Dispatches

Rise, Then Rise Again

Development3 Managing Partner and proud American Annie Agle shares her view on the recent presidential elections. 

Yep, it’s a terrible blow. I’m nauseous thinking about the cabinet picks. I dread the fall of the sword now poised over family planning. May Fortuna find money for NASA, for surely federal funding for the sciences will go. Energy policy forecasts look grim and coal-laden. Our foreign policy just became a question mark. Justice reform will fade. Public lands will become increasingly private. The economic non-strategy for debt management will surely call for cuts in all the wrong places.

There it is. On a page. The sectors and movements under threat become ours to protect. Complacency is now an unaffordable luxury. So, how to proceed?

It’s time we take a hard look at rural America and start to listen to what its asking for…with a sense of urgency. If we gain an understanding of the disenfranchised rural American perspective, then we can challenge it and help it to evolve. Beyond this focus, this administration may present a singular set of opportunities.

Trump’s presidency is largely terrifying because of the unknowns: We know he’s neither Republican nor Democrat, neither strict isolationist nor interventionist. He has no policy of public decorum or predictable political stance, and I think it is precisely because of these decidedly un-presidential qualities that a Trump Administration will force both parties to reform. The parties, both of whom lost the election, would do well to give younger, centrist candidates a launching pad. Young people, hear me, rise, and run…for office. We will never inherit this earth if we do not put something of ourselves, our values, our energy, our gifts on the line.

Mark me: a three-branch red government under Trump’s leadership will bring forth new movements and new leaders that would have lain dormant otherwise. This administration will create the best possible set of circumstances from which to launch a new era of rebellious, coordinated, civilian-level collective action. Let us not become lost in this dark hour. Let it be the backdrop for our light.

I believe in America, in the rallying notion that governance should be of the people, by the people, and for the people. Bipartisanship stems from misunderstanding someone else’s point of view, nationality from finding common ground on common ground. So, let’s build those bridges and stand four years from now together on common ground.

New York startups and social responsibility

This week Development3 Managing Partner, Akash Ghai looks at how and why startups should integrate social responsibility into their business models. He highlights three New York based startups that can make this happen. 

A few years ago I interviewed with a New York startup company that runs a hotel management operations app. They were looking for someone to handle their day-to-day operations. I quickly got the gist of the role prior to the interview but then I got to thinking, what is stopping this organization from using its technology to integrate social responsibility into their business model? As with most interviews, at the end I was offered the chance to ask questions:

“Have you thought about integrating social responsibility into your business model?”

There was silence. The founder wanted me to elaborate. So I decided to paint a picture for them…

“You have a technology that is delivering a specialist service in the hotel management space. An element of your technology is the management of guest services, if you could partner with a nonprofit that specializes in addressing the carbon footprint like Carbon Fund – guests would have the capability to donate to said organization based on their type of travel. If they flew from one country to another they could offset their CO2 emissions through a donation.”

They looked at me with hesitancy; I could see what he was thinking.

“We’re a startup why should we do this? We don’t have the money for this? What’s the ROI? How do we know this is going to bring value to the organization? It’s not something we can do right now.”

I gave them answers, which explained how much of a benefit it would be to integrate a simple strategy like this now as opposed to 5 years from now where it will be seen as an “add-on.” I didn’t get the job that was perfectly fine but it got me thinking…

Why aren’t more startup organizations exploring ways of integrating social responsibility into their business models?

I get it. If you aren’t going to see an immediate Return on Investment (ROI) why even consider this? When they raise seed funding startups are accountable to funders and other stakeholders, so doing something that may not appease the folks with money could be a no-go. The goal is to raise funds and execute, get things done quickly to justify investment in the startup.

But surely there must be some mutually beneficial, profile boosting, stakeholder satisfying, cost effective social responsibility opportunities for startups? Here are 3 New York based startups that should integrate social responsibility into their business models.

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Dressometry

Dressometry helps retailers empower customers to find exactly what they’re looking for online. Their solution seeks to improve customers’ experience and increases retail sales. With increased consumer demand for online fashion Dressometry is uniquely positioned to offer something that helps shoppers with specific needs.

There is an easy nonprofit partnership Dressometry could pursue to dip its toe into the social responsibility waters. Dress for Success international a nonprofit that empowers women to achieve economic independence by providing a network of support, professional attire and the development tools to help women thrive in work and in life.

