Beyond the bottom line

A young social entrepreneur mixes profit and charity

THE IDEA THAT CAPITALISM AND SOCIAL CAUSES can co-exist may be anathema to some, but a growing number of businesspeople are using their corporate savvy and innovation skills to address sweeping social or environmental issues alongside the traditional business goal of generating profits. It’s called social entrepreneurship, a 30-year-old term that is still gaining awareness even by those who practice it. “I had to Google it,” says Rumeet Toor, owner of Jobs in Education, an online employment board that also helps fund her Toor Centre for Teacher Education, a teacher’s college and general training facility in Kenya that opened earlier this year. “I didn’t even know what a social entrepreneur was until someone asked me to give a talk about it.”

Definitions aside, Toor is a textbook example of someone using use her skills and earnings as an entrepreneur for a broader social purpose. A year after Toor bought Jobs in Education in 2004 as a 21-year-old undergrad student at the University of Toronto, she decided that her business model would include two bottom lines: profit and social impact. “Businesses can fail,” she says. “I wanted to create a legacy beyond my company, something I could be proud of.”

So far, she’s on the right track. Revenue earned from companies posting their listings on her job board grew by 21% in the 18 months after she took over, pushing the company’s revenues over the six-figure mark. And traffic to her company’s site over the past six years has doubled to 30,000 views per month. The chief beneficiary of that growth? The Toor Centre. Toor — who continues to run the website single-handed while working on her PhD — figures she has spent roughly $50,000 of company and personal revenue on the centre for such things as building renovations, her travel costs and school supplies among other miscellany. And, she adds, since launching a socially minded business model, business has improved. “When we made the shift to incorporate social impact in the business model, the company actually grew,” she says. “Our clients value education.”

A social enterprise can be a typical bottom-line business. In some cases, revenue is streamed back to the organization to further its social aims. Other for-profit companies — such as The Body Shop or fair trade coffee companies — market socially responsible products or support ethical business practices. Social endeavours can also be non-profit, or a combination of profit and charity, as with Toor, whose business revenues support her social ventures.

Toor initially donated thousands of dollars from Jobs in Education and her personal funds to a Canadian charity that builds schools in rural regions of developing countries such as Kenya, Sierra Leone and Ecuador. For example, four years ago Toor spent more than $19,000 for the construction of a primary school in Kenya. But her experiences in working with the charity, as well as trips to two of the schools prompted a new direction in her social work.

“It was a reality check,” she says about a trip to Ecuador in 2008. “I realized that you don’t really know what’s happening in the classroom — if the students are getting quality teachers, if the kids can afford the uniforms and their textbooks.”

As a result, Toor was no longer satisfied with simply “building four walls,” and like a true entrepreneur, crafted her own vision of how to foster education abroad. In 2010, she launched the teacher’s college. “Since people from the rural centres can’t easily get to the cities to be trained, the idea was to bring the teacher’s college to the community,” she says. The centre opened in May to the community, and the first batch of students is expected to start classes in January 2011.

Social entrepreneurship, such as Toor’s, has also become something of an emerging movement in business schools over the past decade as more young people seek to align their business ambitions with a social purpose.

“It’s the Generation Ys and millennials, people in their 20s and early 30s, who are more inclined to give back,” says Nancy Langton, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business in Vancouver. “They’re more socially focused having watched their parents be unemployed and scramble for jobs.”

Toor agrees. “From what I’ve seen, people of my generation don’t want to be limited to working for either corporate or non-profit,” she says. “They want both.” At Sauder, Langton runs a social entrepreneurship program in which undergrads and MBA students travel to Nairobi to teach business skills and cultivate budding enterprises.

Other top business schools around North America, including the University of Western Ontario’s Richard Ivey School of Business and York University’s Schulich School of Business, also offer MBA programs with specializations in sustainability and non-profit leadership, or actual courses in social entrepreneurship. Those academic efforts reflect a generational do-good mindset, but also the demands of young consumers for green, socially responsible products and corporate practices.

But for all their change-the-world ideals, social entrepreneurs aren’t averse to turning a profit. Nor should they be. “People often think that social businesses can’t be profitable,” says Langton. “But you don’t have to write off profit.” Indeed, as Toor’s experiences illustrate, social entrepreneurship is about more than pitching in for charity. It’s about solving social problems, Langton says. “They start a business in order to make society better in some way.”

That’s certainly the case with Toor. “Without my business, I can’t do what I do,” she says. “As a social entrepreneur, I get the best of both worlds.”

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