In the Business of Change: How Social Entrepreneurs are Disrupting Business as Usual

In the Business of Change: How Social Entrepreneurs are Disrupting Business as Usual

by Elisa Birnbaum
In the Business of Change: How Social Entrepreneurs are Disrupting Business as Usual

In the Business of Change: How Social Entrepreneurs are Disrupting Business as Usual

by Elisa Birnbaum


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Meet the social entrepreneurs who are using business to disrupt the status quo and rebuild their communities

Our communities are facing the fallout from the demise of vital industry, bankrupt economies, bad policy or policing, and political mismanagement. People are looking for answers, and the "same old" simply won't do.

In the Business of Change is a practical and inspirational guide that showcases how social entrepreneurs from places such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Vancouver, who are weary of waste, injustice, and government inaction, are using business savvy to tackle challenges in their communities.

Part storytelling, part lessons learned, coverage includes:

  • Profiles of remarkable individuals and companies in such diverse sectors as employment, food, art, education, and social justice
  • An overview of lessons learned and real impacts on the ground
  • Tips for getting started, connecting to the local community, and scaling up.

In the Business of Change is for everyone who wants to rebuild their communities and believes that business can be a powerful, positive force for change.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781771422598
Publisher: New Society Publishers
Publication date: 05/29/2018
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 192
File size: 3 MB
Age Range: 16 - 18 Years

About the Author

Elisa Birnbaum is editor-in-chief of SEE Change Magazine, a digital publication of social entrepreneurship and social change. Her journalistic portfolio includes articles published in the Globe&Mail, Toronto Star,, Profit, Zoomer and Lifestyles Magazine. She's a regular contributor on social entrepreneurship for the National Post and covers issues in the non-profit sector as a freelance reporter for President of Elle Communications, Elisa helps her clients tell their stories effectively and with impact. As a producer, she has worked on documentaries and current affairs programs at History Television, Discovery Health, TVO and the CBC. Elisa holds a bachelor's degree in political science from Concordia University and an LL.B degree from Université de Montréal and the University of Toronto's Osgoode Hall. She's a speaker on social entrepreneurship and was recently awarded an Ariane de Rothschild Fellowship at Cambridge University, UK, for her work with SEE Change Magazine. She lives in Toronto, Ontario.

Elisa Birnbaum is the publisher and editor-in-chief of SEE Change Magazine, a digital publication of social entrepreneurship and social change. A journalist and television producer for over 15 years, she's a regular contributor on social entrepreneurship for the National Post and has been published in a variety of publications including the Globe&Mail, Profit, and Lifestyles Magazine. She holds degrees in political science and law and lives in Toronto, Ontario.

Read an Excerpt

Innovate or Bust

Disruptive. Innovative. Creative. An increasing number of social entrepreneurs have come to realize that moving from ideation to success often requires going beyond the usual, the traditional, the expected. They need to shake things up, turn ideas upside down and infuse their solutions to challenges with a creative twist, new technology and/or a bold re-think.

Of course, innovation is not an approach unique to social entrepreneurs. It's a popular tool for any entrepreneur who wants to rise above the fray and differentiate themselves from their competition. And to be innovative doesn't necessitate brand-spanking new ideas or re-inventing the wheel. Leveraging what already exists and adopting new ideas into the mix can prove effective – and profitable.

But, as we'll see in this chapter, for social entrepreneurs it's more than being disruptive for the sake of competitive advantage. It's about finding new ways to tackle social and environmental challenges because the old ways are simply not working – or not scaling at a pace that makes long-term change feasible. It's about looking for new, creative answers to old, seemingly unchangeable problems.

For Komal Ahmad, the old problems came in the form of food security and its sister challenge, food waste. Her inspiration? A homeless man with whom she generously shared her lunch one day who shared his story: he had recently completed a second tour in Iraq and was waiting for his VA benefits to kick in and was struggling to make ends meet. That someone who dedicated his life to the same country that was now failing to feed him seemed incredulous to Ahmad. That they were eating across the street from the Berkley campus she attended, where food was often thrown out from the cafeteria, only reinforced the paradox.

