Social and enterprise – A Fairy Story or a Toolkit?

It’s an interesting point, Karen – such a statement on the world we live in that if we have those two words in close proximity, everyone assumes it must be a charity.

Like charities, social enterprise tends to attract more women as founders, CEOS and key personnel – again, interesting and open to all the usual comments on nurturing, giving back, values driven etc that entices women away from the world of ‘big’ (read ‘serious’ ) business. My experience in 15 years in banking (7 of them supporting women entrepreneurs) was that it is true – many women did start their businesses for subtly different reasons, did tend to have different views on capital investment, growth, financial risk, debt and exit. And they did tend to start wanting to ‘give back’ much sooner in the success trajectory than male counterparts. But not exclusively, of course – they are numerous wretched women out there and equal numbers who are absolutely and totally focused on money and profit.

It takes all sorts. But there are trends.

I had the great fortune to listen to Professor Muhammad Yunus in Edinburgh earlier this year, in the UK to speak about his Grameen concept and social business in general. I have to say it was one of the most thought-provoking speeches I have ever heard and I thought about it constantly for days and then regularly for weeks afterwards. He was explaining how they began Grameen focusing on the very poorest women in Bangladeshi society and on the smallest of micro-businesses (so far so heard-it-before-and –been –impressed). But he then went on to talk about how they have taken it to the US and how they have taken the concept bigger across the world, into big business and big stuff. How, in his view, ALL business is social business and the idea of PROFIT is analogous to business in its purest sense.

In his view, all money made from the business belongs to the business and should automatically get ploughed back into that business. The business also has a responsibility to do useful things for society (hmmm, so who thinks alcohol is useful? Erotica? Pornography? Make up? You could see where that could get difficult) and how the Grameen principles of collaboration and social value, not of profit could and should apply to massive infrastructure projects (like bridge building, railways etc) just as they would to basket weaving. That profit for its own sake (and for the pockets of the owners) doesn’t make sense and is a new and illogical concept that does not work in the long run.

There is no doubt that what he did with the Grameen concept was and is just incredible and that it was motivated by good. The problem is that human beings with their ego and greed just get in the way and so generally things that start off in a good place end up in a bad one. The source of a millions novels, films and cautionary tales. But it was the first time in SUCH a long time I had felt inspired. It helps that he is a mesmerising speaker. And that he has everyone in the world with any influence on speed dial. And a Nobel Peace Prize. But still.

It blew my mind. I was squirming in my seat with wanting to ask questions but knowing I hadn’t formulated them properly in my mind. And in a lecture theatre PACKED with intellectuals, I was too shrewd / chicken to try a half baked question. But how do they pay the workers? How do they pay the leaders? Who sets the limits? How much is fair/ How much is too much? Don’t you need a whole heap of money to start with to make it work? And where does that come from if not from existing models of profit? Don’t you need to be pretty rich to get it going on a big scale in the first place? Was I being negative and defeatist having been inured by George Orwell from a very young age when I still thought Animal Farm was a fairytale (some people still do, by all accounts).

I don’t know. What I do know was it blew my mind. And I wanted to talk about it more with people who know about these things. And I wanted it to be true. Maybe it is. I think it is….

3 Comments on Social and enterprise – A Fairy Story or a Toolkit?

  1. Philip A Birch // August 8, 2012 at 8:01 am // Reply

    Very interesting. I wish you could have asked some questions – I have many too – many similar to your own regarding funding and reward. I have started working with Paul Moore, the HBOS whistle blower, and his new venture The New Wilberforce Alliance, to eradicate the pursuit of greed (note: NOT the pursuit of wealth as this needs to be generated to be recycled) and knowing more about how to set up, fund and organise bigger business on the principles you mention above would have been invaluable me thinks. Do you intend to pursue your queries?

    • Hi Phil
      It wasn’t really the environment for questions, unfortunately, as it was a keynote speech, but certainly the work Yunus is now doing with Glasgow Caledonian University will offer a great route in to have some of these discussions which relate to your own work. I’d suggest you may want to speak to Pamela Gillies at GCU for starters? I read about Paul’s new Alliance; all credit to him and I hope it gains legs – quickly. I’ll drop you an email, Phil, with a couple of other people who I think you may want to catch up with. I am passionately supportive of your goals – as indeed so many of us are increasingly becoming…

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