Hui Wen Chan

Cases That Inspire Social Innovation

There was a time when combining the words social and business would seem anathema. But the world has significant social problems and limited philanthropic capital to address those problems. To catalyze social change at a scale needed to create meaningful difference in the world, new innovative models to address social challenges and create social impact were urgently needed.

Over the past couple of decades, social enterprises – mission-driven organizations that embrace market forces and leverage the playbook of businesses to address social needs – and businesses focused on the base of the pyramid (BoP) have stepped up to meet this challenge. The struggles and successes of five of these businesses are featured by the winners of the 2013 NextBillion Case Writing Competition, sponsored by the Citi Foundation. These cases highlight different business models and strategies that tackle a range of global challenges from access to finance to clean water to maternal health and safety. They underscore the viability of serving consumers at the BoP and engaging them as suppliers, through market-based solutions that are more sustainable and scalable than would be possible via philanthropic approaches.

These success stories and the many others have helped fuel a growing interest in social entrepreneurship, particularly among students. I witnessed this strong interest first hand when I was a student at Harvard Business School (HBS). The Social Enterprise Club, which had started as a scrappy group with a handful of members, grew to be one of largest student clubs on campus, and the student-run Social Enterprise Conference attracted over 1,200 attendees each year. Hundreds of students at HBS, including me, also flocked to courses such as Business at the Base of the Pyramid and Managing Global Health. This trend is not unique to HBS – graduate schools around the world have responded to student interest through new programs, courses, initiatives, and even business plan competitions focused on social enterprises and BoP businesses. In its report, The MBA Drive for Social Value, the Bridgespan Group noted that MBA courses at leading business schools that include some social benefit content increased by an astonishing average of 110 percent between 2003 – 2009. This year’s NextBillion Case Writing Competition attracted a record number of submissions from applicants from universities around the world, reflecting strong continuing interest in multi-bottom-line businesses.

The notion that one can simultaneously “do well while doing good” is extremely appealing. Success stories from existing social ventures have inspired many students to see the potential of doing the same through their own work. Net Impact’s Talent Report: What Workers Want in 2012 found that a majority of students (65 percent) want to have positive social or environmental impact through their jobs. Nevertheless, despite the growing interest in social entrepreneurship, the majority of today’s students will still end up working for traditional companies. And that is okay. Not every student should become a social entrepreneur. But this makes teaching students to effectively leverage businesses to create social impact more important, not less.

Traditional, “non-social” businesses are a key part of the communities in which they operate. They can – and should – play an important role in delivering social value. It would be challenging to generate the level of positive social change needed to make a significant difference in the world without the immense resources and broad market reach that is available to large, well-established companies. Increasingly, businesses are looking for ways to create shared value, recognizing that what is beneficial to society can often be good for their own bottom lines. At HBS, not only was I exposed to cases about local social enterprises like the Aravind Eye Hospital in India, ApproTEC in Kenya, and LEAPS in Pakistan, but also to cases about how large multi-nationals like Unilever, Danone, and Gilead are innovating to serve the poor and combat global social challenges like malnutrition, poverty, and HIV using market mechanisms and commercial capital. This requires rethinking business models, distribution channels, product designs, pricing, and a range of other issues. We need to give future business leaders the knowledge and tools they need to be effective social innovators who can integrate social and environmental goals into their work at such companies, and case studies are a powerful mechanism through which to accomplish this.

Here at the Citi Foundation, we practice what we call a “More than Philanthropy” approach to grant making to enable us to maximize the positive social outcomes that we seek from Citi’s philanthropic capital. We do this by tapping the strengths of Citi’s business resources, expertise, and talents, and giving our employees opportunities to be social innovators who catalyze impact by serving as mentors, advisors, and trainers for our grantees and their beneficiaries in 90 countries. By leveraging more than Citi’s philanthropic resources, we are able to scale and achieve more of the results we want; oftentimes, in a sustainable way.

Generating double and triple bottom lines is arguably more challenging than a singular focus on financial returns. This makes it imperative that aspiring social innovators and business leaders learn what works and what does not. The cases that NextBillion and the Citi Foundation have made available through the NextBillion Case Writing Competition contribute to the growing body of knowledge that enables students, practitioners, and others to explore, understand, and learn from the experiences of leaders in the sector. I hope that you are as impressed and inspired by this year’s winning cases as I am.

Hui Wen Chan is the impact analytics and planning officer at Citi Foundation.

financial inclusion, research