  • Public Relations, Positive Reinforcement, Potential Returns – Positioning Dressometry as an e-commerce retailer that supports nonprofits like Dress for Success can only increase the brand value of the company. By demonstrating a commitment to supporting the advancement of women, Dressometry can get more positive press coverage that will enhance its customer reputation.
  • Cost effectiveness – The reality is donating profits to social causes, as a startup needs to be justifiable. With this strategy, the employees come up with a campaign engaging and encouraging them to collaborate. If the campaign is successful and repeated year on year, Dressometry can position itself to actually donate profits.
  • Connection with customers – If customers see that Dressometry are contributing directly or indirectly to fashion-focused nonprofit initiatives, brand perception is bound to rise, resulting in customer retention, increased sales and access to the conscious consumer market.

 

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Overture

Overture helps companies create profile videos for their employees in lieu of a standard headshot. The videos are 30 seconds long or less, black and white and are ideal for company websites. With the growing need for interactivity in the way companies are presented, profile videos are a good way to for customers to connect beyond the title. Overture has worked with many organizations including community leaders and activists. What can they do to go one step beyond in how they demonstrate “doing good”?

There are a number of youth-focused nonprofits in New York. One example is YouthBridge-NY a nonprofit that engages promising teens in a free leadership fellowship program and teaches them how to utilize diversity as an asset to strengthen entire communities. By having Overture’s expertise and knowledge in the video presentation space work with YouthBridge-NY, the teens on the program will be able to understand A) the digitizing of business B) the importance of a first impression and C) tap into their entrepreneurial mindset to come up with visuals of value.

A simple way of collaborating would be for Overture to explain to the teens how the company works then do an exercise. Set up a dummy company website, have the teens assume leadership roles and working with the YouthBridge-NY staff design an exercise that focuses on leadership and utilizes Oveture’s technology.

  • Build another story – Overture tries to tell a story in 30 seconds. Each individual profile needs to quickly get a message out there. But what about the story behind Overture doing good? This is a great opportunity for Overture to capture its activities working with a nonprofit, that can be used to sell the company to many stakeholders from a doing good perspective.
  • Simple service – Overture has a fairly simple model, sit, record, share. The service line is clear which means there are so many other opportunities that they can do in the social responsibility space that won’t affect the way the company runs.This allows for Oveture to look for credible doing good opportunities in the long term.
  • Look to the future – As YouthBridge-NY is focused on teens with high potential to become the leaders of tomorrow by getting in early,  Overture will have potential customers. Once the teens are aware of Oveture’s importance they should keep the concept in mind when they plan to set up their own companies in the future.

 

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Seatgeek

Seatgeek is an online platform that enables users to quickly discover tickets to sports & music events and find amazing deals. In the highly lucrative event ticketing market where competition is fierce, Seatgeek is a growing cost-comparing service that wants customers to get the best deal. With growing companies in competitive spaces, differentiation is crucial.

Seatgeek has a predominantly millennial workforce of around 100 people. Building a corporate volunteering program that is linked to the events offered could be an interesting way to engage employees. For instance a group of employees could volunteer to support a concert, which would allow them to understand what it takes to make a concert happen. This gives them an added appreciation for what the company does, and look beyond the perspective of being fans themselves.

By incubating this model now, Seatgeek can potentially integrate it into its management processes, where employees are required to volunteer on the program. This makes the company more attractive when hiring new talent, and generates unique data (number of hours spent volunteering, the stories behind the employees in their volunteering endeavors etc.) that the company can use to attract investors and other key stakeholders in the future.

  • Millennial engagement – Millennial employees are an interesting breed they want the companies they work for to have meaningful and positive impact. Looking beyond products and profits, and focusing on how to engage people is where the driving forces lie.
  • Growth for ROI – By having employees volunteer at events Seatgeek can achieve financial returns on investment. While the initiative may not be tax deductible, building the perception of “doing good” is an asset in itself. If customers are aware of the volunteer program and the stories behind it they are more likely to keep using Seatgeek.
  • Culture creation – Corporate volunteerism is a great way to build a culture of doing good within a company. As more employees participate, it is likely that they will discover and create opportunities that could support Seatgeek’s bottom line. Volunteering would help the fostering of new cost-effective initiatives internally as a means to supporting the company’s growth.

So there are quite a few social responsibility strategies that can be integrated at any stage of the startup life cycle. It’s a matter of thinking creatively, learning about the value of “doing good” and executing a manageable strategy that creates tangible results.

