Social Enterprises – May Be the Best Solutions to Many of Our Problems

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by: Idris Mootee

I picked up an old copy of a Harvard Business School Reunion Magazine (1995) from my garage. Flipped through it and an article caught my attention. It was written by Gregory Dees and Kasturi Rangan (HBS professors) reporting about their research in Social Enterprise. The two of them started many years back the school’s initiate of Social Enterprise. They developed field studies and courses in Social Enterprise, which is a second year elective. 

Rangan has always been interested in “social marketing”, which is marketing intended to make socially beneficial changes in the behavior of individual and organizations. I think this is a very interesting idea; if marketers start thinking that their role is beyond selling a product, that’s the starting point of customer engagement marketing. It is particularly interesting to look at that from today’s proliferation of social networking which can become a powerful platform for social marketing. Here is still a lot of work to be done in designing the optimal structure of a social enterprise to achieve a double or triple bottom-line.

More and more private organizations are stepping in solve many of the nation’s social problems. Social Venture is now the coolest thing for high-flying MBAs. I’ve been having  a lot of discussion with people who are interested in Social Ventures. Just the other night I was watching a TV program on social ventures. A great story about two women, Carol Chyau (Taiwan) and Marie So (Hong Kong), who were classmates at Harvard Kennedy School, founded ViD (Venture in Development). They share a passion and perseverance to bring sustainable development to the China.

What’s their big Idea? Their vision is growing the field of social entrepreneurship in Greater China by identifying, incubating, and implementing ideas that have the potential to become sustainable business enterprises yielding quantifiable direct social benefits.

The economy on the coastal cities of China is booming, serious social ills are exacerbated by widening income inequality, environmental degradation, and loss of social safety net. Social enterprises may be a possible solution; there is very little understanding of the concept. Their mission is to catalyze the creation of more social enterprises in Greater China. It uses its own case studies to generate awareness and coach other aspiring social entrepreneurs. ViD will also implement its own enterprises, such as Shokay and Mei Xiang Cheese Farm, both of which develop high-end products from yaks in Western China to bring to the international market.

Take Mei Xiang Cheese Farm, a sustainable yak cheese industry in the village of Langdu. It is a community of ethnic Tibetan yak herders who live in an isolated fir-lined valley not far from the border with the Tibetan Autonomous Region. Every morning, nomadic yak herders deliver stainless-steel pails of milk to the village’s cheese factory, a log cabin equipped with wood-fired burners. Inside the factory, villagers trained by a US dairy expert begin the process of turning the milk, which is higher in fat and protein than cow’s milk, into cheese. It takes around five hours to produce each batch. They also produce a harder Italian variety that can be aged and spiced up with other ingredients.

Another interesting social venture is Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE) in New York. Founded by Elizabeth Scharpf, another graduate from Harvard’s International Development Program and Business School is an entrepreneur who has spent most of her professional career starting up ventures or advising businesses in the health care industry.

What’s her big idea? Unleashing girls’ and women’s economic potential by starting up female-run franchises that manufacture and distribute low priced, high-quality, and environmentally friendly sanitary towels for domestic and international markets.

Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE) will fulfill girls’ unmet need by developing a market-based solution in the form of a franchise model led by young women to manufacture and distribute affordable, high-quality, and environmentally friendly sanitary towels for domestic and international markets. SHE will ensure the development and uptake of a reliable product by sourcing local, inexpensive raw materials, leveraging existing networks, and facilitating a sustainable business model operated and owned by women in the community.

These are great stories and I think Social Enterprise can potentially soft many of the problems that goverment and non-profit simply cannot soft.

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