Future leaders of sustainable business won’t be found in business schools.
By David Wilcox
At the Sustainable Brands 2013 opening plenary three weeks ago, Tom Shadyac's movie I Am was shown to the assembled corporate and branding leaders.
For those of you who haven’t seen it, the film chronicles the award-winning director’s quest for happiness and includes interviews with “DoMoreGood” luminaries such as Ray Anderson, Desmond Tutu, Noam Chomsky and David Suzuki.
Shadyac’s search led him to sell off most of the assets he accumulated during his run as a mega-successful movie director, including several large houses. As the opening plenary came to a close, I posed this question to the group:
What is the corporate equivalent of selling the houses?
In the early '90s, a Princeton graduate embarked on one of the most significant educational experiments of our time. Operating out of the Bronx, Wendy Kopp had proven her model with a charter corps of 500 recent college graduates, and now they were organizing to scale their program across the United States.
Kopp extended invitations to participate to the leaders at 20 top corporations. Many of them were competing for the same top grads Kopp wanted to hire for her project, Teach for America.
These leaders were told that times were changing. They already knew that education was not working for a large portion of their future customers. What may have surprised them was how many of the talented young leaders they wanted inside their own towers would opt instead to go with Kopp to serve in some of the most difficult classrooms in the country. They would impact millions of the most disenfranchised citizens and they themselves would be transformed in the process, adding to a growing generation of millennial social entrepreneurs.
Some of the corporate leaders who met with Kopp were interested enough to give her efforts some support — a few donations of $20 - $30,000 — before moving back to business as usual. The fact that not one of those corporations stepped up to partner with her is, according to me, one of the largest missed opportunities and branding gaffes in corporate history. Teach for America is now one of the most successful and respected social enterprises in the world.
How could so many corporate leaders miss this opportunity to address one of the most critical problems of our time while creating a billion dollar brand asset for just a few million dollars per year? With a modest investment of time, talent and attention, they could have secured their reputation with current and future customers as well as access to the next generation.
Take a moment before continuing to ask yourself these questions:
- Would I be able to recognize the next Teach for America?
- How important is it for my organization to align and focus on these social innovation and social entrepreneurship opportunities?
- Is identifying these opportunities critical to my brand?
- Should it be?
The Social/Commercial Future
In my last post, How Three Quiet, Seismic Shifts Are Changing the Social Enterprise and Social Innovation Landscape, I stated the case for all businesses becoming both social and commercial. Another viewpoint comes from Capitalism at Risk, Re-Thinking the Role of Business (Harvard Review Press 2011.)
We have found that forward looking companies across the spectrum are thinking creatively and learning how to address what have hitherto been regarded as problems for government and NGOs, by developing strategies that enhance the prospects for sustaining the market system and often generate financial benefits for the company at the same time.
…And these actors might do so without a well-developed prospect of immediate financial returns, but with the recognition that it is their self interest to be part of a well-functioning system.
There are significant new skill sets that are needed in a rapidly approaching social/commercial era. They cannot be taught in business schools.
Nowhere is author William Gibson’s phrase, “The future is already here – it's just not evenly distributed” more true than in the global space of social business startups. Among the thousands of proven models, there are scalable social enterprises that have been proven in one location or country but are unknown elsewhere. They are also invisible to the corporations that could benefit most from their approach.
Being viewed as a company that can strategically scale the most innovative solutions to global challenges is a great way to enhance reputations, but it is only part of the benefit. Social enterprises offer a variety of new business models to engage with and test, and they expose corporations to models that can produce social and economic success.
They also introduce a new framework for entrepreneurship, one that drives success by moving away from competition and towards collaboration. This is something best learned by working with innovative social entrepreneurs.
Most important and least appreciated—until it is experienced firsthand—is how shifting to a point of view that includes the welfare of all people creates a consciousness that opens up the future to more organizations like Teach for America and leaders like Wendy Kopp. This is a vision that aligns with historian Arnold Toynbee’s backward glance:
“The 20th century will be chiefly remembered by future generations not as an era of political conflicts or technical inventions, but as an age in which human society dared to think of the welfare of the whole human race as a practical objective.”