If you have a startup and want to learn more about social responsibility get in touch!  akash@development3.org

Talented Expats Returning to Developing Home Countries: Advice

Recently the World Economic Forum highlighted the challenges that thousands of talented expats face when looking to put their new found knowledge and qualifications into practice and transform their home countries. Most recently this can be highlighted on the African continent, where developing economies are experiencing a “reverse brain-drain”.

D3 co-founder Akash Ghai answers questions on how young expats might overcome barriers to progression and ultimately become change-makers in their home countries.

Q: Do returning graduates need to develop the skill-set of pushing for reform in order to address both institutional failures and cultural and social norms that inhibit developing countries?

A: Returning graduates need to quickly clue themselves up on all of the issues affecting their country. A lot can change within a developing country over a 2-5 year period and unless a graduate is constantly in the know-how about what is going on and making frequent trips home, it can be very difficult to understand what the issues are let alone know how to address them.

Graduates must constantly adapt whatever it is they learn in their host country to the local environment of their home country. It is less so about having the necessary skill set and more so about having the right mentality and approach to reinterpret knowledge and skills that will benefit developing countries.

Q: What can host countries do further to facilitate the qualities that you’ve mentioned? Is there more that can be done by universities and colleges, or do you see the international community becoming more involved?

A: Host countries, which are often set in the developed world, need to enable graduates to critically think about applying what it is they learn to their home countries. The “think global, act local” concept springs to mind. Educators and institutions are at times bound by textbooks and theology which doesn’t lend itself to helping returning graduates apply what they have learned into practice. Conversely, students are at times hesitant to ask questions for fear of “looking silly” or feel as though they are unable to communicate themselves effectively. However the ethos is on the student to approach lecturers and teachers to try and understand how what they are learning could be applied in different contexts. 

Yet, with technology becoming a conduit to address access to education, the arrival of advanced virtual learning environments means that the barriers for returning students are starting to slowly come down.

In fact, the barriers that make it a difficult decision to travel abroad to study in the first place, including time and expense, are being made irrelevant by the universal availability of online courses meeting internationally accredited standards. This includes the possibility of learning through some of the worlds leading universities and colleges through massively open online courses (MOOCs).

Q: The article highlights one of the biggest obstacles: senior government leaders are entrusted with the management of sizable budgets, minimal oversight, unclear objectives, little accountability and misaligned pay structures that distort behaviors. Its clear that legal reforms are going to play a big part in challenging the norm in many African countries and it is up to government to decentralize decision-making powers. How might returning graduates play a part in bringing about this change?

A: Graduates need to take the approach to influence a cultural shift – and understand that they have a role to play in supporting government. They cannot be change-makers unless they fully understand the socio-economic, cultural and political issues that are playing out in their home countries. Legal reform isn’t something that is going to take place overnight, in Africa or anywhere else for that matter. The traditional approach, or “this is how its always been”, is and always will be the most challenging mentality to move away from.

You’ll need to set personal goals that tie into the issues you wish to change. You must network with people of influence: that is people that hold public office, people in business, community leaders, public figures and the media. Figure out how you can be of value to these people. Ultimately, you need to demonstrate that there is a better way to do things.

#SmartSnippet: Social Investment demands strategy

Today’s #SmartSnippet comes from D3 co-founder Akash Ghai who recently shared his thoughts on the Thomson Reuters Foundation survey on the best countries to be a social entrepreneur.

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When it comes to business ethics, the tide is turning in favour of tomorrow’s social entrepreneurs, yet they face a unique set of challenges. Reviewing your strategy to address the social question you ultimately aim to put right needs to become second nature if you are to avoid being consumed by the demands and expectations of social investment.

“Putting on both hats – business and social-development – has a unique set of challenges that isn’t for everyone. At times you can be pulled in both directions, which can lead to oversights. Having mentors and advisors with experience in your  field; and building a team that understands your mission means having right people around you that will determine and support your ability to make an impact.”

Advice for Social Entrepreneurs: Part 1

Following the results of the Thomson Reuters Foundation survey on the best countries to be a social entrepreneur, we sat down with Development3 founder Akash Ghai to discuss the challenges that social entrepreneurs everywhere need to be aware of and how to approach them.

Q: New technologies continue to grow exponentially, becoming cheaper and more accessible; and have the potential to empower even the most marginalized communities around the world. However, well-documented obstacles still exist, including governments being slow to adopt and enact policy; and social and cultural norms inhibiting the speed of change and undermining the effort to improve people’s lives. Where do social entrepreneurs fit into all of this? Can they be catalysts for change and if so then in what way? How might they help to connect the dots?

