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Innovations in Corporate Social Impact

By 3p Conferences

By Belinda Ryan

“Is it too difficult for companies to achieve financial and social impact simultaneously?”  This was the question being posed by One World Founder & CEO Scott Saslow at the Innovations in Corporate Social Impact Summit on Nov, 2 at Cooley LLP in San Francisco.  The answer was a resounding “no,” as attendees discussed the examples of Bay Area companies who are innovation leaders in how they design their strategy, measure results and harness capital and people to create wider social, economic and environmental benefits. Presenters ranged from organizations such as Gap Inc and Vodafone Americas Foundation who have developed impactful programs in-house, to relatively newer enterprises such as Revolution Foods and Numi Organic Tea who were established with a social mission at their heart. 

The keynote session was led by Ira Ehrenpreis, founder and managing partner of DBL Partners and moderated by Catherine Chen, senior vice president of RBC Wealth Management.  Both joked that they had been using capital markets as a tool and a lever to make positive sustainable impact long before it was in vogue.  In recent years Catherine has seen the socially responsible investing side of wealth management grow as clients are now demanding more transparency and guidance in their investment portfolios.  In 2017 the Global Impact Investing Network’s (GIIN) annual survey estimated that there are now at least $114 billion worth of impact investing assets under management.

Ira referred to the huge interest in impact investing from millennials, who have underpinned the growth of the sector.  DBL partners runs a $400m impact investing fund, which aspires to a “no sacrifices” approach, infusing investments with positive social, environmental or regional economic impact without compromising financial returns.  He discussed DBL’s track record of investment in clean energy, and described their investment in the Farmer’s Business Network as an example of where radically new innovations replace centuries old practice.   “Part of being a good [venture capitalist] is to do something before it comes popular” he said.

Director of Global Social Impact at Pearson Jennifer Young described how her company had decided to bring their foundation back in-house, so that social impact strategy could be better aligned with corporate strategy.  Project Literacy is a global campaign founded and convened by Pearson to help the 750 million people in the world who cannot read and write, and who are more likely to suffer social and economic hardship as a result.  One innovative aspect of the global campaign is the Project Literacy Lab, formed from a partnership between Pearson and Unreasonable Group.  Project Literacy Lab is an international accelerator dedicated exclusively to scaling up ventures that are positioned to close the global literacy gap by 2030. Project Literacy Lab was designed to bring new problem solvers to the table: entrepreneurs.

Following a different path to positive impact, Revolution Foods is 12-year-old company with its social mission at it’s heart - to transform they way America eats by providing access to healthy, affordable meals.  Starting with serving freshly prepared meals in schools, Revolution Foods has now provided 200 million meals and has grown into retail at over 3000 grocery stores across the U.S.  Founder and Chief Impact Officer Kirsten Tobey stressed the importance of having their company values baked into their business model: “We’ve focussed our work on low income students in schools, and built a transparent model for investors…this has attracted the right kind of investor.  We had to build a scaleable model to continue to have a strong positive impact on the communities that we serve.”

Abby Davisson Director of Global Community Partnerships at Gap Inc spoke about their organization’s This Way Ahead program, which helps youth aged between 16 and 24 from low-income communities land their first job.  This Way Ahead is a life skills and paid store internship program which provides mentoring and build’s retail employees’ leadership and management skills, and also builds a valuable talent pipeline of future employees.  The success of the program has flowed through into staff retention, with the former interns staying twice as long at the company as their peers.  Jennifer Barnette from Cooley LLP also outlined how social impact programs contribute to financial bottom lines by helping to recruit, engage and retain talented staff by offering opportunities to work on pro bono litigation.  

Leveraging technology for impact was a common theme.  Vodafone Americas Foundation Director June Sugiyama, Autodesk’s head of Portfolio and Investment Jean Shia, OpenIdeo’s Managing Director Jason Rissman, and Box.org’s Bryan Breckenridge  each spoke about their company’s experiences at the intersection of design technology innovation and social and environmental impact.  

So while social impact comes in many forms, it’s clear that Bay Area companies and executives are embracing the challenge to create strong, sustainable positive impact that reinforces the financial bottom line.  As One World CEO Scott Saslow summarized, “Corporate Social Impact is not a responsibility, it is an opportunity.”

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