There is an old maxim that says a business is either growing or dying. But for a group of MBA students at Mills College’s Center for Socially Responsible Business, the question of growth, and how to achieve it, has more to do with the impact a business can have on the world around it than with profits to be made.
In order to dive into questions of achieving maximum, sustainable impact, the Center for Socially Responsible Business along with the Net Impact Chapter at Mills College, hosted a conference on March 14 dedicated to questions of if to scale, how to scale and ultimately how to know if you’re succeeding.
In a traditional business, the question of scaling comes down to increasing your slice of the proverbial pie. But the businesses that attended this conference, as speakers and as guests, were driven more by their mission than their bottom line. The question of scaling for these companies comes down to the progress that can be made on a variety of social issues. Here, progress, not profits, is key.
Take the example of the online startup UrbanSitter. UrbanSitter, like many new businesses we see popping up online today, is built on a social platform meant to connect people who otherwise would never have met but who can help each other solve a problem. In this case the problem is babysitting or as Jessica Steel, president of UrbanSitter, puts it, “the family scheduling equation.”
For UrbanSitter, the question of growth comes down to users. “For an internet tech company, scaling means more users and more usage,” said Steel, who first worked with Pandora and watched it grow from a group of music enthusiasts in a coffee shop to the entertainment giant it is today.
Yet for Steel and UrbanSitter, more users doesn’t only mean more profits, but more young girls, currently north of 30,000, who will grow into young women confident in their ability to lead.
Still, UrbanSitter’s approach to address the issue of female leadership by matching babysitter to family is a one-on-one solution to a singular question. UrbanSitter’s scaling mantra is to increase the ones to address the many. But others, like Fleishman Hillard’s Managing Director Nayelli Gonzalez, have their eyes set on more holistic approaches to society’s ills.
“When you think about the biggest problems in society, not a single thing will solve them,” Gonzalez said. “Public education is not just about teachers or curriculum. It’s also about parent engagement and connections to college and the work force.”
For Gonzalez, achieving social impact, and growing that impact to affect the lives of the most people possible, necessarily involves collaboration and cooperation. For proof, look not further than the New York Juvenile Justice system.
According to Gonzalez, New York’s juvenile justice system is actually a web of hundreds of agencies, public and private, working in the interest of the state’s troubled youth. But despite the number and scale of groups genuinely concerned with getting these youth back on the right track, New York State’s juvenile system continues to have an 89 percent recidivism rate at a cost of $286,000 per year, per youth. The problem, Gonzalez said, is a lack of cooperation.
“Even if we were to help an organization become the most efficient they can be, it won’t solve our social problem,” she said. “There needs to be a coordination throughout the system so you can provide the youth with the rehab they need to reenter society. If we want to scale our solutions to meet the scale of the problems you cannot do it with a single intervention.”
Collaboration was exactly the strategy used by the Oakland Schools Foundation when they decided to address the issue of childhood literacy.
In the third grade, children move from learning to read to reading to learn. It’s a crucial step. If one is behind, it becomes increasingly difficult to catch up. And, as statistics show, being behind in reading in third grade has a direct correlation to who goes to prison and who doesn’t later in life. Knowing this, Oakland Schools Foundation set out to develop a program for children who find themselves falling behind.
The foundation knew they had an idea, they knew they had some people who could develop a program, but what they didn’t have was the funding to maintain the program for years into the future, to scale their idea over time. Keeping with their own mantra that “the resources of a community can and should be able to transform public education,” they went to the where the resources were and asked the leadership of OUSD how they could help, what exactly they needed and made a partner with deep pockets before they even began.
“Our goal was to design the funding so that as we move forward the district and the schools can pick this up, Brian Stanley, Oakland Schools Foundation executive director said. “When it’s done, it’s a district initiative. We’ve got sustainability and impact.”
What Stanley had picked up on is another key aspect of maximizing impact: design. Once you have your idea, driven by your social mission, now you have to design your product and more importantly a method to deliver your product.
Erin Donohue, executive director of Embrace, will tell you that the most dangerous day of a child’s life is the day they’re born. Each year, she said, a million babies die the day they are born. Ninety-eight percent of those deaths take place in the developing world due to hypothermia associated with premature birth.
That’s why Embrace created a portable, low cost incubator for hypothermic newborns. Embrace’s incubator costs less than one percent of traditional incubators and can maintain human body heat for 48 hours before needing a new warming device. In an enterprise like this one, the goal isn’t how many can they ship out but how many children can they reach.
“We had to spend four years prototyping this device, and were going to have to spend at least that much time prototyping the delivery,” Donahue said, and then went on to rewrite an old maxim: “You have to realize you will constantly be changing your own internal ideas of your goals and processes.” In other words, a business not changing is a business dying.