social enterprise


Fighting poverty with mushrooms, green things & social enterprise | 

Most people might not think growing mushrooms could make the world a better place.

Most might not see natural disasters like the Philippine’s catastrophic Typhoon Haiyan (aka Yolanda) as a business opportunity.

But then, most people aren’t creative entrepreneurs looking for innovative and profitable ways to fight poverty and human suffering.

Pitching Fargreen, a Vietnam-based business aimed at helping smallholder farmers, at the UW's global social enterprise contest.
Pitching Fargreen, a Vietnam-based business aimed at helping smallholder farmers, at the UW’s global social enterprise contest.

“Mushrooms were big this year, for some reason, as was disaster relief,” said Kirsten Aoyama, director of the University of Washington’s Global Business Center. Continue reading

Business fighting poverty: Water wheels keep on rolling | 

Cynthia Koenig and her Wello
Cynthia Koenig and her Wello
Tom Paulson

Everyone knows that access to water is essential for life, but for the poor we should add ‘cheap’ and ‘easy’ to the access part.

One of every seven people on the planet, a billion or so of the poorest people worldwide, lack ready access to clean drinking water. In many communities, women and girls have the daily responsibility of traveling long distances every day carrying plastic jugs to collect water.

Progress against extreme poverty is being hamstrung so long as the poorest have to spend a big part of their day doing what we all take for granted.

The best solution, arguably, would be for governments to invest in building the basic infrastructure – water and sewer pipes – that make access to water and sanitation relatively cheap. But until that happens, one entrepreneur has decided to re-invent the wheel.

The water wheel. The Wello water wheel, to be precise:

I met Wello’s CEO Cynthia Koenig a few years ago in Seattle, at a social enterprise competition sponsored by at the University of Washington Foster Schoold of Business.

Back in 2011, all Koenig and her colleagues had was a business plan and an idea. Her concept – of using some kind of rolling container to transport water – wasn’t that new. But her business plan was innovative, in that the idea was not to invent a gizmo and then get poor people to use it; rather it was to test the gizmo among the poor and refine it according to their needs. Continue reading

Advice to Social Entrepreneurs from a Social Entrepreneur | 

Social entrepreneurs, the people who create businesses aimed at improving the lives of the poor, gathered last weekend for the Skoll World Forum. Even when there are not events just for social entrepreneurs, it is hard to go to a development conference or talk without running into a few self-starters. Some cynics have grumbled on while thought leaders tout the virtues and impact of social entrepreneurs.

Annie Lennox sings about changing the world at the Skoll World Forum
Annie Lennox sings about changing the world at the Skoll World Forum
Global X

Now one of their own is throwing some cold water on the ever growing fire. Continue reading

A chat with NY Times’ David Bornstein about ‘solutions’ journalism | 

Abigail Gampel

David Bornstein

David Bornstein is what many would consider a rare bird — an optimistic and forward-looking journalist.

Bornstein is also one of my favorite writers on aid and development issues, for the New York Times Opinionator column and as an author of a number of important books including one on the anti-poverty scheme known as microfinance, The Price of a Dream, and his more recent book How to Change the World, a look at the social enterprise movement.

On Thursday, it was announced that Bornstein and his NYTimes colleague Tina Rosenberg were among the winners of 90 new grants, each of which starts out at $100,000, from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenges Explorations program.

That wasn’t quite right: Bornstein later responded, after the awards were announced, that he and Rosenberg will not receive any of the grant money and are only collaborating on the Gates-funded project at Marquette University.

“We are cooperating with Marquette. But they prepared the proposal and they will be doing all the work and receiving the full grant.”

Here’s what the Gates Foundation said in announcing the grant winner: “The Institute for Transformation of Learning at Marquette University, USA, will partner with David Bornstein (How to Change the World) and Tina Rosenberg (Pulitzer prize-winning The Haunted Land) to build the first Wiki-style platform that packages solutions-journalism (specifically NYTimes Fixes columns) into mini-case-studies for educators around the world to embed in, and across, the curriculum.”

I missed the nuance there. Sorry about that.

Bornstein, who contacted me after this post was published, said the NY Times prohibits them from accepting grant money (for work done at NYTimes) and they are unpaid collaborators with Marquette, allowing them to repurpose their columns and to help them think through the process.

The Grand Challenges Exploration program was created by the Gates Foundation mostly to fund ‘wacky’ (aka high risk) scientific projects and that’s mostly still what it has supported among its 800 projects funded to date.

Gates Foundation

One example pictured at right: Agenor Mafra-Neto and his colleagues are building inexpensive laser bug sensors that accurately count and identify flying insect pests from a distance. Because it’s always good to know exactly how many and which types of bugs there are.

Anyway, you can read more about the latest round of wacky scientific winners at the philanthropy’s website.

I’m going to focus on Bornstein, as an example of how the Grand Challenges initiative has expanded its scope to include funding communications efforts that show “Aid is Working.” Continue reading

Seattle opens a town square for social enterprise community | 

Seattle creates a new physical space for the social enterprise movement.

Hub Seattle members, from left, Jacob Colker, Lindsey Engh, Kimo Jordan, Brian Howe

Three of the area’s leading organizations at the forefront of this movement — Hub Seattle, Social Venture Partners and the Bainbridge Graduate Institute — on Friday celebrated the grand opening of their new conjoined and co-working space known as the Center for Impact and Innovation.