"It was emblematic of much larger problem, that every day in the US over 365 million pounds of perfectly edible food is wasted, while one of out every six don't know where their food is coming from," she says. It occurred to her that, despite the oft-accepted belief, it's not the lack of food at issue but its inefficient distribution. "Hunger is a logistics problem not a scarcity problem."

She was now on a mission. She asked Berkley representatives why they threw out so much excess food and was told it was a liability issue. But that didn't make sense. How was food worthy of feeding college students one minute potentially problematic the next? Upon further research, she found that Congress had passed the Bill Emerson Good Samarian Act in 1996 that effectively absolved donors from liability when donating food, except in cases of gross negligence. "Since that time, the number of lawsuits or legal claims has been zero," she says.

Armed with the law and an abundance of persistence, Ahmad approached Berkley again and initiated the nation's first food recovery organisation on a college campus, redistributing unused food to organizations who needed it. Except, as the initiative started gaining ground, Ahmad quickly realized it was "remarkably inefficient". She recounts her AHA moment: driving around one day with a huge quantity of sandwiches trying to find non-profits who needed them. Some took a few off her hands, others didn't return her calls, while still others said they didn't need anything then but may need food at a later date. "Why is it so hard to do a good thing?" she remembers thinking. "Where are all the hungry people when I have so much food?"

It then hit her: what she needed was to innovate the old process to better match food waste with need. Copia was born in 2011. "We didn't invent the concept of food recovery, we just put technology behind it," she explains. Copia allows businesses, event organizers and others to request a pickup of their surplus food for a fee contingent upon the quantity of food being donated.

An algorithm then matches the requests to non-profits who've put in food requests and Copia's "food heroes" are dispatched for pick up and drop-off. Photos and testimonials of recipients as well as data and analytics are made available to donors to reinforce measurable impact. And from start to end Copia promotes environmental and financial efficiency.

The ideal customer is someone who gives away high-quality food 260 to 365 days a year from multiple locations across the country, shares Ahmad of her long-term vision. She's equally clear about her business model: "We're built to solve hunger at scale, we're not a non-profit," she explains unequivocally. Determined to put an end to hunger, scale is thus inevitable. "We don't want to be local, we want to be global and that's only possible by creating an enterprise; no one loses just because you win."

Today Copia operates in San Francisco and is expanding into Los Angeles, Austin and other cities, with the expectation of growing across the U.S. by next year. As she contemplates a franchise model, Ahmad is also open to opportunities to partner with similarly minded organizations who can make use of their technology to streamline efficiency and increase impact.

To be sure, Ahmad has her eyes set on the world, having received over 60,000 requests from people wanting to use the platform and technology. Senior government officials in Germany and Austria, for example, inquiring about better ways to match food and other resources for Syrian migrants. "I would never have fathomed that possibility back when I was in college," says Ahmad. Once food redistribution is figured out on scale, the possibilities of matching different resources and needs are endless: disaster relief, medical supplies, books, medicines. Any need that doesn't stem from lack of resources but inefficient distribution can technically fall into her innovative, tech-savvy hands.

Of course, challenges remain. The pace of change, for one. "If you asked me five years ago, I would say 'yeah it would be solved already,'" she says of food waste. But when you get down to the nitty gritty, you realize why change takes time. "I'm hopeful we can create a model that will allow us to replicate quicker," she says. But it won't be completely uniform. Appreciating local distinctions, one model will work best for Middle America, another for New York, yet another in San Francisco and a distinctive one for London, UK. It's still early days but with growth essential Ahmad's goal is to find a way to identify needs and operationalize without duplicating efforts.

As for lessons learned, at the top of Ahmad's long list is this simple yet powerful one: never give up. Don't be dissuaded by those who don't believe in you, she says, recalling how when she first started Copia, some people dismissed her efforts as 'cute'. "Now people take me more seriously," she laughs. "They see I'm still doing it, it's not a hobby. Eradicating world hunger is not a part-time job."

