A Reality Check from Three Innovative Social Enterprises

Photo by Meanest Indian 

Photo by Meanest Indian 

Last Friday, I had the privilege of speaking at Columbia’s Social Enterprise Conference.  Hosted by Columbia’s Business School, the event was a forum for conversations around the private sector and not-for-profits, but much of the focus was around what a recent HBR article deemed “Hybrid Organizations” — those that combine the social logic of a nonprofit with the commercial logic of a for-profit business. 

These organizations have no choice but to be innovative – they are a new breed, with few proven business models and a customer who is underserved and thus, unknown. But each of them challenged the status quo by listening deeply to those they were serving. By listening, applying technology and engaging in hard work, they are making a huge impact and inspiring others along the way.

Here are a few of the challenges tackled by these organizations, and some advice on how you can be a bit more innovative, too. 

Challenge #1: globally, there are 400M individuals & business owners who are unbanked and thus cannot access basic financial services.

Enter inVenture, who listened to the needs of lending institutions and small business owners to develop inSight, a SMS tool that helps individuals and small business owners with daily accounting and financial tracking. The customer of this service learn to better manage their money, build a credit score, and thus can qualify for and access financial services from banks.

REALITY CHECK: Does the problem you're tackling involve two groups of people who have never interacted and who are incentivized in a completely different way? Find the lowest common denominator and start from there.

Challenge #2: Each year, millions of women and girls lose 50 days of school or work because they don’t have access to sanitary pads during menstruation. This adds up to 5 years across her lifetime.

Enter Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE), who rethought the supply chain and now provides loans to women in under-resourced villages to jump-start their own business making and selling sanitary pads created from discarded banana husks.

 REALITY CHECK:  Do you think you’re resource strapped?  Re-imagine the resources at hand and own your supply chain.

Challenge #3: Institutions have proven unable to solve some of the world’s biggest problems.

Enter Purpose, who created a platform to mobilize large-scale, purposeful action. The organization hosts massive digital participation experiments that unlock political participation and social engagement.

REALITY CHECK:  Do you think you know best how to create behavior change? Old-school marketing is about pushing your ideas on others. Instead, host others and help them experiment.

When was your last reality check? What did you discover?

Send me a message: @natalie_s_foley