By Sophia Velissaratou, co-founder WAM UK
Social business is a relatively new concept introduced by Nobel Peace Prize winner, Professor Muhammad Yunus, which he describes in detail in Building Social Business. Simply put, Yunus describes two types of social businesses:
Type I: a non-loss, non-dividend company devoted to solving a social problem (concerning education, health, environment, access to technology etc) and owned by investors who re-invest all profits in expanding and improving the business.
Type II: a profit making company, owned by poor people, either directly or through a trust that is dedicated to a pre-defined social cause.
Professor Yunus distinguishes Social Business from other concepts such as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), social enterprise and entrepreneurship; seeing CSR as charity (CSR) and social entrepreneurship as profitable outfit for investors. Since its first inception the Social Business movement had gained momentum amongst many, ranging from businesses to NGOs to academia.
On the 6th and 7th of November, I attended the 7th Global Social Business Summit in Berlin and as the co-founder of WAM UK, I would like to share a few things I learnt with the wider WAM community:
- The Social Business movement is here. To stay: During the summit I came to realise that there are many social business initiatives and they take many forms. Take for example Grameen Danone who set up a small unit in Bangladesh to produce nutrition fortified yoghurt for low income families. Or McCain industries who have a program helping Greek farmers in the Northern village, Notia. Not to mention numerous university programmes worldwide focussed on the research and promotion of social business, for example The Grameen Creative Lab and Yunus Social Business, both of which have ample information to share.
- It’s not about the star, it is about the purpose: This year’s summit was marked by Prof. Yunus’ absence. A minor health issue prevented him from travelling to Berlin to be there in person but he addressed the participants with a video message. Undoubtedly any event Yunus attends attracts notable crowds and WAM UK experienced that first hand when we organised an event with him back in 2011. Yunus is often lovingly described as a rock star in his own right within the sector, which despite its obvious benefits can also be a drawback, since his absence could have led to disappointment and deflation. However, that was definitely not the case. Organisers and participants alike worked, presented and interacted with incredible drive and on top of it all – we had fun!
- Some CEOs get it. Big multinationals like Danone, Veolia, McCain and others talk and think seriously from a business perspective on how to solve social problems. They are not just interested in ticking CSR boxes or having a good PR profile. They are showing commitment to this type of business. They understand that failure is part of the process and not all social business ideas will work but they allocate time, resource and energy just like any other business unit they are running. They showed us that they won’t stop until their social businesses become sustainable and poor or unprivileged people have profited from it.
- There is such a thing as ‘good’ business, it’s called social business: During my years in finance I was always wondering why profit and growth usually come at the expense of values such as partnership, compassion or empathy. Can you not have a serious business proposition by combining all these aspects? The summit made me realise that social business is a legitimate answer to this question. Yes, you can have a business which is both profitable and solves a social problem. Yes, you can generate profit and re-invest it in the business to create more jobs; ameliorate conditions for poor people – to change the world.
- Partnerships are a must: Listening to the panel discussion during the conference I was impressed to see the degree to which partnerships are important for the success of social business. Words like competition, confidentiality, possession were not part of the social business vocabulary. Instead words like transparency, exchange of ideas, collaboration, resilience, joy and facilitation are the language of social business. This was evident in focus groups where there was a genuine exchange of ideas. The workshop organisers were not interested in telling their stories but in hearing our ideas on how we would approach a social business idea differently or find a better solution than the ones they thought of.
- Youth is the future: Yunus’ decision to focus on youth and academia shows he is a visionary. Social business is a relatively new concept that taps on ideas such as non-dividend business, compassion and teamwork etc. These and similar ideas are not commonly found in the conventional business world, and that’s likely because today’s professionals were not educated to think otherwise. Educating people on the concept of social business from an early age is key. Because these young students will be tomorrow’s academics, investors and entrepreneurs who will strive for a better world. On top of that, youth are very creative and driven – and experience suggests they don’t give up easily. Moreover, today’s youth are raised amongst increasingly advanced technology, a leading force in social business.
- Location, location, organisation: Last but not least I would like to mention the organisation of the conference. First I was impressed by the venue: Hangar 7 at Tempelhof airport was for me the perfect location for such a conference. The set-up of the venue facilitated the smooth transition from the panel discussions to the meeting area where participants could meet, grab a coffee and roam around the various stands promoting social business. The organising team practiced what they preached: from the conference bags, the conference furniture, the catering, the products, everything had a social business story to tell. Every single moment you were surrounded by inspiring examples. Hans Reitz (Head of GSBS and Founder of the Grameen Creative Lab) and his team created a fantastic environment for participants and they deserve compliments all round.
In short, I can’t wait for next year’s summit.