I just returned from Barcelona (where every tourist now seems to be tracking the path of Woody Allen's Vicky and Christina…), attending a few sessions of the Doing Good and Doing Well Conference organized by IESE Business School and Net Impact, an organization that connects MBA students interested in social responsibility.
That a leading business school is dedicating an entire student-run conference to the topic of responsible business is remarkable (HEC Paris will do the same soon in May, also in collaboration with Net Impact) but not an isolated phenomenon. In the past few years, several top business schools, such as Yale, Duke, Harvard, and Stanford, as well as pioneers such as the Presidio School of Management in San Francisco and the Bainbridge Graduate Institute in Washington State have begun to offer tailored programs to MBAs who want to marry traditional business skills with innovative approaches to solving social problems. Different from nonprofit curricula, which typically provide the fundamentals of fundraising and grant writing, these specific business school programs combine the finance and management training of a traditional MBA with electives that cover everything from how to get venture capital and invest in emerging markets to building sustainable energy sources. But conferences like IESE's indicate that social entrepreneurship is not yet fully integrated into all business school curricula and that it still needs the extra limelight. As long as not all business is social business, business that is not social will still find a safe harbor.
Business and ethics have of course been intertwined since the days of the Greek polis. Adam Smith, the spiritual father of the homo oeconomicus, wrote a "Theory of Moral Sentiments" before he wrote "The Wealth of Nations." And yet, business that is good for society has always been in need of being extrapolated through catchy labels (business ethics, CSR, corporate citizenship, social innovation, social entrepreneurship, etc.), invariably heralded as the Next Big Thing and slowly moving up the food chain from a window-dressing PR tool to a truly integral strategy driver. Recently, Fast Company coined the new, chic term "Ethonomics" and even made it one of the key pillars of its relaunched web site:
"We live in a world that's resource-constrained but ingenuity-rich. So an upstart generation of entrepreneurs – and innovators within the world's biggest companies – are founding businesses that are good for the world as well as the bottom line. They are practicing social change through urban revitalization, sustainable agriculture, green IT, alternative energy and online community-powered investing. Any business that claims to be truly sustainable and innovative should be increasingly efficient with energy and natural resources, transparent and accountable, and good on balance for people and other living things. Ethonomics is a hybrid of technology, design, and social responsibility, and at Fast Company we believe it is the future of business."
In Barcelona, this young upstart generation of entrepreneurs and innovators shared its ideas, seeking advice from those who had been in the field for some years. For example from Kyle Zimmer, the president and co-founder of First Book:
"Whenever you hit a point at which you feel you have no idea what you're doing (and if you don't reach that point quickly, you’re not moving fast enough), make a list with the ten most acclaimed experts able to answer your questions. And then call them one by one even if you have never met them or your list includes Bill Gates. It doesn't matter. Tell them your story and ask them for help. Some won’t call you back. In fact, I can pride myself with not having been called back by some of the most accomplished people in the world. But you’d be surprised how many will."
Jessica Jackley Flannery, co-founder and chief marketing officer of micro-lending marketplace Kiva, was another one of the veterans present, and her talk made most of the MBA students in the audience beam. Social entrepreneurs are simpaticos, of course, and you'd be hard pressed to find a MBA student these days who would not want to be a social innovator. Wall Street fame is so yesterday. Flannery epitomized the case for a new 'meaning' and emphasized the power of storytelling: "If we all understood each other's stories, the world would be a better place." Stories create empathy, and empathy breeds the solidarity needed for taking action. In light of the dire economic situation in developed countries, Flannery half-jokingly said she wouldn't be surprised if a young entrepreneur in Uganda were soon to lend money to a job-less banker in Manhattan. Globalization in reverse. In any case, innovative banking such as Kiva's is no longer only focused on helping developing economies. New web-enabled finance 2.0 models and infrastructures attempt to overcome the financial crisis in the US.
Entrepreneurs and innovators may be much needed these days, but "how can you be doing good when we are not doing so well?" the conference asked. With almost 14% unemployment in Spain, it was brutally aware of the need to discuss the creation of "Sustainable Value in a Downturn." Aside from the assumption that recessions can hold tremendous opportunity for any entrepreneur (as Christopher Gergen and Gregg Vanourek point out), social entrepreneurs in particular seem to weather the current investment pullback rather well. The Skoll Foundation is currently conducting a survey, to be presented at the Skoll World Forum in March. Preliminary results indicate that most of the social entrepreneurs have been affected by the economic downturn in some way or other, but only 10% of the respondents say that they have been severely affected.
"A crisis is a terrible thing to waste," Paul Romer (now famously) said, and hopefully the current recession will not lead to a Great Depression but a "Great Disruption" (Paul Gilding) that requires us to build the foundation of our economy from the ground up. In his brilliant post on "How To Be a 21st Century Capitalist," Umar Haique writes that "Capital deepening is the foundation of next-generation value creation." By that he means "assets with intrinsic, durable, human value – not the lemons Wall Street was in the business of hawking. It is only by capitalizing the things we really value that the spark of value creation can be lit again." He predicts that "next-generation businesses will be built on next-generation assets:" "Yesterday's businesses were built on cash, factories, and IP - financial, physical, and intellectual capital. Next-generation businesses are built, instead, on human, social, natural, and cultural capital – to name just a few."