Can successful businesses be profitable while simultaneously making the world a better place? Just what responsibilities do corporations have towards society as a whole and how can they best impact and transform communities and nations? These are some of the many pressing questions that business schools, startups, investors, and concerned citizens are grappling with as they seek to proactively challenge and creatively address complex societal problems while safeguarding the bottom line.
Social entrepreneurship, the fusion of business with social advocacy and activism, is not new. It has, however, become increasingly important in a world with a growing awareness of our interconnectedness, interdependency, and the need to solve social problems on a large scale. While a wide range of approaches have been envisioned to realize these goals, launching a socially invested business presents unique challenges and opportunities. The financial sector, for example, is still dominated by traditional models of business where profit is the primary determining factor for investment. While it may be good for marketing departments to proclaim their company’s support for various social causes, there remains significant reticence to support less profitable enterprises, particularly with stockholders seeking high yields and executives under pressure to maximize portfolio dividends. Businesses are not charities and they have important responsibilities to their constituents.
Oxford University’s Skoll Centre for social Entrepreneurship, part of the Saïd Business School, has taken a leading role in this emerging domain, endeavoring to shape the future by improving society at large. Dr. Pamela Hartigan, the Director of the Centre, has become a leading proponent for innovative businesses which are designed to have a global impact. Central to her mission is to equip professional leaders to become social entrepreneurs, and facilitate successful startup launches in this arena.
As part of its outreach effort, Oxford University’s Saïd Business School recently hosted its annual Emerge Conference on social entrepreneurship. According to Peter Tufano, Peter Moores Dean of SBS, the program is one of the highlights of the academic year, showcasing the importance of business careers aimed towards making a global impact, and enabling people to turn great ideas into reality.
Offering inspiration and information through networking events, keynote addresses, and speakers’ panels, the Conference was designed to provide attendees with ample opportunity for constructive conversation as to how they might make a positive difference in society.
A highlight of the weekend was the £500,000 Mustard Seed Competition, a high-stakes event in which 13 business startup finalists were invited to make 5-minute pitches for the coveted award before a panel of angel investors. Leaders of organizations with goals as diverse as cutting food waste, creating digital passports for products, and crowdfunding scientific research gave presentations. At the conclusion of the pitches, audience members were invited to cast their ballots for the five most compelling social entrepreneur presentations. When all the votes were tallied, it was announced that Naveed Parvez of Andiamo, a medical equipment and orthotics service for children with disabilities and long-term conditions, was the winner by a large margin.
Approximately 500 people participated in the two-day event from all over the world. No-one expects change to happen overnight, but as the Emerge Conference continues to grow, the potential for this new field to expand is unquestionable, paving the way for social entrepreneurship to reach a world-wide audience.