Six SWF entrepreneurs closing the gap between business and social impact

This post was written by Pamela Hartigan, Director of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship.

I am often in awe of people’s capacity for combining ingenuity and market opportunity with a passion to influence our collective futures.  In that sense, hearing the stories of six entrepreneurs at the Skoll World Forum session, Navigating Unchartered Waters: For-Profit Companies with Social DNA – was a vivid reminder of the power that lies in bringing a sharp business mind with a passion to transform the status quo – for the better.

Kresse Wesling thinks about waste 24/7.   A business woman with three successful ventures to her credit, it wasn’t until she sat in the back of a room with “cute firemen” who were all taking a boring class on ISO standardization that she came up with the idea – recycling fire hose which goes to landfill into accessories for upscale markets.  Today, Elvis and Kresse is a profitable company that donates 50% of its earnings to the UK fire department.  What a way to guarantee your supply chain!  One of the investors at the Forum was so taken by Kresse’s business, her story and her products that she bought Kresse’s own bag (made from recycled fire hose, of course), saying “I am leaving for the US tomorrow, and I want your bag”.  So Kresse emptied the contents into a shopping bag and sold her bag to the determined woman (a potential investor?).  Lucky she did not ask for Kresse’s belt, also made from fire hose, or Kresse would have had a tough time keeping up her jeans.

Panelists' view. Courtesy of Thorkil Sonne

Gobion Rowlands wants to use games for social change.  He has been making games since he was a kid, and he and his colleagues at Red Redemption have just launched “Fate of the World”, a video game that allows you to destroy the world if you wish, but also challenges you to find the way to address massive climate change issue.  His first game on Climate Change was a big success. “How are you going to reach out beyond those gamers who believe the reality of climate change?” a participant queried.  “Well, many of our gamers are climate change sceptics,” Gobion noted. “They hate what we are doing but they are challenged to play the game just the same.  In fact, I have had three death threats in the past year”.  Being an entrepreneur is a risky business in more ways than one, it seems.

Then there is Thorkil Sonne whose son was diagnosed with autism at the age of 5.  The psychologists relayed what lay in his son’s future – ostracism, joblessness, and a life of dependency.  Thorkil thought of the dandelion, and how for some it is a weed, but for others it is a medicinal plant.  How could an autistic person’s social weaknesses become a strength?  He founded Specialistern, a Danish for profit company that employs only autistic workers to test software. Their focus, attention to detail and precision are exactly the kinds of skills needed in such a job.  His company became so successful that countries clamoured for Thorkil to help them replicate the initiative.  To do so, he sold the company to the Specialistern Foundation for twenty cents. The Foundation now owns the company, and Thorkil is spreading the method around the world.

Then there is Ariel Zylbersztejn who founded Cinepop in Mexico offering free family movies and entertainment as a way to increase quality of life for low-income families in Mexico – and local governments, NGOs and microfinance groups pay for the advertising platform – but only for products that have a social or environmental benefit for the population.

Each mission and business model was different from the other.  Victoria Kisyombe from Tanzania found herself a poverty-stricken widow with only a cow. That cow became her “asset” and supported her through this difficult period.  She founded a business, Sero Lease and Finance (Selfina) to increase the incomes of self-employed women in Tanzania through micro-leasing arrangements of livestock and equipment.  To date, she has changed the lived of 25,000 women.   It is the first social venture I have heard of named after a cow, Sero.

Marie So, co-founder of Shokay with Carol Chyau.  The two met as classmates at the Harvard Kennedy School’s MPA/ID program. Carol, from Taiwan, and Marie, from Hong Kong, saw in each other the passion and perseverance to promote the “social enterprise” concept in the Greater China region. After almost a year of researching and brainstorming, they decided that the best way to help catalyze the growth of social enterprise in China was to start one.

In January 2006, they visited Yunnan, where they saw a need for poverty alleviation. However, there they also saw abundant resources – YAKS! The seeds of Shokay were born.

Shokay sources its yak fiber directly from Tibetan herders, enabling them to earn a long-term sustainable living while preserving their traditional lifestyle. By investing and reinvesting its success into the local communities, Shokay ensures the opportunity of choice for future Tibetan generations.  Shokay can now be found around the world in over 100 stores in 10 countries.  I can attest to the warmth and softness of yak fiber thanks to a gift from Shokay, a beautiful scarf that has been well used during Oxford’s cold and damp winters, which seem to last forever.

You might wonder why I am so taken by for-profit social ventures such as the ones showcased at the Skoll World Forum?  For one, these are the types of ventures our business school students at Oxford want to pursue, so finding and highlighting the mission, business models and impact achieved by these entrepreneurs is incredibly exciting.  But as importantly, the examples are proof that one does not have to forego social and environmental priorities to make money – and that is the key to sustainable and transformational change.

For more, listen to the podcast of the session here, or read other delegates’ reflections on the session here.

Update: Interview with Marie Shokay at the Forum can be found here

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