A: Technology is an asset that social entrepreneurs will need to utilize if they’re to become catalysts for change; and indeed they can be. Take for example a social entrepreneur based in a rural village in Central Africa that now has the ability to freely connect with people all over the world through a smartphone. The opportunity to collaborate, exchange and form new ideas, practices and experiences can lead to very real, positive results which can be implemented at a grass-roots level. Develop and multiply this practice and very soon you will get the attention from local, national and international stakeholders and the ability to influence both governments and cultural norms.

Q: Does the report on where is best to be a social entrepreneur hold relevance in a world that is getting smaller in terms of global markets, international development and advancing technologies? What can social entrepreneurs take away from it?

A: If you know which countries are best positioned to help support your endeavors as a social entrepreneur then that information can only serve your decision-making. But what would be even more interesting is to see the developing countries outside of the 45 identified in the study that have the potential to become the best environments for social entrepreneurs to flourish over the next twenty years.

Social investment has already become commonplace. The changing demographic of the everyday investor is influencing how businesses conduct themselves. There are many recent examples of businesses that didn’t act responsibly or ethically towards an affected group – local communities, customers, employees – and have lost out on revenue, market share, investment – even failed as a result. Social entrepreneurs should be aware of this change and position themselves to facilitate social investment.

Q: In contrast to what the report covers, what internal challenges do social entrepreneurs need to be aware of? What’s more important, where you’re from or whether you have the characteristics to succeed?

A: Understanding your target market and getting a sense of what you can realistically offer, are both crucially important to understand in business. For a budding entrepreneur, getting to know what your day-to-day work will consist of is also important. The ideation is a mix of building a business to generate income – looking at the demands of the market, securing seed funding and the growing pains associated with starting a business – while also designing and continuously looking at your strategy to address the social question you ultimately aim to put right.

Putting on both hats – business and social-development – has a unique set of challenges that isn’t for everyone. At times you can be pulled in both directions, which can lead to oversights. Having mentors and advisors with experience in your  field; and building a team that understands your mission means having right people around you that will determine and support your ability to make an impact.


In part 2 of this article we will look at scenarios that social entrepreneurs might be faced with. Coming soon.

#SmartSnippet: Dignity above all else

Today’s #SmartSnippet comes from Dr Ambika Sampat – co-founder of iNUT-Who? A non-profit organization dedicated towards fundraising for and spreading awareness of existing NGOs, individual causes and upcoming charity-related projects. @inutwho

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Treat your end-user as you would treat a customer – with dignity.

“Place the emphasis on humility and understanding. Understanding what real impact looks like will lead to a better understanding of what real dignity looks like, and no one should be robbed of that dignity. Instead of deciding how people should live, we should ask them how they want to live.”

Responsible investing and Corporate Social Responsibility with Cara MacMillan

CaraMacMillanThis week we have a fantastic opinion post from Cara Macmillan, Co founder and Vice President of  Sustainability at the Halcyon Consulting Group. Here she looks at the importance of responsible investing in  being social responsible.

Capitalism is an economic model where private individuals have the right to own property and investments. With rights, comes responsibility. People don’t usually have issue with the right to own their homes, or to have a say in how they spend their money.

We take issue when we feel that we do not have power. We get angry or worse, we get quiet.

Social Responsibility is about empowerment. It is about the opportunity for each of us to responsibly own property; financial or real estate. With ownership comes accountability.

My neighbour has a compost pile in his backyard. He believes that he is acting responsibly. It is his right because it is on his property. The problem is he doesn’t know how to properly compost so now deer mice have come to my backyard and his. Deer mice carry hantavirus and that virus is deadly. He owns property but is he acting socially responsible? No.

And while he is doing what he believes is right, my neighbour is lowering the asset values of all of us in our neighbourhood….oh and he is putting all our health at risk. Our legal system protects us from people who may have good intentions but are causing others harm. The legal responsibility we each have to provide for each other without causing harm which is called our Duty of Care; is obvious and we have a means to enforce the responsibility to compost without attracting animals carrying disease.

But what about companies?

Companies have become individuals under the law. When we took back ownership from the nobility and gave it to people and corporations, we didn’t think everything through. It is confusing – how can we hold a corporation accountable for wrongdoings like deer mice droppings that are infected with hantavirus? There is no real person with whom we can try to speak or educate. So what can we do?

We can demand Corporate Social Responsibility through tools like Socially Responsible Investing.

