I have been overwhelmed with feelings of optimism lately which is frankly refreshing compared to the grim stories that are pervasive in mainstream media. Why this giddiness? I am seeing a trend and it’s one that I think has serious staying power – it’s the trend of “disruptive economics” driven by greater social entrepreneurship. What is social entrepreneurship exactly? Rather than rehashing, I highly recommend perusing The New Heroes site authored by PBS. Stories run deep into the mentality of a societal hero, why the passion stays true despite setback after setback, why a job is no longer relevant and where intuition and gut lead people on various paths towards self-righteousness that is no longer selfish. It’s our collective solution.
Individuals of all age groups and socio-economic backgrounds are leaving established roles and in many cases with big name organizations to try something different. They are leaving their 9-5 jobs in large part because 9-5 is a fallacy and too often people feel stuck in offices with little opportunity to follow inspiration. We all yearn for that ‘something greater’ that justifies time spent away from friends and family – that ‘I can give more while giving less’ sense that time is simply irrelevant. Perhaps the ‘something else’ is not defined. Yet each story tends to drive home an urge for a more unique path, one that has a stronger outcome with measurable impact. – social entrepreneurs are seeking the depth, legitimacy and integrity of their work.
Like some technology has been coined ‘disruptive’, I am starting to see a trend towards ‘disruptive’ entrepreneurship shaped by the minds of social entrepreneurs. Those who make money thinking outside of solid lines and restraints. Those who see the world as one big opportunity to inject positive vibes and inspired action. Let’s call the trend disruptive economics: the changing shape and trajectory of how we measure our time and value – measuring the opportunity cost of what we COULD be doing versus what we ARE doing.
One of the more inspiring stories I have heard is of Michael Jones, Founder and CEO of Thrive Farmers, a unique farm to cup coffee business built on a model of sourcing that funnels profits directly back to the farmers at a percentage of sales – no exceptions. This guarantee allows the farmers to expect a relatively stable income despite the rise and fall of the commodities market. Michael’s story is one of a kind. Leaving a lucrative salary with a major company to start a coffee company sounds almost insane. Yet when you meet Michael, you see honesty and legitimacy. He speaks his story with humility, recognizing that he does not have all the answers, he simply is yearning for a different kind of success and fulfillment. His sincerity cannot be confused with his utter ferocity in making his model work. His quest is to make coffee a lucrative business for those who grow its beans and it's pervasive and addictive. Michael is the definition of the disruptive force that will change the way we do business around coffee. Don't let the plaid flannel shirts fool you!
Take also Lisa Curtis, a young social entrepreneur from Oakland. After serving in the Peace Corps in Niger and falling ill from malnutrition she was introduced to moringa, a nut-like tree crop that has high levels of protein, calcium, iron and vitamins known as the ‘miracle tree’ in parts of the tropics. After feasting on moringa, Lisa felt instantly more energized and realized what an untapped resource this product was for the millions who go hungry each day. After returning from the Peace Corps Lisa realized that her discovery had to be shared. For the benefit of those who grow moringa and those whose lives could be changed by it, she started a company, Kuli Kuli, to make her dream a reality. Curtis’s moringa bars are now sold in some of the biggest stores in America, and her passion and determination to give back are unstoppable. Her smile and energy make me even more convinced that with people like her running the show, we are bound to save our planet from further punishment.
With Connective Impact, I, too, am testing a disruptive model - one of collaboration. It's built on the premise that what matters most in partnership and coalition building is not always the partners at the table, but the intent and commitment to a shared outcome. Heading into my third quarter I am humbled by the positive reception to my model and the tremendous organizations I am able to work with. I have the pleasure to work with some new organizations this summer including Heifer International, Population Media Center, and Nokero. I will be testing out some of this disruptive thinking and will be guided by the inspiration I feel from Michael, Lisa and others.
Back to my optimism, I am simply convinced that organizations are increasingly on the right path towards building a more positive future. Led by the social entrepreneurs of our days, the warriors of disruptive economics, it is unfeasible to have it any other way.
I am at my first Sustainable Brands Conference. After having written a couple of articles for SB and followed their activity via social media, I am excited to finally be at one of their acclaimed events. At what other venue are high profile CSR and sustainability experts coming together with social entrepreneurs and PR execs? It is truly a one of a kind experiment - to see how innovation, sustainability and branding can all fit together. Frankly the fit does not come naturally and it shows. I am used to participating in high brow, buttoned up sustainability discussions but this conference has been anything but. As Founder + CEO KoAnn Skrzyniarz has said multiple times, this event is not like the others. This one tests the limits, forces us to speak with each other honestly and asks tough questions. At times I have been a bit stunned by the frankness of the conversation, the lack of polish even, and the casual tone. I keep blaming it on this conference being in California where things are a bit more fluid. But I sense there's something bigger than that at play.
At last night's opening plenary, as the speakers asked us to close our eyes and visualize, use jazz hands to show support and challenge us to 'trust' each other, I had to ask others around me: "is this for real?" But then I considered that many people in the room weren't accustomed to seeing what I've seen when I've made field visits. They aren't used to the real stories that compel people to quit their jobs and start a new venture with the only outcome to be creating social impact. Perhaps they sit at a desk and tell stories but never get to see the story played out in real life. By encouraging the audience to visualize, to seek empathy in their conversations with others throughout the conference and challenging attendees to communicate a bit differently, maybe Sustainable Brands is indeed taking a different angle to the conference approach. Forcing us to be a bit uncomfortable with our surroundings, they are pointing out the unnatural fit among us in the room and encouraging us to make it work to better our planet.
Jo Confino of Guardian Sustainable Business, a well respected and highly coveted sustainability journalist, sat up on the podium this afternoon and said out loud "We are F_CKED" Check out the video here if you missed it. It was raw, honest, shocking and yet just what we needed. KoAnn was quizzing him on what is needed to "Change the Game" and without flinching he said we are just not there yet, we aren't doing enough, we don't have empathy, we aren't kind enough, we aren't struggling enough, we don't cry enough, we are F_CKED. Yes! Yes! Yes! All of the above. Watching Unilever's brilliant video on their Project Sunlight might make you pause, but it is not enough to make you act. KoAnn pressed Jo and other panelists Andrew Winston of Green to Gold (and now The Big Pivot) fame and Rick Ridgeway of Patagonia on what it will take us to act. We never truly got an answer.
Workshop sessions have been interesting. Most interesting for me was the session on the Responsible Entrepreneur with Michael Jones of Thrive Farmers, Lisa Curtis of Kuli Kuli, Matt Reynolds of Indigenous and others. Other sessions have been similar to many conferences I have attended where the experts just spend a lot of time talking to each other and at the rest of us. Networking is the highlight, per usual.
That said, I sense some potential here for Sustainable Brands to take CSR and Sustainability, not to mention social entrepreneurship and innovation to the next level. I don't quite know how they will surpass the status quo when it comes to these types of convenings but I sense Jo Confino is onto something. Let's start with the "We are F_CKED" situation and figure out how the hell we are going to get out of it. I think SB is trying to get us there. Their Advisory Council is made up of people I admire and respect and who I believe are committed to helping the CSR and sustainability community truly make the impact we all sense is possible. Thus while in California I will shrug my shoulders a bit at the almost awkward feel of the plenary sessions and the nearly forced attempt to help us all work together and believe that Sustainable Brands may really be a needed conduit to making our future bright.
I leave tomorrow night and will opine a bit more before making final conclusions about the worthiness of this event. I had heard mixed reviews before heading out here and can understand why. My gut tells me to stay committed to SB and the direction it is headed. Lord knows (and so does Jo Confino) that it can't get much worse.