A matter of conscience

Chris Lau

A social enterprise guru is hoping to light the trail for creative young people

Chris Lau |

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The global Occupy Wall Street movement has drawn everyone's attention to the spread of corporate greed.

Many people are rethinking how businesses should be run in a more socially responsible manner.

David Bornstein, the American guru of social enterprise and a best-selling author, has thought deeply about this matter.

Social enterprise is a form of business where the aim is not just profit maximisation. Rather social entrepreneurs set up companies to solve social problems in addition to making a profit.

"It's a new kind of enterprise, which starts with a social mission," Bornstein (pictured) says.

The model has been making great inroads in developing countries like Brazil, India and Bangladesh.

One such enterprise is Vision Spring, a company on whose board Bornstein used to sit.

The company works to provide glasses to vision-impaired people in poor Indian villages. Their new glasses, Vision Spring believes, help locals become more productive while also improving their quality of life. The company imports glasses into rural India and sells them to the needy for as little as 60 rupees (HK$9).

Social enterprises are also springing up in the developed world, including in the US. Bornstein says a conference at Harvard University on social enterprise last year drew some 1,400 students last year.

He says many people like the idea of making a living by working for a meaningful cause that helps others. And working for a social enterprise can be both profitable and emotionally rewarding.

"If you go into finance, you will make a lot more money than you do in social finance, there's no doubt about that," Bornstein says. "But wealth and happiness do not correlate. Psychology research shows that [universally]."

But for a social enterprise to shine, creative innovation is essential. For that to happen, the current education system needs to be changed, he believes.

"The whole idea that we should prepare people just to absorb knowledge and regurgitate it on a test is insane," Bornstein says. "Basically, our academic system is designed to produce functionaries."

Skill-based education and rote learning, which focus on students' ability to do well in exams, often stifle creativity in young people.

Yet Bornstein says some schools on the mainland are slowly catching up with the West when it comes to innovative education.

Meanwhile, education in the US, he says, seems to have taken a step backwards.

"We're educating people to play functional roles rather than become change-makers," Bornstein says.

"We need to flip that," he insists.

Bornstein says parents, too, often struggle with the idea of social enterprise. So instead of encouraging their children to try and make a difference in society, they propel them towards secure and low-risk jobs in tried-and-tested areas.

Social enterprise, however, needs pioneering spirits who are not afraid to try new things or go against the flow.

Schools and universities can help foster that spirit by organising competitions in social entrepreneurship for students.

"If you can start it when you're young, it can lead to entrepreneurship and all sorts of creative things when you get older," Bornstein says.

"What social entrepreneurship says is 'Do it now. Start changing the world today'."

Make no mistake, he adds, there is plenty of room for social enterprise to grow. Some 4 billion people on Earth still lack essential things. Social entrepreneurs are essential for a brighter future.

David Bornstein's book, How to Change the World, has been published in 21 languages. Young Post has two copies to give away. To win one, e-mail your name, school, address and contact number to [email protected]