Corporate Social Responsibility and Socially Responsible Investing are working to clean up corporations’ backyards. Corporations have good intentions to make money and pay dividends to pensioners each month. Corporations employ people and their salaries provide shelter, food and education to the families. Yes the model works well. Or does it?

Regardless of your opinion, it is the only model that we follow right now. And it is not perfect. So how can we ennoble ourselves to monitor our neighbours, our corporations to step up and provide a higher Duty of Care? A higher responsibility?

If you believe that your pension should not be investing in a company that makes a mess and puts people’s health at risk – speak up!

When you speak up to investor relations and your pension manager why you want this improved…they will change. It will take time, but when we speak up, things change.

When you speak up because you know that eventually this will cause a lawsuit and that lawsuit will lower the profits and hence the ability to make monthly pension payments, then eventually things will change.

Companies are judged to be big and impersonal. They seemed to have their own rules. They seemed to be above the law. Corporations seemed to be able to make money at the expense of society.

But those times have changed. The legal systems are beginning to demand a Duty of Care from our corporations. But what about each of us? How else can we demand more? Today, we speak up through social media and through our spending choices.

People often ask me why I even talk about making a difference. You simply can’t make money and make a big difference they say. Well my portfolio proves you wrong. For years now I have been following the Principles of Responsible Investment.

Principles for Responsible Investment integrate environment, social and good governance principles into investing.

One of the slogans of the financial world is:

“Follow the money”.

You see investing along the principles of our collective world is in fact following the money.

Let’s walk through this.

Our world has changed. We feel record heat waves. We feel record rain fall and torrential storms. With these shifts in our weather, we spend more money on repairs, maintenance and insurance. So when I see a change in my personal spending habits, I check with others and ask the same questions. We compare notes and then ask which companies are benefiting from our spending. Consistently I hear the same answer:

“We focus our spending on quality not quantity. In a time when people are saving and paying off all debts, the simpler joys are the most important.”

So from my statistically inaccurate survey:

  • Quality food that is healthy and tastes great. We focus on quality not quantity.
  • Locally made so that it is fresher and I can support my neighbours. After all we all worked together to dig out after the storms and the floods.
  • an online presence so I know that they have a smaller real estate footprint and those overhead costs are not passed along to me
  • I am not buying from that store because they treat their employees terribly. Management is rude and condescending to the staff and are inflexible.
  • I will not bank with that bank because they had a layoff last year in my town and 80% of the staff that was let go were in some way disabled. It was probably just a coincidence or was it?

So what does this really mean? Translated into an investment philosophy it means that many people invest responsibly and they do not even know it.

Responsible investment is the practice of involving your values into your investment decisions. That decision can be a consumer purchase, a place of employment or an actual investment choice.

For the people who choose quality over quantity, you represent the responsible investment tenet of investing for long term sustainable profit rather than the short term. You look for consistency and reliability. You don’t want to worry about surprises like dishonest accounting or serious environmental damage lawsuits against the company.

Companies that focus on paying a dividend to its shareholders and are committed to growth are usually committed to quality over quantity. But check the financial reports and do your due diligence. These are the types of solid companies that Responsible Investors choose.

When you choose to support your neighbours because they are there for you through the storms then you are investing your community which is another tenet of Responsible Investment. This builds local wealth which can be reinvested into schools, hospitals and services that maintain or raise the quality of life.

Labour practices are an important aspect of responsible investment. I never make a decision on an investment based on hearsay. There are many research firms that review labour practices. This information is available from many reputable charities and non-governmental agencies. Many research firms make this information publicly available. We just need to look.

Negative screening is another way to participate in Responsible Investment. If you lost someone to lung cancer, you can choose not to invest in tobacco. If you have a disabled family member that was laid off and you do not want to be associated with that company, then you have the right to make that choice. You can still have a balanced portfolio because there are many other solid choices in the same sector from which you can choose. The key to Responsible Investment is that it lets you put your money where your values are.

So how does one make Big Money and a Big Difference? You go with the flow. The flow of Big Money like pension funds, insurance companies and endowment funds are investing in Responsible Investment. They recognize that fiduciary responsibility means more than just making money and managing financial risk. It means making money with integrity and quality consistently over time.

Yours in Corporate Social Responsibility,

Cara MacMillan MBA, caramacmillan.com

It Is Only Money: And It Grows on Trees” is a book written by Cara and is available on Amazon. 10% of the gross proceeds are donated to Development and Peace (devp.org).

“The worst impacts of climate change are being felt by the Global South, yet they contribute the least to the warming of our common home. It is time to act and create a climate of change!”