference.
Be Political. Gary Hirshberg, founder and chair of Stonyfield, said he left his position as CEO of Stonyfields to work full time at advocating and lobbying on behalf of the organic industry. He emphasized that 92% of Americans favor disclosure of genetically engineered ingredients in their food. This won’t happen, he says, without collective advocacy.
Go where others don’t. Walter Robb, co-CEO of Whole Foods, shared the story of opening a store in downtown Detroit, where there hasn’t been a supermarket in 30 years. The community has rallied around the store to make it a success and the company has learned from it, allowing the company to learn how to open stores in other inner-city communities.
Corporations harm the environment but many don’t want to. Amy Larkin, author of Environmental Debt: The Hidden Costs of a Changing Global Economy explained the connection between the growing environmental crisis and global economics. She noted that many corporations want to invest in clean tech, but choose not to because of the short term financial pain—even though many green investments have positive long term financial impacts. She advocated specifically for accelerated depreciation for green infrastructure investments to incentivize, really enable, corporations to invest in reducing the environmental harm.
“Children in America don’t lack calories, they lack food.” Neil Grimmer, Plum Organics, President and Founder says the company make food available to food banks because there are 16 million kids who lack consistent access to food, creating a need for billions of meals per year. Having donated over 3.6 million, Grimmer notes there is a lot left to do.
Rape is treated as an occupational hazard in the military. Megan Lowry, whose father was a Marine and who committed suicide within the past week, creating the emotional pinnacle of the conference by sharing her experience as a woman who had been raped in the military, and as the victim was treated as the offender and ostracized. On average, 22 veterans kill themselves every day. Megan herself attempted suicide four times and was ultimate helped by an organization called Honoring the Path of the Warrior.
“Place matters.” Kondra Mason, the CEO and co-founder of Impact Hub Oakland, share the story of Trevor was killed in a drive-by shooting, despite having no involvement with gangs because he lived in Watts, near Los Angeles. She notes that “Your zip code has more to do with your life expectancy than your genetic code.” Her point: society must do more to support and improve communities like Watts.
Classism is found in the disconnects. Betsy Leondar-Wright, program director, Class Action, pointed out that good intentions of founders, owners and managers may not achieve all of their objectives because of unrecognized classism. Hiring practices, advancement and other activities may be intended to achieve diversity, but may actually work against it in subtle ways because management may lack the perspective and understanding of employees who come from working class or poor families.
“Money is a dangerous substance.” Money tends to corrupt; few people can handle large amounts of money without being corrupted by its, says Joel Solomon, Chairman of Renewal Funds, Canada’s largest social venture capital firm. “Love,” he says, “is the real currency” for social change. We have to take responsibility for the way our money is used, including especially when it is invested. He challenged the audience to consider the impact of every financial decision.
The world can save $5 trillion per year by eliminating the use of fossil fuels. Amory B. Lovins, whom Time named as one of the “100 Most Influential People” explained how using existing technology, the automobile industry can—and will—shift to advanced, light-weight materials to reduce the need for batteries by more than 50%. Similarly, commercial transportation technology is creating trucks, buses and airplanes that are three times as efficient as today’s standard. Additional gains can be realized with planning and incentives for reduced driving. By 2050, Lovins argues, the world can move completely away from fossil fuels for transportation, saving the world $4 trillion per year. The last trillion in savings will come as demand for electricity declines, he says, because energy efficiency in buildings will provide economic benefits based on existing technology.
Faith and values can drive successful entrepreneurship. Adnan Durani, who was recognized at the conference for his service to the SVN community, founded American Halal/Saffron Road, a food company that sells Halal certified products. His strategy was built around his Muslim faith and a desire to encourage healthy food and social justice. The company has become the largest producer of Halal food in the U.S. and reports that 70% of customers are not Muslim.
A soccer ball can make a difference. Mal Warwick, founder of One World Futbol, a social enterprise that makes and distributes nearly indestructible soccer balls around the developing world, fostering play and exercise among disadvantaged children. Warwick was inspired by his experience as a youth in the Peace Corps where he saw children who had literally nothing to play with.
Don’t just be a designer, become a designer with a mission. Amy Hall of Eileen Fisher, the successful social enterprise that uses organic fabrics and employs people at fair wages, noted the special culture of her company, where designers have told her, “Before, I was a designer. Now I am a designer with a mission.” She celebrates the shift that individuals and companies can make to go beyond production to production with a purpose.
Not all impact investments work. Philanthropist and impact investor Bonny Meyer has learned by experience that some of the mission driven projects into which she has invested failed. She has nonetheless continued investing for social impact. She is now a partner, with Bob Massaro, in Thriving Communities, a real estate development company that builds workforce housing that are sustainably built and designed to foster real communities where people care about each other. Many of their communities are designed with such efficiency that there is no electric bill. They are seeking to build the greenest multi-family housing in America.
A marriage can survive social entrepreneurship. Husband and wife business partners Dale Rodrigues and Mary Waldner launched Mary’s Gone Crackers more than ten years ago. At the conference, the reminisced about the early days—and the frequent fights that accompanied the launch of what has become a successful organic, vegan, whole-grain, kosher food company. And they are still married today. In fact, it was only working as a team that allowed them to maintain control when a power struggle with venture capitalists developed.
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