Three Lessons For Business Leaders from Social Entrepreneurs

Social entrepreneurs are driving the way to solving some of the world’s most challenging problems, such as hunger, poverty, illiteracy and inequality. They are coming up with innovative solutions and taking these to scale to improve the lives of the most impoverished people in this world. They have been working with others, taking collaborative approaches to find new ways of thinking that can turn simple ideas into solutions that can really make a difference to people’s lives. This is much needed, and it isn’t happening a moment too soon. Writing for the World Economic Forum in 2015, Katherine Milligan argues that:

“Global inequality is increasing so dramatically that soon the world’s wealthiest 1% will hold more net worth than the remaining 99% combined.”

Social entrepreneurs are really making headway in this area and Milligan argues that we can learn a lot from them through three lessons that they can teach us. These lessons are, to make inclusive growth an explicit part of the agenda, infuse executive teams with a ‘can do’ attitude, and contribute your core expertise and assets. We will explore each of these in turn. Each of these can help to increase action and to help drive social change.

First Lesson: Making inclusive growth an explicit part of the agenda

Taking the first lesson, to make inclusive growth an explicit part of the agenda, it might be argued that this seems obvious. After all we can already see that economic growth to date has not helped everyone. Some people have become exceedingly rich, while the gap between those people and the poorest in society widens to form a gulf. While big industry creates employment for people it does not necessarily create the kinds of jobs that will get them out of the challenging economic situation that they find themselves in. People that work at the lowest levels in these companies face minimum wages (or less in some countries) and very bad living and working conditions. They also face insecurity and may be excluded from improving their situation with financing due to having low or non-existent credit ratings. In some parts of the world they do not have the safety net of a social security system to save them, but even if they do have this to fall back on, having to rely on it will lead to marginalisation. As a result it is recommended that organisations act ethically, considering the reality of their corporate social responsibility programmes to make sure that steps are being taken to reduce inequality.

Second Lesson: Foster a “can do” attitude

The second recommendation is, “infuse your executive teams with a ‘can do’ attitude.” It is amazing the possibilities and opportunities that come to mind when a person takes a can do approach over a ‘can’t do’ attitude. A can-do approach is encouraging and empowering and it can inspire and influence others. It helps to engage people. Starting at the bottom and working up can then be very effective, as people become engaged towards finding solutions, and inspired by the executive team’s positive approach. This is more likely to lead to an environment that encourages collaboration and innovation. Simply having executives ask “How CAN we do this?” helps to identify the challenges that may be in the way of the solution and helps to encourage people to find ways to break these problems down and solve them.

Third Lesson: Contribute with your core expertise and assets

Moving onto the third recommendation, of contribute your core expertise and assets, it may be argued that the private sector can add significant value to making sure that society is more equitable and inclusive. Organisations have the human capital, the expertise and the global networks to drive change. It is argued that organisations should at least to some degree offer these to help solve difficult problems of inequality. Suggestions provided for how this could potentially be achieved include helping to support those that are out of work to make up a workforce to support social enterprises, or coaching start-up organisations run by social entrepreneurs to help them to avoid making costly mistakes. Organisations have the opportunity to provide systems, goods and services, all of which could help to transform the lives of others. One example given is the case of Pearson, a UK based multinational, that radically transformed their business model, from a publishing company to education company, committed to improve student outcomes. The following video explains how Pearson works:

All of this needs to happen with some immediacy. Starting now will help to address the challenges that lead to an inequitable society where people become marginalised and impoverished. Businesses could and should assist to redress the balance.