John Paul: Profit Follows Purpose

By John Paul, Associate, Business Fights Poverty

“There is considerable potential for business and social impact goals to align.”

That sentiment was heard repeatedly at the 2nd TA Initiative Summit, held May 5-7 in Nairobi, Kenya.  Organized by Acumen, the 3-day event brought together intrapreneurs from global corporations and social entrepreneurs from throughout East and West Africa to explore the potential for collaboration.

The premise is straightforward.  Companies can provide expertise that helps social enterprises scale their businesses, while social enterprises can provide insights that help intrapreneurs bake sustainability into corporate strategy. Everyone shared the same goal - expanding access to critical goods and services for poor communities – with small grants being offered to help address critical business challenges faced by the social enterprises.

What struck me was the harmony in opinions on how to reach that goal, that a profitable business model is what drives impact, which in turn drives the business’s profitability.  Rather than having to be at odds with one another, with the right innovative approach profit and impact can be mutually reinforcing.

Jeremy Wilson, Vice Chairman of Barclays Corporate Banking, said it succinctly during a dinner speech on the second day of the event:  “Profit follows purpose.”

Geoff McDonald, Global VP for Unilever, followed with his thoughts on the characteristics of businesses that will succeed in a world where new technologies provide every consumer with a platform to have their voice heard.  These traits included authenticity, systemic thinking, resourcefulness, and a bias towards collaboration.

A shared vision around the synergies between profit and impact is a good foundation for partnerships, but it’s not enough.  Social entrepreneurs and corporate intrapreneurs operate in very different environments, with different constraints, expectations and incentives, and much of the event was focused on bridging these gaps.

Activities included site visits to two of Acumen’s investees, Sanergy and Miliki Afya, and peer consulting sessions where small groups of intrapreneurs and entrepreneurs could brainstorm about issues they are currently facing.

Challenges weren’t sugar coated either, with sessions focused on setting realistic expectations for the time and resources mutually beneficial partnerships require.  Discussions were also had on how companies can embed social impact into their DNA.

“It needs to be unabashedly aligned to your business interests in the long term,” stated Bo Miller, Global director for Corporate Citizenship for The Dow Chemical Company.  “You need to get people on board who see that vision, and how to implement it in the context of existing corporate priorities and initiatives.”

This is Acumen’s second summit focused on catalyzing partnerships between established companies and emerging social enterprises.  Last year’s pilot Summit resulted in four grants and two collaborations between Dow Chemical and Acumen portfolio companies, one of which is still ongoing.  The initial results look promising, but it’s early days, and there are many questions that still need to be fully answered.  How do these engagements lead to the much bigger goal of scaled impact?  What does the map of the journey look like?  What are the barriers to collaboration, and how can these be overcome?

Fortunately, moving forward decisively in the face of uncertainty is something entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs excel at, and it was clear that new partnerships will emerge from the Summit that will help answer these questions.

To learn more about the TA Initiative, contact Yasmina Zaidman at yzaidman@acumen.org.

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