All throughout college I struggled with the fact that upon graduation, I would have to choose: do good or make money? Should I find a minimally-paying job with an NGO where I could leave the office each day feeling satisfied I had made at least a little bit of difference in someones life but then be stuck at home on the weekends because I couldn’t afford to go out with my friends? Or should I enter the world of banking or consulting where I would count down the seconds until my job ended and my social life began? Lucky for me, while I was dealing with this dilemma in the back of my head for four years, the market was creating my perfect solution: social business. The three main actors in this new market sector – impact investors, accelerators, and social entrepreneurs – all shared the desire to harness creative talent, serve those in need, and make profit while doing so. These goals combined everything I loved about business and philanthropy, creating a fast-paced competitive environment, constant innovation and improvement, profitability, and best of all – a focus on social and environmental impact. Furthermore, as a liberal arts grad, my mind has been trained to switch between multiple subjects and topics on a daily, even hourly, basis. Since the social business sector is still developing and has yet to diverge into distinct specializations, I can refrain from attempting to figure out exactly which aspect I want to focus on and can continue to stimulate my mind with a multitude of subjects.
After spending the past 3 weeks working with a social enterprise and scouting for a pair of impact investors, I have stopped to ask myself, “is it really possible to do good and make a profit?”. The answer I have found is that it is possible but it is not easy. There is a reason that business and philanthropy have traditionally remained separate. In the developing world – the focus of the majority of the social business sector – the investments are risky, the returns are low, the market lacks data, corruption is common, and transparency is a major issue. In order to overcome these obstacles entrepreneurs must find a creative and competitive edge, accelerators need to aggressively scout, and investors must remain flexible, patient and dedicated to the targeted impact.
In my experience, I have found that some of the most successful social enterprises are those with the most simple products. Creating something at a low cost does not mean you must forgo quality. Ecofiltro is a perfect example of this. They produce clay filters that make water from virtually any source 100% safe to drink. The product is so simple that Guatemalans were afraid to buy it at first because they did not believe it could work. The product creates an enormous health, environmental, and social benefit and is very profitable. Byoearth is another social business with a very simple product. Byoearth creates impact and profit by feeding garbage to worms who then naturally produce organic fertilizer. Both of these companies have been able to make substantial profits and enormous impact by utilizing creative but simple solutions to very relevant problems in Guatemala. These are the types of organizations that prove it is possible to do good and make money.