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn and other notables were there to mark this milestone, tour the facility, party and eat ‘sustainable appetizers’ – all of it aimed at fostering this phenomenon dubbed social enterprise.

“Yeah, nobody really knows exactly what that means,” chuckled Brian Howe, CEO and co-founder of Hub Seattle.

Social enterprise, that is. Not the sustainable appetizers.

I first met and wrote a post about Howe and his colleagues more than a year ago when the idea for this place was still taking shape. The physical manifestation of that idea is today a renovated timber-brick-and-steel 27,000-square-foot reality in the old Masins Furniture Building – a historic Pioneer Square building shaped somehat like the triangular prow of a ship.

It’s a beautiful space.

But exactly what the new Center for Impact and Innovation is intended to provide a home for — social enterprise — appears to be still an emerging, somewhat vague concept. Which is why proponents say they need a place.

“That’s one of the reasons for Hub Seattle, to have a dialogue and figure out what it is,” said Shaula Massena, one of Howe’s colleagues. “This is already happening, the idea of getting business back to including non-financial goals. But it’s still nascent. We need to come together as a community.”

“The primary idea is to foster entrepreneurship that is about delivering values rather than just creating some product to drive profits,” Jacob Colker, COO of Hub Seattle and a co-founder with Howe.

The old distinction of non-profit versus for-profit is no longer sufficient, Colker said, noting that some organizations that are for-profit serve social missions just as some non-profit corporations (think health care) are sometimes more interested in their bottom line than in making the world a better place.

“I’d say we’re in a third phase, in which we’re coming up with new business structures primarily aimed at serving a social mission,” Howe said. Continue reading

Seattle pitches ‘social enterprise’ | 

2012 Social Innovation Fast Pitch

Whatever is precisely meant by the term “social enterprise” — and I would contend it’s not at all clear — Seattle clearly has a lot of it.

On Thursday evening, at the Seattle Center’s Fisher Pavilion some 700 or so enterprising people from high school age, to college age, established ventures and all the way up to a world-renowned global ‘master of invention’ — former Microsoft chief technologist Nathan Myhrvold – gathered to celebrate (and invest in) new ideas aimed at making the world a better place.

Watching a pitch at SIFP 2012

“I have had food allergies for years,” said Grant Mitchell, a high schooler who was pitching a mobile app and his organization, Food Allergy Freedom, aimed at giving Seattle residents more immediate control over their food choices. Most information online, Mitchell said, is advocacy or general information. What’s needed, he said, is an app to help you make local choices on the go.

“It’s about keeping people safe,” he said.

Jack Kim, another high school age contestant at the 2012 Social Innovation Fast Pitch, was looking for investors for his team’s idea of linking consumer purchasing online with small donations to good causes. Kim and his colleagues call it Project Firedove and the aim, he said, is to make it so easy and free for people to donate that it should be called “freelanthropy.”

Lots of applause for that one. Continue reading

Women’s issues dominate at the UW’s Global Social Enterprise Competition | 

Team Ruby Cup

Every year, the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business holds its Global Social Enterprise Competition aimed at inspiring young entrepreneurs to find business solutions for the problems of poor countries.

Last year’s winners were focused on finding a better toilet, an MIT business venture called Sanergy that has since taken off in a big way — mostly in the slums of Kenya.

This year, women’s issues dominated.

Continue reading

Social entrepreneurs building a common space, Hub Seattle | 


Wei-Chi, aka Crisi-tunity

It is often said that the Chinese word for “crisis” is composed of two characters which mean “danger” and “opportunity.”

I guess that’s not quite right. But then neither is the word “irregardless” (which, technically, means the opposite of how people use it).

So, irregardless of the true meaning of the Chinese word for crisis, I propose to apply the popular understanding of “wei-chi” to Seattle’s burgeoning scene of humanitarians and social entrepreneurs.

Clearly, the explosion of do-gooders here represents a great opportunity — an opportunity to do more good, to maybe even “do well by doing good” or at least find a job in one of the few sectors of the economy lately that appears to have some growth potential.

Global health, for example, is often referred to these days as an industry as much as it is a cause.

But our region’s emerging humanitarian “sector” also poses some dangers, or risks — of a plethora of good (and maybe not-so-good) causes competing for funding, of redundancy, lack of clarity as to what really constitutes a “social enterprise,” lack of criteria for measuring success (or failure) and, overall, of not making the most of this opportunity due to lack of collaboration, of community.

Tom Paulson

Hub Seattle's Brian Howe explains the concept

That’s where Hub Seattle (when it is finally launched) hopes to play a role.

“We want to create a hosted work space where unreasonable people can get things done,” said Brian Howe, who with colleagues Jon White, Jay Standish and others intend to launch here a branch of a global initiative (started first in Britain and Europe) known as The Hub.

There are so far only three U.S. branches of The Hub, two of them in San Francisco and one in Atlanta. Here’s a good story about SF’s Hub by Fast Company. Other cities are looking to connect.

“In Seattle, we are already the Silicon Valley of sustainable, social and innovative development,” said Howe, who then immediately apologized for using these buzzwords (“I’m trying to stop doing that,” he said). “But we are still very fragmented, many of us working inefficiently in isolation.”

This is the third in a series of recent stories I’ve done examining how, and why, local do-gooders are trying to create more of a community. Continue reading