Let’s be honest. There are a lot of Social Enterprises that have cuddly stories and sell unexciting goods. For a sector that claims to be leading innovation towards a more just future, I am sometimes skeptical, despite my own dedication to the cause. I believe fully in the idea of social enterprise and do my best to encourage and council social entrepreneurs that I meet.
However, I don’t often see the system shifting solutions we are all hoping for. I see old ideas repackaged in new but boring ways. If the industrial revolution brought about the middle class, then why can’t the digital age double down on serious social gains?
I am going to make the bold claim that the best social enterprise out there is also one of the coolest companies of any kind: TESLA.
Tesla isn’t so much a car company as a power storage company. When coupled with the fact Elon Musk also has a solar panel company, we can extrapolate a mission of converting energy systems to renewable sources and away from fossil fuels. Tesla and Elon Musk are doing more for energy independence and the renewable energy future than anyone who’s invented a toaster powered by a bicycle. The social enterprise community can learn from the innovation of Tesla, in order to create substantive change in our time.
LOOK AT ENTIRE SYSTEMS THAT ARE BROKEN.
The petroleum-based energy system is strange and flawed. No more fundamentally than the fact it is based on a finite resource in addition to wreaking environmental and social havoc on our planet. Rather than looking at this global challenge and taking typical avenues of activism, Elon Musk went about identifying what needed to happen in order to shift to a better energy system. He recognized that if we were ever to get off petroleum, energy storage would be key. No one company can fix everything wrong with our modern energy system, but battery storage will be key in any future that includes renewables in a major way. Telsa is capitalizing on that. Plus along the way there is a lot of money to be made.
Too often Social Entrepreneurs get caught up in individual stories. Help this one woman. Make this one small change. And while I’ll never look down on those doing the difficult and important work of grassroots development, there is a huge opportunity to look at the bigger picture. What issues are you working on? What are the key infrastructure changes that need to happen and can a private organization tackle that issue? If yes, then how?
BE BOLD. BE A BUSINESSMAN.
I know it may be hard to think of a company that sells 100k sports cars to rich people as a social enterprise. Often social entrepreneurs champion the bottom up approach. (Myself included.) However why do we limit the growth of social enterprises or their impact because of arbitrary moral obligations that have very little to do with actually achieving systematic change? Most business strategies are compatible with social enterprise. Social enterprise is about expanding the tool box, not limiting it. If a top down approach makes sense for a social enterprise there should be no reason to not to capitalize on that. Tesla started with high-end sports cars, but in the next year or two they are looking at releasing a model said to be priced at $40,000, making electric a viable mainstream option for the first time. Impact is ultimately what counts.
DON’T GET TOO CAUGHT UP IN ACTIVISM.
In all honesty, I have no idea as to Elon Musk’s opinion on the moral and environmental implications of a petroleum-based economy. I assume he thinks it’s flawed because of his dedication to electric. However, when someone buys a Tesla, they aren’t telling their friends about how oil companies are evil. They are showing off their rad new car that goes a gazillion miles per hour and has all the bells and whistles. At the end of the day product sells. Activism might get a customer to buy once, but it rarely gets people to buy a second time. I’m also guessing activism doesn’t sell $100,000 cars.
I wouldn’t tell anyone to hide their mission. Your mission is core to any social company. But don’t spend energy trying to change people’s politics when that energy can be used to advance the mission via sales. An electric car purchased does more for the environment than convincing a person that oil is evil. Make sure the production and sale of the product, aligns directly with the mission. One shouldn’t come at the expense of the other. Advance the mission by selling the product.
DON’T LET BETTER BECOME THE ENEMY OF GOOD.
Social Enterprises can’t fix everything. In order to bend the arc of history towards justice, then we need people attacking problems from all fronts. Political, social, and economic. Do not think that an organization need be responsible for fixing every asset of an issue.
Social Entrepreneurs should to the best of their ability understand the implications of their product, production, marketing, and actions as a corporate citizen. A company should, in fact, be ethical if it claims to be. However, progress is still preferable to perfection.
I’ve heard too many socially conscious people put down the efforts and successes of a company that is doing measurable good in their field because they weren’t executing a perfect ideal. Electric batteries are not 100% sustainable, but why should we consider making electric cars mainstream anything less than progress?
What systematic revolutionary change towards a more just world is this company making?
The only way we should evaluating social enterprises is with regards to IMPACT. What systematic revolutionary change towards a more just world is this company making? If a company gives away shoes to those in need, then are they attacking root causes of poverty? Arguably no. However, a company manufactures goods in an ethical way but hasn’t reached 100% sustainability should be applauded for those efforts, even if we encourage improvement at the same time.
Social Enterprise is supposed to be a game-changing way idealistic innovators will fix the world’s problems. By combining social awareness and revenue generating activities scalability can be reached in the social space. But as I look at the field of self-identified social entrepreneurs, I wonder if we are lacking the very innovation we claim to promote. Major tactics used are little more than relabeled CSR, Cause Marketing, and fundraising. If system change is the goal, the Social Enterprise Community needs to look beyond the cute and cuddly and embrace the full wealth of opportunity in this age of innovation.
I don’t like joining the cults of adoration that spring up around leading innovators. I use Elon Musk and Tesla as an example of how far we can push social innovation, and new ways to think about tackling systemic injustices at their root causes.
I have no idea if Elon Musk cares about trees, or the pandas, or global warming, and I don’t much care. He identified a broken system; then went about fixing it. Tesla is as much about renewable energy as it is about fast cars. Energy storage and batteries are going to be critical in eliminating the petroleum based energy system that pollutes the earth and enslaves nations. It doesn’t get much more social do-goodery than that. It’s time to judge enterprises on impact first.