Written as editor of the New Statesman’s NS Tech and first published here.
“A lot of banks are having trouble recruiting on Wall Street,” so claimed Marcos Salazar, executive director of New York social impact community Be Social Change, speaking at social innovation competition The Venture last week.
“… because it’s only for profit.”
Sure, from looking at his job title alone, he would think that. But the latest data confirms that big banks are, at least, struggling to keep junior staff, if not quite explaining why.
“We’re focused on trying to understand what’s important to the folks we hire right out of school,” John Waldron, co-head of the investment banking division at Goldman Sachs, told the Wall Street Journal earlier this year.
Old power, meet new power
Jeremy Heimans, CEO of socially-minded branding agency Purpose, summed up this trend up at The Venture event, put on by drinks company Pernod Ricard, as “old power, versus new power”.
“Old power is like a currency, the more you have, the more powerful you are. So you hoard it.
“New power is a current, it’s electricity or water, it’s held by many and the powerful are simply good at channelling it.”
Many in the social innovation community believe we are only at the beginning of the promised wave of new power, powered by our ability to connect with anyone, anywhere.
And that’s changing the values of young people, your millennial workforce, too.
“In the financial sector of the 1980s, you didn’t get ahead by being a great sharer. You had to be a great competitor. Donald Trump, for instance, was ruthlessly good at competition.
“Today though, we see a rejection of more formal governance. Young people want transparency on everybody’s salary, on the basis of every decision. But that also means it’s hard to get people to commit, to become a card-carrying member.”
Heimans points to the ‘Ikea effect’, where people place more value on items they’ve helped to build, and compares combative Uber to collaborative Airbnb, as real evidence that companies must now help customers join in and staff feel like what they’re doing is worth it.
“Increasingly people are asking questions about your values and how you operate responsibly in the world,” he said. “They’ll be able to see if your espoused values are truly matched by your actions and behaviour.”
Pernod Ricard is so convinced of this shift that it’s created an entire competition around it, The Venture, where it invited social innovators from 27 countries to compete for a share of $1 million.
WeFarm, the UK’s entry, came in second and took home $200,000 to further develop its peer-to-peer information sharing platform designed for small-scale farmers, using SMS.
Its CEO Kenny Ewan outlined the challenge – there are currently 500 million of these types of farmers worldwide, many with no access to the internet.
But those largely African and Asian farmers actually produce around 70 per cent of all the food consumed on earth. “If they don’t farm it, we don’t eat it,” he said.
The platform is certainly scaleable, given there are more mobile phones than toothbrushes on the planet today, but there’s also a huge business opportunity here.
“Multinationals are typically ordering months before the produce is harvested. But we currently have almost zero visibility on what’s actually happening on the ground.”
Aggregating the data could track disease outbreaks or droughts in real-time, to help anticipate and address poor harvests before they happen.
The winner of The Venture this year, and $300,000, was Colombia’s Conceptos Plásticos.
This startup has created large, lego-style housing bricks made with a patented technology that transforms any kind of discarded plastic into a usable material.
Its goal is to end extreme poverty in Latin America, where 77 million people live without proper access to housing, all while tackling climate change issues associated with plastic waste. The bricks are earthquake-proof, waterproof and have a lifespan of 500 years, all without the need for glue or cement.
Using just 2 per cent of the waste plastic in the world today, founder Oscar Andrez Mendez claims that his company could solve Latin America’s housing crisis within a decade.
Doing good business
Technology is certainly a huge part of this change, with platform’s like Facebook, at least on the surface, distributing power like never before.
Tech offers speed and scale, whether you’ve launched a great marketing campaign, or a complaint about your company has gone viral.
But, pointing to the social profile of brutal Syrian president Bashar al Assad, Heimans added: “New power is not simply your Facebook page. These new digital tools aren’t inherently positive.”
Ultimately, Heimans doesn’t believe that social innovation can truly make its mark until we address “rampant income equality”.
“That’s hard because lots of people are beneficiaries of the incredible wealth that’s been created in the last 20 years.”
For Alexandre Ricard, grandson of the founder of the world-famous drinks brand, his company’s support for social innovators is as much a business imperative as a moral one.
“It is our duty. It is part of our values too. It is the best way to remain relevant to the growing community of millennnials who really pay attention to that. The next consumers. And it’s the best way to attract and retain talent.”
And Pernod Ricard really isn’t the only one.
Perhaps most notably, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has thrown its considerable technology might behind social innovation by unveiling a $6 billion fund that’ll bring together multidisciplinary experts to create ideas ‘for a better world’.
“Humanity faces urgent challenges — challenges whose solutions depend on marrying advanced technical and scientific capabilities with a deep understanding of the world’s political, cultural and economic complexities,” MIT president L. Rafael Reif said in May.
“We launch the Campaign for a Better World to rise to those challenges and accelerate positive change.”