Thursday, March 11, 2010

A Challenge for Social Entrepreneurs

One of the hot things in what is called the "service movement" on college campuses these days is the idea of the "social entrepreneur." What is the social entrepreneur? In short, he is the person who comes up with creative ways to turn a profit off of socially conscious commerce. It could be fair trade coffee, or changing out incandescent light bulbs with fluorescent light bulbs, or it could be putting shoes on the shoeless in a buy-one-donate-one model. All good things. But ... there's something potentially untoward in some social entrepreneurial models.

Last week, I had the chance to hear the founder of TOMS shoes, Blake Mycoskie, tell his story. He is a charming, charismatic, enthusiastic, sincere, and down-to-earth guy. What he is doing is good. But I want to challenge him (and others like him) to think harder about the for-profit social entrepreneurship model and ponder whether the profit goal of the business is not in conflict with the very social mission that makes it profitable. I want to push these social entrepreneurs to apply their considerable talents to resolving the structural conditions that create the problems that ultimately make them profitable. For instance, if Blake Mycoskie's concern really is for the shoeless in our world, and laments the injustice of shoelessness, then he should be working to put himself out of business. But my fear is that the profit-driven model of social entrepreneurialism demands an operation that is driven by profit. I've never known any for-profit venture that seeks ultimately not to succeed where success is measured by profit. Not that there's inherently anything wrong with profiting; but there is something problematic when such profit is produced precisely by the continued existence of a social problem.

Let's take the TOMS model, for example. Even Black Mycoskie admits that the reason why his shoes do so well, why his shoes compete favorably against his competition, is precisely because of the social condition of shoelessness upon which his business is based. As Mycoskie himself explains, his shoes sell because people want to give. They feel good about giving, and thus their charity makes his buy-one-give-one-away-to-the-needy model so appealing. Therefore, it stands to reason that in order for his business to continue to thrive and profit, he needs for shoelessness (or at least the perception of shoelessness) itself to thrive. The more shoeless people there are in the world, the more he can sell shoes to those who feel good about putting shoes on the shoeless. What this whole project fails to do is to ask the burning question of "why" there is shoelessness to begin with and then to seek solutions to the fundamental structural conditions in our world that cause shoelessness.

Until social entrepreneurs can convince me that they are interested in eliminating the problem that makes them profitable (and are actually working towards this end), then the fundamental altruism that forms the basis for the marketing of their products/services seems hollow. In fact, it can seem even cynical. Social entrepreneurs have a special obligation to address this criticism.


eric said...

Good grief. That's all I'm saying. Good grief!


Huck said...

C'mon, Eric! "Good grief" about the concept of Social Entrepreneurship and the social entrepreneurs themselves? Or "good grief" about my challenge to such "social entrepreneurs"?

eric said...

"Good grief" about your assumption that Mycoskie has not considered the question of "why" there is shoelessness, and come up with what he determines to be the best structural solution to that problem: giving shoes to people who can't afford them.

Huck said...

Eric - that's a fair point. In my haste in making this posting, I didn't comment on this point; but I have spoken to it on other occasions. I do not assume that he has not considered the question of "why" there is shoelessness. In fact, I tend to believe (and I say this often when I talk about it) that he probably has thought about it. He's a smart guy, after all. I'd be surprised if he hasn't considered this question. But what I also know to be true is that he doesn't speak about this whenever he tells his story. The fact that he doesn't speak about it leads me to a couple of suppositions: (1) If he has thought about the "why" and doesn't address this, then it's possible that this speaks even more poorly of him because his lack of talking about it is reflective of a conscious choice. In other words, he is purposefully avoiding addressing the cause of shoelessness, which is odd and suspect because it is central to the social condition from which he profits. He premises his enterprise on the injustice of the social condition of shoelessness and yet doesn't question the roots of this injustice when he speaks about the project. (2) There is no way to know he actually has thought about the cause of shoelessness if he doesn't speak to it. And so the possibility exists that he really doesn't think about or care about the cause of shoelessness.

Also, Eric, I don't understand how giving shoes -- charity -- is a structural solution. Perhaps you can explain how that is. Giving shoes to people doesn't address at all the conditions of shoelessness. It is a band-aid on a chronic and persistent problem: a temporary salve. It does nothing to help people address the underlying reasons for their shoelessness; and it may, in fact, perpetuate or worsen the structural condition of the problem by cultivating a dependence on the charity. Let me explain this using a reconfigured biblical metaphor: give a man a shoe, he's shod for a few months; but teach a man to make shoes, and he's shod for a lifetime. The latter is addressing the structural roots of the problem: ignorance, education, trade skill development. The former is simply charity.

eric said...

"He premises his enterprise on the injustice of the social condition of shoelessness and yet doesn't question the roots of this injustice when he speaks about the project."

And here is the problem: where does he ever state that premise? Looking at their website, I don't see where social injustice is a basic principal of this company at all. He does not appear to be making the argument that people without shoes have been unfairly cheated out of an equitable share of the shoes available to society.
You seem to come to that conclusion, but do not allow for the possibility that Mr. Mycoskie considered it and rejected it.

One supposition you neglected to mention was this: perhaps after giving much consideration to the situation, Mr. Mycoskie decided it was not a case of social injustice that leads to children being shoeless, but just a matter of economics and logistics. It's not that these people are unfairly prohibited from having shoes, but that there simply is not a good system in place for acquiring and delivering them. Perhaps he looked at it through a lense of, "there is a market to be served here, one that will provide a benefit to these people, but since they don't have enough money to participate in the marketplate maybe I can come up with a method for delivering shoes that will be beneficial to both myself and to the children here."

In fact, this phrase from their website leads me to believe those were his exact thoughts: "Using the purchasing power of individuals to benefit the greater good is what we're all about. The TOMS One for One business model transforms our customers into benefactors, which allows us to grow a truly sustainable business rather than depending on fundraising for support."

So I'd say that the issue here isn't hat Mr. Mycoskie hasn't considered the root problem of shoelessness, but that his conclusions about that problem and the most effective solution are different (and much less nuanced) from yours. You assume the benefits his model provides are, at best, temporary in nature, but that assumption ignores the fact that he has added the ingredient of profitability into his model for the very sake of making the model sustainable over ther long term. You might argue that his business model is destined to fail, but you should at least acknowledge that its intended application revolves around a long-term view of the problem, not just a "band-aid".

And I'd also argue, if you want to encourage him to change his methodology, you are then obligated to offer a model that employs your "social justice" theory and is capable of delivering over 400,000 shoes to shoeless children in three years, as Mr. Mycoskie has done.