The power of social enterprise


During the last few months of 2009, the Humanitarian Centre welcomed three Cambridge-based speakers to give their own unique perspectives on what is meant by 'social enterprise'.

What is social enterprise? As the speakers who came to address the Humanitarian Centre over the last few months of 2009 have demonstrated, there is no single neat definition, nor even a fixed set of criteria.

Broadly speaking, the venture should be both socially beneficial and financially sustainable, even if there is no overall profit.

The three Cambridge-based speakers have all been instrumental in improving quality of life for beneficiaries in economically developing countries, however the approaches they have taken vary enormously.

Ken Banks spoke about his mobile phone technology, Frontline SMS, and how it is being applied in both the developing and the developed world. By providing open-source software which can be used for multiple applications, Ken is equipping individuals, groups and communities with a tool that can stimulate enterprise and innovation in more ways than can be imagined by a single organisation.

Whilst Ken does not envision his software bringing him any revenue, the second speaker, Lynn Banks, came from the other end of the spectrum. Lynn works for Hotel Chocolat, and made no apology for the fact that this is a profit-driven company. They have full control over the quality of their produce, but they can guarantee good working conditions and fair pay for their growers, which in turn provides the company with more marketable products.

Jim Platts, the third speaker, is an engineer at the University of Cambridge, and has always had a deep interest in sustainable communities and renewable energy. When he started manufacturing bamboo wind-turbine blades in China, he and his Chinese business partner decided to set up a foundation with the profits, which exists to give opportunities to children who previously had no hope of receiving an education.

One thing that unites all social enterprises is a visionary individual or group, who sees motivation beyond profit alone. For continued success, there needs to be a strong business model which will be able to maintain the venture indefinitely. In this respect social enterprise can offer a more sustainable model than aid or donor funding. If the primary driver for development is seen as economic growth, could this be the future of development?

Interested? Find out more on the Humanitarian Centre website, where there is a web page on which you can see the slide shows and hear recordings of this series of social enterprise talks.


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The Centre for Global Equality's aim is to identify and solve problems that tackle the root causes of poverty and inequality and to alleviate their enduring symptoms.

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