Is the Business World All About Greed?

Curated Story
This article originally appeared on New York Times

To me, the most interesting people in Davos aren’t the presidents or celebrities, but the social entrepreneurs — those using business tools to address social problems — and their work offers an inspiring window into what can be accomplished.

Sasha Kramer works in Haiti to address two fundamental problems: a lack of toilets and declining soil fertility. Her organization, SOIL, charges customers a few dollars a month to provide and service composting toilets that turn human waste into safe agricultural fertilizer. The cost is one-third of what a sewage system would cost to operate.

With water shortages around the world, there’s growing interest in that approach, so Haiti may become a model for other nations in the developing world.

In Kenya, Christie Peacock tackles a huge problem for farmers: Much of the feed, medicine and other agricultural supplies for sale are fake or substandard, including about 60 percent of the fertilizer. When farmers buy fake seeds, their crops fail, and they go hungry.

Peacock previously worked in the aid world, but, she says, “I got disillusioned with the NGO model,” so her company, Sidai, is a for-profit venture founded with start-up capital from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It now serves 200,000 Kenyan farmers.

That’s the advantage of a business approach: It is often more sustainable and scalable than a charity. By working with African farmers to improve coffee production, Starbucks helps lift more people out of poverty than any number of aid efforts.

Among the giant corporations, there’s at least more of the right kind of talk. Laurence Fink, the chief executive of the investment firm BlackRock and one of the biggest investors in the world, shook the business world last week with an implicit threat to punish small-minded companies that “only deliver financial performance” without “a positive contribution to society.”

What’s driving the rethink isn’t a tingling of the tycoon conscience but brutal self-interest. Millennials want to work for ethical companies, patronize brands that make them feel good and invest in socially responsible companies.

Some of this is shallow and some is deep, but it’s authentic: Doing good is no longer a matter of writing a few checks at the end of the year, as it was for my generation; for many young people, it’s an ethos that governs where they work, shop and invest.

C.E.O.s tell me that this forces their hand. If companies protect groping scumbags, that hurts recruitment and they lose in the war for talent. Increasingly, a company that ignores social value loses shareholder value.

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Ashoka opinion

Two of the world's "most interesting" changemakers:

Sasha Kramer was elected an Ashoka Fellow in Haiti in 2006. She has created a circular economy model for the delivery of affordable sanitation for private households in dense urban settlements where traditional solutions such as such as latrines, sewers and septic tanks are not feasible.

Christie Peacock was elected an Ashoka Fellow in Kenya in 2011. She is creating the first network of its kind that helps livestock herders, who can be among a region’s  poorest people, transform their lives by having well-managed and healthy herds.Through this network she is rebranding livestock holders and livestock service providers as professional, bankable, and profitable businessmen and women.