September 10th, 2021–Cornell University’s Summit on Entrepreneurship and Equity, Sustainability and Social Justice brought together speakers from multiple disciplines working with entities that are addressing some of our world’s most pressing problems. During the summit, speakers illustrated the ways in which entrepreneurship and equity can go hand in hand to help meet sustainability and social justice goals. As part of the summit, Liz Ngonzi moderated a workshop titled “The Role of Entrepreneurs and Businesses in Strengthening Communities,” which featured Ted Teng (Global President of Cornell Hotel Society, Former President & CEO of The Leading Hotels of the World Ltd.) and Earl Martin Phalen (Founder & CEO of Phalen Leadership Academies).
The discussion highlighted ways in which entrepreneurs and businesspeople contribute to developing stable and vibrant communities through their investment decisions. Businesses and entrepreneurs of all kinds are investors in the communities in which they operate, and their investments are not mere acts of charity; rather, they generate both financial and social ROIs, ultimately contributing to social development. In the aftermath of the dislocation caused by the COVID pandemic, entrepreneurs and businesspeople have an opportunity to differentiate themselves and promote stakeholder loyalty by investing in solutions with a positive social impact.
Liz began the discussion by polling workshop participants about the roles that they believe businesses and entrepreneurs play in their communities. Poll responses are shown below:
Speaker Contributions – Ted Teng
Asked about the role of businesses and entrepreneurs in communities, Ted Teng pointed out that profitability and “social good” are not mutually exclusive but rather interconnected. According to Ted, both profit and people play essential roles in a business; profits keep the business running and people are the customers, suppliers, employees, and investors who allow it to function in the first place. He noted that businesses often achieve a positive social impact either by donating a percentage of their profits to charity or by donating the products themselves (e.g., Bombas socks). Although those are valuable approaches, he believes their impact is limited and that entrepreneurs and businesses should instead take a more holistic approach focusing on all of the following:
- Customers: Make products and services available to underserved communities by lowering prices to a more affordable (but still profitable) level.
- Employees: Invest in training employees to make them more productive and marketable.
- Suppliers: Help small-scale suppliers by offering long-term contracts that will sustain their existence and help them to grow.
Speaker Contributions: Earl Phalen
Earl, a social entrepreneur, shared how he had pursued such a holistic approach in supporting the youth of Phalen Leadership Academies (PLA) and their families during the Covid-19 pandemic. He mentioned that beyond raising funds to provide nutritious meals for the kids and their families, PLA also offered subsidized courses for the family members of its children — providing professional skills training to enhance their employability and ultimately their economic stability. Now that is a holistic approach to social impact!
Earl shared that aspiring entrepreneurs seeking to integrate a social ROI into their ventures, should pay attention to three things:
- Business Model: A good business model will ensure a consistent revenue stream.
- Data: Know your metrics and take stock of your company’s activities in relation to your goals, inputs, results, and impact. This will help you know when to pivot, restructure or continue implementing strategies that are working.
- Mission: Stay close to your mission because it is easy to stray from the purpose of your business once it becomes very profitable. Remember the reason why you started your business and stay true to that mission.
Ted concluded the discussion by highlighting the importance of learning, and encouraged viewers to continue acquiring knowledge that will help them grow their businesses and incorporate social impact. Ted, Earl and Liz all shared a variety of resources (linked below) to assist in this learning process.
Finally, viewers were asked to identify what they regarded as the main themes of the workshop. The top three responses were:
- Take a holistic approach to social impact
- Know your metrics
- Seek both to make a profit and to help people