The launch of Nike’s provocative marketing campaign involving football player Colin Kaepernick ignited a flurry of reactions, both positive and negative. Regardless of whether you burned your Air Jordans or bought Nike stock, it cannot be debated that the company effectively aligned itself with a certain societal viewpoint, presumably in the hope of both accelerating the social change Kaepernick seeks while simultaneously building its brand and selling more shoes.
While this example was unique in the high level of attention and controversy it created, it is certainly not the first time that a for-profit business has attempted to address and impact a social issue. In recent years, more and more businesses have been launched that seek to positively impact social or environmental change through their business models. These “social enterprises” are launched with the specific purpose of using market-driven approaches to solving problems, rather than relying on philanthropic or government interventions. They are building the solution to a problem into the DNA of their business operations so that as their businesses grow, the positive impact grows, too. To be clear, Nike is not a social enterprise. It is, however, a relevant example of a business engaging with a social cause.
Locally there has been substantial progress in building the movement of social enterprise solutions. Both Lancaster and York host social enterprise pitch competitions, as does Messiah College. Elizabethtown College has its own Social Enterprise Institute and most colleges offer a course in the discipline. Last year, over 30 self-proclaimed social enterprises participated in a summit in Lancaster. Also in Lancaster, 15 businesses have been certified as B Corporations, among the highest per capita prevalence in the country.
Despite this growth, however, the broader business community is at risk of overlooking this valuable tool in the toolbox of solving the long list of social or environmental maladies that plague our community.
Here are five problems in our region and examples of local and national social enterprises that have become part of the solution:
1. Providing jobs to people with barriers to employment.
Example: Opportunity Construction, based in Steelton, seeks to hire “anyone who has been pushed aside,” including veterans and ex-offenders. By providing high quality employment and valuable training, this company breaks down barriers that are keeping local residents out of work and on the margins.
2. Eliminating environmental contamination in our air and waterways.
Example: Trimatis, a Berks County-based startup, is recycling plastic waste to turn into 3D printing materials for use in schools and universities.
3. Improving childhood nutrition.
Example: Revolution Foods, based in Oakland, California, contracts with school districts, early childhood education centers, charter schools and after-school youth programs to provide healthy food for the children in their care. The company currently delivers 2.5 million healthy meals around the country, improving nutrition among young learners in our educational system.
4. Empowering more women to access STEM jobs.
Example: STEM Starts Now, based in Lancaster, provides resources for new parents to encourage STEM skills in their children from birth to five-years-old. The company’s unique online toolbox helps parents to encourage all of their children, especially young girls, to begin developing STEM skills at an early age, setting the stage for a new generation of women leaders in STEM fields.
5. Bridging social and cultural divides.
Example: Bridge, based in Lancaster and founded by former refugee Mustafa Nuur, offers a web-based platform for customers to book corporate or personal experiences hosted in the homes of refugee families. Not only does this provide income for the hosts and allow guests to “travel the world without leaving town,” it also allows folks from all sides of the racial, social, economic and political divide to spend time together, share stories and learn from each other.
Yes, Nike’s decision to wade into a complex social issue was a controversial one, but whether you agree or disagree with the premise of the Kaepernick campaign, it is an important reminder that business often impacts – and is impacted by – social and environmental problems.
Entrepreneurs, investors, politicians and community leaders in our region need to be launching, funding, and supporting more social enterprise concepts. If this happens, we will have another vital tool to help our communities thrive.
Just do it.
Jonathan Coleman is the co-executive director of Assets, a Lancaster-based organization that focuses on inclusive entrepreneurship and equitable economic development. It is hosting the Great Social Enterprise Pitch on Sept. 29. For more information, visit www.lancasterpitch.com.