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Social values yield a different kind of return on investment

Why is it that as individuals, we aspire to the values of love, beauty, honour, truth and justice, but as a collective we forget?

Love, beauty, honour, truth, justice. Aren't these some of the core values that we aspire to attain at times in our lives? They are universal beliefs that tie us together which we, as parents, wish to impart upon our children.

These values transcend geographic boundaries, cultures and languages. Wherever we are in the world, we recognise them when we come across them; they are intrinsic elements of what it means to be human. Yet we don't speak about these values in the one place where we spend most of our lives: the office.

When was the last time you heard a manager motivate a team by speaking about love, or someone tell you how inspired you made them feel by the way you stood up for the truth no matter the consequences. Never? That sounds about right. Either the manager would be seen as a bit of a quack or you would be labelled as a troublemaker. Why is it that as individuals we aspire to these values, but as a collective working group we forget?

The answer probably has something to do with that fact that the organisations we work for, particularly if they are in the private sector, have become decoupled from the very societies in which they operate. This is particularly true of multinational firms and finance companies, where management is so removed from its customers that it sees them as numbers in a spreadsheet and corporate social responsibility as a line item in the public relations budget.

There is, as the London Business School professor Gary Hamel puts it, a hole in the soul of business, and the past few years have highlighted this. There are two things we can do about this issue: either ignore it and hope the problem goes away, or try and create a new business language and discourse based on social justice; one that creates social value as well as generating profit. Thankfully, there are pockets of entrepreneurs who place a great deal of emphasis on social value. These social entrepreneurs have decided that they would rather not have unbridled profit as their mantra, but instead look to see how their enterprises can improve the well-being of society.

Opponents of this approach brush it off as nonsense - it is a woolly idea drummed up by a bunch of left-leaning do-gooders who weren't smart enough to get into their first choice of career where they could earn hefty bonuses. Until the well-documented success of micro-finance as championed by the Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, the founder of Grameen Bank, there weren't enough high-profile social entrepreneurial success stories. There are now. An array of projects are taking root in many parts of the world, which are creating a platform for like minded entrepreneurs.

Take Benetech, which uses technology and a not-for-profit operating model to create social value in three distinct areas. It provides technology solutions for the blind by way of audio book readers; it provides software for human rights groups and helps them to relay information through state-controlled firewalls; and provides environmental organisations with critical software to help restore the natural ecosystem in their communities.

All three technology solutions are areas where no venture capitalist would invest. For a venture capitalist, there is not enough scale and the margins are too low. But for Benetech, the business model works, as they operate as a not-for-profit. Remember that a not-for-profit does not mean that the organisation cannot hire the best people or pay a competitive market wage. It can. But these people are tasked with creating social value as opposed to maximising shareholder profit. In return, the community benefits from their enterprise and economic well-being - which is arguably greater than the sum of its parts - is generated.

Similarly, Samasource, a Silicon Valley-based firm, is using the internet to provide micro-work for women in refugee camps in Africa and Asia. Refugees undertake micro-work tasks such as data entry, book digitisation, audio transcription and video captioning. Samasource generates income and the women who would otherwise be unable to access a decent job earn a regular wage in a low-income locality.

During this period of renewed focus on entrepreneurship in the region, let us create a space for the rise of the social entrepreneur. In doing so, we can encourage them to place love, beauty, honour, truth and justice at the front and centre of what they do.

Rehan Khan is a business consultant and writer based in Dubai

Updated: October 6, 2010 04:00 AM

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