for change

A growing number of social entrepreneurs are realising that business has the power to change the world. From targeting plastic in the oceans to bringing ICT to those most in need around the globe, Heather Bourbeau profiles three people who are pioneering new ways of achieving change

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for change
for change

Fixing the mess. Tackling inequality. Transforming the way things are done.

These are the challenges that the three people profiled here set themselves as they left their jobs or changed direction to pursue wider goals, bringing their business experience to bear on their new roles.

At the same time, they are creating new models of social entrepreneurship by developing innovative solutions, finding new sources of finance and working with a wide range of partners.

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It’s a trend that looks likely to continue as the next generation comes of age. Millennials have been categorised as wanting to “make a difference” and the Millennial Impact Report 2014 by research and marketing firm Achieve Agency found that 94 per cent of American millennials like using their skills to benefit a cause.

“The kids, the next generation, are more connected to these feelings,” says Parley for the Oceans founder Cyrill Gutsch, who is profiled below. “Survival of the planet is the next supertrend and it will save all of us.”

After meeting marine environmentalist and conservationist Paul Watson in 2012, the award-winning designer and brand and product developer Cyrill Gutsch changed the direction of his agency almost overnight and decided to dedicate his business to conserving the earth’s oceans.

Watson told Gutsch, 47, about the dire state of the world’s seas and oceans and the role plastic has to play. Eight million tonnes of plastic wind up in the sea each year. In 2009, it was estimated there was 36 times more plastic than plankton there. 

“We can make people understand what’s going on and support the search for solutions,” Gutsch says with an enthusiasm that is infectious. “With plastic we have done that.”

Gutsch’s response to what he heard from Watson was Parley for the Oceans, which operates primarily as a network, facilitating collaboration across the fields of business, government, activism, art and science. 

Parley’s first major partner was Adidas, with whom it created the Adidas X Parley shoe, designed by Alexander Taylor, an innovation consultant to the sportswear giant, using recycled plastic found in the oceans. Millions of pairs have been sold since 2015. 

“We cannot fix this mess with charity, but we can with a new business approach,” says Gutsch. “At Parley we showed that you can turn trash into gold. As creatives in the marketplace, we empower the people who can make a change – the big brands that can lead the standards and take a stand. Governments always come late.”

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To date, Adidas has upcycled marine debris into several different products, including football shirts, and the company is moving to use only recycled plastic by 2024. Parley is now working with other companies such as American Express, which is aiming to replace traditional plastic cards with upcycled materials, and the brewing company Anheuser-Busch, which is running a campaign to protect beaches. So far Parley has more than 700 company requests to partner. 

“There is a big desire to switch from virgin plastic, and we really want to see new materials that can replace plastic for good,” says Gutsch. To that end, Parley has created partnerships with research labs, individual scientists and materials developers. 

Parley is also launching a non-profit arm (primarily funded by the for-profit side of the business) that will focus on youth education. “The youth are our future. We have youth ambassadors who are between eight and 14 years old doing press conferences and meeting presidents. It is disarming to have a child stand in front of you and demand that you take charge for their future.”

In 2004, Kristin Peterson was thriving in her career in Silicon Valley, identifying and developing new markets for companies and products. As she observed the rapid transformations being brought by the internet to the developed world – connecting people, creating better access to services such as healthcare, banking and education – she realised it was critical that emerging markets weren’t left behind.

Peterson, 57, felt compelled to take action – after all, she had the right skills, the right connections in the tech industry and the necessary drive to try to tackle this inequality. 

Together with two other tech veterans, Mark Summer and Bob Marsh, Peterson launched Inveneo, a non-profit organisation focused on information and communications technologies for underserved communities in the developing world. 

“We decided to apply business principles to our work – by operating as a business would and creating solutions that local IT companies could implement and support to generate local expertise and income,” says Peterson. “We started working in the hardest to reach places that weren’t seen as places with significant opportunity for technology and internet use.” 