Sometimes innovation requires turning an industry on its head. Take Boston-based MASS Design, the ultimate disruptor in the field of architecture. "Architecture is never neutral", their website proclaims. "It either heals or hurts." With the belief that architecture has power beyond a building's four walls, that it should be held accountable for community and serve as a vital proponent to its health, MASS' mission is to build and advocate for architecture that promotes justice and human dignity.

If you believe, like co-founder Alan Ricks does, that architects should tackle challenges that face communities, the only way to do that is to turn architecture upside down, inside out. To create innovative buildings that better the lives of people and promote their health and dignity throughout the process – from design and planning and from engineering to construction. Ricks says the idea for MASS Design came about after a stint in Rwanda where an outbreak of tuberculosis was traced back to a health clinic. It made him realize that buildings can make people sicker. The question became, "If bad design is making people sick, can good design make people heal?"

To that end, MASS works on schools, hospitals, health centres, housing projects and any initiative that falls within their typologies of health, education and justice. To wit: they were hired by Haiti's Les Centres GHESKIO to create a health infrastructure to combat cholera – the country's first permanent facility for cholera treatment. Hit with the biggest cholera outbreak in the last century, the more pertinent question in Haiti was how to move beyond emergency responses to tackle the endemic problem.

Effectively establishing a new paradigm for cholera and diarrheal disease treatment and prevention, the facility boasts easier-to-clean equipment, comfortable furniture and greater privacy for patients and their families, bringing back dignity to the healthcare equation. The patient-centric treatment centre also offers an on-site sanitation system that helps combat water and waste issues. Given that only 28% of Port-au-Prince residents have access to clean water and sanitation, its capacity to treat up to 250,000 gallons of wastewater annually is fundamental.

In 2015 MASS Design worked on the Mubuga Primary School in Rwanda, which now serves as a model for public education in the country, promoting comfort, health and a playful learning environment. The new classrooms offer sufficient light, ventilation, a library and a teacher's space for resources. Believing in the importance of play and sports in facilitating healing, the school also has play areas, a volley ball court, and outdoor education areas. And to ensure their design is replicable and capable of addressing related issues of school infrastructure in the region, the architectural design for the building incorporated local materials and techniques. They even used local labour to promote community engagement and sustainability.

Today MASS is working in about 10 countries in Africa on a variety of projects that include a $50 million hospital in Monrovia and two district hospitals in Rwanda, where they have a second office with a staff of 35. It's actually where the company got its start, a fortuitous opportunity that offered their team significant insight into the systematic issues prevalent across the nation, resulting most particularly from rapid development and urbanization. It was that insight that gave the architectural firm their purpose.

About to celebrate their 10th anniversary in 2018, Ricks hopes the first 10 years will stand as proof of concept, demonstrating that designing around issues of social justice is not only possible, it's beautiful, cost-effective - and sustainable as a business model. As for the next 10 years, Ricks wants to bring their model into the US, proving their takeaways are not exclusive to emerging markets. MASS is ready to show that this disruptive approach to architecture is as viable in Boston as it is in Kigali.

Of course, proving the benefits in emerging markets is not enough. For their innovative design to be accepted in the developed world, they need buy-in from industry and government too. Instead of evaluating buildings based on how long it took to build and their cost per square foot, Ricks is hopeful they'll be measured – first and foremost - by the value it provides to users and the public. The good news is that interest in their novel approach to design is far greater today than 10 years ago. "It's just a question of whether the public and the marketplace start to demand it."

That demand has been essential to David Stover, one of three co-founders of Bureo, a for-profit enterprise that uses discarded commercial fishing nets to produce skateboards and other products. Without it, they wouldn't be enjoying a significant growth spurt. But what inspired their innovative model can be traced back to the water. "I've never lived more than a mile from the ocean aside from the college," he says.

He and his co-founders were practically born with surfboards under their feet, undulating waves their guide. Still, each pursued more traditional jobs initially, studying mechanical engineering, environmental assessments and finance. They eventually met up in Australia and then converged onto Chile where they shared a desire to pursue more passionate goals. At the same time, they were becoming increasingly disturbed by plastics in oceans and were resolved to do something about it.

