What do David Brancaccio (journalist, documentary filmmaker and host of American Public Media’s Marketplace), Martin Keen (the creative genius behind Keen Footwear and now Focal Upright Furniture), and Saul Kaplan (author and chief catalyst of the Business Innovation Factory) all have in common?
They all believe that social enterprise plays a significant role in our economy; not only as job creators, but also as societal problem-solvers. The answers to America’s economic challenges (some might even say woes) do not exist solely on Wall Street. Recently, they, and 450 other professionals, policymakers, students and academics gathered at Brown University for the annual Social Enterprise Ecosystem Economic Development Summit put on by the Social Enterprise Greenhouse, to discuss social enterprises, their role (and potential) in our economy, and developing the ecosystems (or environments) necessary for allowing social enterprises to flourish.
Wondering what a social enterprise is? You’re not alone. Think of it this way, most businesses are in business only to make money (or a profit) – social enterprises are businesses that have a model to make a profit but also have a social/societal mission of equal importance; companies with a conscience. According to the Social Enterprise Alliance, there are over 30,000 social enterprises in the U.S. alone. In Rhode Island, for example, close to 1,000 citizens are employed by 130 social enterprises and these numbers are on the rise not only in Rhode Island, but nationally.
So, what are the components of a social enterprise ecosystem? David LePage, of Enterprising Nonprofits, answered it this way:
• Building business skills (knowing how to lead and build a successful business is essential).
• Financing for social enterprises (grants, loans, private equity, etc.).
• Concentrating on building demand (for your product).
• Demonstrating impact (what’s the social return on investment).
• Connecting back to community (the community you serve, the community you are based in, the community that wants your product or service).
A new generation of entrepreneurs who care more about communities has been on the rise, and Martin Keen, the man behind Keen Footwear who now leads Focal Upright Furniture, personifies entrepreneurs with a conscience. Keen who has produced an award-winning workstation, and a model for ergonomic design, wants to bring his product (in a smaller size) to public schools around the U.S.
While social-enterprise courses at colleges and universities are sprouting up all over the U.S. (and the world) attracting a lot of younger talent to careers in this space, a number of corporate ex-pats like Keen and Mike Brady, the president and CEO of Greyston Bakery based in Yonkers, N.Y., are becoming a more common sight as well.
Greyston was founded in 1982 by a Zen Buddhist meditation group led by Bernard Tetsugen Glassman, a former aerospace engineer, and has become the producer of brownies for such customers as Vermont-based Ben & Jerry’s and Whole Foods, with a state-of-the-art facility, which employs 95 individuals, and has a foundation with programs reaching 2,200 community members annually.
Brady, a management consultant and tech entrepreneur in his former life, felt something was missing in his work life, and it was that connection to humanity; making the world a better place. Brady’s Twitter handle (@themikebrady) probably best describes him and the passion of those likeminded individuals trying to grow our economy with socially conscious ventures that are successful: social entrepreneur, karma capitalist and contributor to the greater good. But it’s Brady’s corporate mantra (or mission some might say) that inspires customers, future social entrepreneurs and policymakers the most: At Greyston Bakery, “We don’t hire people to make brownies, we make brownies in order to hire people.” •
Andy Cutler is founder of Cutler & Co. and Smaller Cities Unite!