Inveneo originally developed hardware and systems solutions for deploying computing and connectivity for education, healthcare and economic development. It also trained and supported local engineers to develop local expertise, creating an ecosystem that could blossom without donor development. It now focuses on natural-disaster recovery and connectivity programmes, too.

“We started Inveneo with partnerships with corporations like Intel and Cisco. They had corporate social responsibility goals in developing countries that couldn’t be filled by their companies alone,” says Peterson. “As social entrepreneurs, we often act as early market researchers and as a bridge – we have the contacts, technical skills and an understanding of these markets. We look for new ways to solve problems where everyone wins and everyone becomes an engine for change.”

Peterson and Summer have also launched another social enterprise, EveryLayer, which offers a software platform and new approach that allows ISPs to deliver faster, better, cheaper broadband in the emerging markets of Africa and Asia. “We’re working on models to make the internet radically lower cost and even free for large populations of middle and lower income users,” says Peterson.

EveryLayer, under the brand name Surf, has worked with entrepreneurs and universities to deliver affordable internet options (at a half to one-third of mobile data prices). In partnership with Express Wi-Fi by Facebook, EveryLayer is now the single largest provider of public Wi-Fi hotspots in Kenya.

While Chid Liberty, 39, worked as a financial planner and analyst for tech firms in the Bay Area of California, he used his free time to devour books about development finance – such as The End of Poverty by the American economist Professor Jeffrey Sachs – all the while thinking about what he could do to help his home country of Liberia.

He was inspired by the women’s movement, Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, which helped end the country’s civil war in 2003, and after meeting some of its leaders developed a clearer vision. “I knew women were important to what I wanted to do and to Liberia’s recovery,” says Liberty. 

In 2009, he left his job and returned to Liberia to start Liberty & Justice, a clothing manufacturing company with a hybrid business model and strong social goals. Its mission: “To transform the apparel supply chain from worker exploitation and environmental degradation to partnership and sustainability.”

Liberty & Justice sells fair trade, made in Africa, ethically manufactured, African organic cotton clothing and has a 90 per cent female workforce. The workers own 49 per cent of the company’s shares and its profits are pledged to the Liberty & Justice Foundation, which reinvests in the community via programmes in economic empowerment, education and healthcare.

“In Liberia women have been excluded from the most productive sectors of the economy, so we knew that investing in them would give us the best returns in terms of impact and investment,” explains Liberty.

Partly in response to the downturn in manufacturing contracts due to the Ebola crisis in 2014-15, Liberty launched Liberty & Justice’s UNIFORM label, which operates on the one-for-one model (much like TOMS shoes). “We had all these machines that were underused during the crisis,” says Liberty. “I thought how best to salvage the situation and came up with the idea for UNIFORM.”

UNIFORM donates a school uniform to a Liberian child for every piece of clothing sold, which are then distributed by non-profit partners. Free school uniforms can raise test scores and reduce school absenteeism, according to research from the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab based at MIT. And education is valued at the company level as well. Nearly all of the children whose mothers work at the company are enrolled in school, compared with a national average of 44 per cent. To date, Liberty & Justice has donated 20,000 uniforms. 

“With Liberty & Justice, we wanted to show that our workers could build a beautiful life from what they earned in the private sector and it didn’t have to be with one of the big concessionaires,” says Liberty. “You get to build a beautiful life, business, family and sleep well at night.”

“Social entrepreneurship” is a catch-all phrase applied to a wide range of ventures that might be non-profit, for profit or a hybrid. Helpfully, Roger L Martin and Sally Osberg set out its three essential components in the Stanford Social Innovation Review: identifying a problem that lacks sufficient support to achieve a solution; identifying a novel potential solution or action, and creating an organisation and/or ecosystem to support the action/solution. The overarching goal that all social entrepreneurship shares, they go on to say, is large-scale, transformational, mission-related impact, tackling issues such as education, climate change and communications infrastructure.

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