If Bureo's story can teach social entrepreneurs one thing, it's that finding an innovative solution to a challenge requires a lot of research, networking and trial and error. What's more, innovation doesn't always present itself as obvious. In fact, sometimes the obvious answers are not the most effective for tackling your problem.

To be sure, the ideation process was an adventure. In the early days, the only things they knew for sure was that they would be working with plastic and would be recycling that waste into something useful. But into what and how, was still debatable. "We went down the road of crazy ideas," says Stover with a laugh. In the end, they let their passion dictate their primary product – skateboards, an especially timely choice considering the resurgence of plastic skateboard decks at the time.

As to how they landed on fishing nets, well it came down to additional research. First, they debunked the misconception that you can recycle and combine all ocean plastic into viable products. Next, they looked at plastic bottles. But HTP (from which it is made) is weak and tends to break down a lot. Besides, they didn't want to compete with the abundance of collecting and recycling initiatives already in motion. "We would have been lost in the masses."

The question became: what plastic product wasn't being addressed; where was there a lack of infrastructure? Through discussions with fishing communities, they learned that, due to cost and efficiency, fishermen would often discard old fishing nets on beaches, workshops or at sea (landfills were privatized in Chile which made that route an expensive proposition).

The more they asked, the bigger they realized the issue was. Fishing nets make up about 10% of plastic pollution in ocean, according to Greenpeace, a statistic echoed by Ocean Conservancy that reported it was one of the top ocean polluters. Not only do they take a long time to decompose, fishing nets are harmful to marine mammals who get caught in their tentacles, to reef systems, and ocean ecosystems in general.

It was time for a trial. The trio were lucky to have taken part in a startup program at Northwestern University, IDEO. It was there that they had the opportunity to work with R&D teams, feeding truckloads of fishing nets into the recycling machine to test their crazy plan. Sure enough, they found fishing nets can be made into durable pieces of plastic. Armed with that knowledge, a business plan, great contacts, they charged onward in Chile where they were accepted into another entrepreneurial program, Startup Chile, that supports entrepreneurs in the country.

As an aside, the mentorship and advisors they met along the way were priceless, says Stover, especially since they didn't start with any outside funding, instead choosing to pool $10,000 of their own money to start the company (they later dumping a combined $35,000 from their savings and, with the help of a few small grants savings, and support from the Chilean government's startup program). "Finding the people who get what you're trying to do and want to be part of it has been really important for us."

In Chile they approached fishing communities and collected their old nets, hanging them out to dry, cutting them up and bringing them to a recycler for trial production lines. In 2012 Bureo was born, creating the world's first skateboard made from recycled fishing nets. Soon thereafter a Kickstarter campaign helped them raise $60,000 for their first product.

They decided on creating a for-profit social enterprise with the belief that it was the only model that would allow hem to produce longer-term, more sustainable impact. "We can really do something, instead of setting something up and walking away and maybe even creating more harm," he says of their decision, based on experience working in non-profits.

Today the founders divide their time between Los Angeles and Chile, where they maintain their recycling program, Net Positiva that pays local labour to help collect and prepare the nets for recycling. The program ensures everyone involved gets a fair wage and also funds community projects for every kilogram of nets collected. It's an added incentive and the partnerships help Bureo build trust and long-term impact on the ground.

To date, their programs have been responsible for recycling over 80,000 kg of discarded materials. To put that into context: in their first year, they recycled 10 tonnes of material for skateboards. This past year they were looking to collect 200 tonnes, representing 200,000 kg of material.

While still focused on building skateboards, Bureo is also looking into other sustainable products, thanks to partnerships. Their skateboard line got a major push when Carver, a leader in the industry, approached them to collaborate. Together they produced the Ahi board - from 50 square feet of nets. In 2014, Patagonia asked Bureo to join their new venture fund set up by the family to invest in folks working toward environmental impact. As part of that relationship, Bureo has been working with the Patagonia team to examine their supply chain and where Bureo may be able to supplant material with their recycled materials. "This is the biggest development project over the last two years," says Stover.

