On social enterprise and sustainability

Michael Zeytoonian Dispute Resolution Resources, Social Enterprise and Sustainability

What exactly is social enterprise? We read about social capitalist businesses, green companies, and sustainable business practices. One of my favorite magazines, Fast Company, frequently awards top social enterprise businesses and offers stories about how these companies serve some greater purpose beyond making a profit. Recalling Paul Newman’s compelling question in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, I wanted to find out more about exactly “Who are these guys?” It seems there is a natural synergy between resolving disputes using non-adversarial methods and the core values of social enterprise, but I wanted to explore how this synergy could be acted upon in productive ways. 

So recently (3/27/09), I attended the Eleventh Annual Symposium on Spirituality in Business, sponsored by Sustainable Business Network of Boston at Babson College in Wellesley. My purpose was to learn more about the notions of sustainable business and get to know and listen to people who owned and worked with social enterprise businesses. Among the businesses attending was the day’s honoree, Equal Exchange, based in West Bridgewater, MA., a sustainable business built on a model of taking care of employees to the extent that the employees genuinely own the company and make the decisions together.  

The spirituality that was discussed at this symposium was not religion-based spirituality but was centered on the internal workings of spirituality in individuals and organizations. These presentations specifically focused on the ideas and teachings of Gandhi as they are applied to business organizations. The day’s two principal speakers were Kevin Lynch of St. Paul, Minnesota and Beth Geagan of Boise, Idaho. Through two completely different life journeys, they inspired us with messages that laid out solid blueprints for how to merge profitable businesses, core values and spiritual foundations.

Social enterprise is “a business whose primary purpose is to change the world for the common good.” That was the definition offered by Kevin Lynch, whose company, Rebuild Resources, Inc., helps addicts and alcoholics get back on their feet by giving them jobs in businesses it runs. It’s a pretty simple mission statement for these businesses, but a very powerful one as well. “The common good is contagious,” Lynch pointed out. He noted in his book, Missions, Inc., that his work with Rebuild Resources “is the most difficult and the most joyful work I have ever done – by a huge margin.”

To be sustainable, one’s business needs to attain a balance of being ecologically sound, economically viable and socially just,” Beth Geagan advised. Echoing Gandhi’s urging that we “be the change you want to see”, Geagan, whose work with her own company, Balance Business, and her advocacy for local businesses with Think Boise First, urged business owners to “be your message”. She added: “Then, you don’t have to change your business’s message for its audience.” Geagan noted the intersection of one’s personal and professional journeys. She encouraged business owners to balance four core elements: vision(spirit/soul), culture (heart), process (mind) and results (body).

The common thread that ran through the messages and information shared through the day was that the lynchpin of a successful social enterprise and the notions of doing something in one’s business that serves a greater purpose come from a place deep within each of us. Lynch’s path was one of an upbringing of affluence, early business success, and the impact of a period marked by alcoholism and drug addiction. Geagan’s walk to success in business found its roots in the need to first find one’s authentic purpose and then, opting for work that resonates with one’s core values and persona. Equal Exchange’s success story was built on a model of doing things right, of giving every employee true ownership and decision-making authority, while implementing sustainable practices.

Beth Geagan left her audience with a blueprint for social enterprise and sustainability built on five transformative goals: Convert Confusion into Clarity, Competition into Collaboration, Chaos into Coordination, Caution (or fear) into Courage and Conflict into Consensus.

Sounds like a pretty good mantra for non-adversarial dispute resolution to me!