And it comes at a time of real growth, most of which they hadn't seen coming. "We always envisioned ourselves being a niche skateboard company that would take off; we thought we would replace all skateboards in the world when we naively started," recalls Stover. "But today I would say the main product is a clean reliable traceable source of recycled nylon from fishing nets."

Their renewed orientation comes down to impact. The new projects – such as a chair project with Humanscale, a frisbee project with singer Jack Johnson and a game with Jenga - will allow them to use a lot more of their recycled material than if they took over the skateboard market.

Table of Contents


Chapter 1: Sustain This: The Rise of Social Entrepreneurship
Chapter 2: Innovate or Bust
Chapter 3: From Crisis to Opportunity
Chapter 4: The Power of Partnerships
Chapter 5: Community Engagement
Chapter 6: Perchance to Scale
Chapter 7: Toward Financial Sustainability
Chapter 8: Storytelling
Chapter 9: Measuring Social Impact
Chapter 10: Support Systems

About the Author
A Note about the Publisher

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"This book will help you be a more powerful changemaker for the good –and that's what's required of all of us in today's reality where value comes from contributing to change, not from repetition. Elisa's storytelling will also delight you."
— Bill Drayton, CEO, Ashoka

"Compelling storytelling and actionable insights from social entrepreneurs working across a range of sectors make this a highly useful and inspiring book for anyone trying to effect positive social change in their communities."
— Katherine Milligan, Head of Schwab Foundation forSocial Entrepreneurship, World Economic Forum

"An inspirational cheat sheet to the future investment and business opportunities in the social enterprise space, spilling over with the sort of inspirational stories that get entrepreneurs and investors out of bed in the morning. Powerful stuff."
— Carla Javitz, President and CEO of the Roberts Enterprise Development Fund (REDF)

"A veritable treasure trove, bursting with real-life examples and ideas to fire the imaginations and actions of new and established entrepreneurs looking to forge businesses that will change the world for the better. Get it, read it, live it."
— Bob Willard, author, The Sustainability Champion's Guidebook and The New Sustainability Advantage

"Elisa is a potent force and leading journalist in the Canadian social entrepreneurship sector. Her contribution is central to intelligent and thoughtful advance of the field. Her clear-eyed and highly respected voice is essential to driving forward a refreshing new perspective on how pragmatic social change works in an everyday way. Accessible and engaging, Elisa's work always shows us insights to the future. Her integrity, commitment, and long-term vision infuse this essential reading, which is for all of us who want to be players ensuring a viable future, that is safe, fair, and prosperous."
— Joel Solomon, Chairman and Co-founder of Renewal Funds,author, The Clean Money Revolution

"This panoramic survey of dozens of innovative social enterprises should serve as a valuable source of inspiration to future generations of entrepreneurs. Elisa Birnbaum's broad, open-minded approach to the topic provides hundreds of examples of ways businesses can be redesigned to do good."
— Bryan Welch, entrepreneur, Foster Care Technologies,B the Change Media, and Ogden Publications

"In the Business of Change is an unfettered look into the social enterprise movement from one of its biggest champions. More than just a primer, this book introduces us to the innovators and changemakers who are rethinking social problems, and how we can learn from their struggles and celebrate in their successes, all while embracing the power and impact of profitability."
— Maria Kim, President and CEO, Cara

"Elisa has assembled a fabulous primer on social entrepreneurship, chock-full of inspiring tales of courageous leaders who are using tools and techniques of business to right social and environmental injustices in their communities. Keep this one on your shelf.... You'll go back to it often."
— Mike Rowlands, CEO Junxion Strategy, and Director,Social Venture Network

"This highly readable book by Elisa Birnbaum explains what lies behind one of the most important global trends of the 21st century, the rise of social entrepreneurship. The consummate storyteller, Elisa chronicles leading social entrepreneurs and demystifies how to build purpose plus profit enterprises. This is a book for every entrepreneur and changemaker."
— Tim Draimin, Executive Director,Social Innovation Generation (SiG) National

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