By Hyacinth Mascarenhas
When Nikhil Arora and Alex Velez sat in their Business Ethnics class at the University of California, Berkley’s Haas School of Business, little did they know that their visiting lecturer’s discussion would soon inspire their future sustainable business venture – growing mushrooms from coffee grounds.
After long hours experimenting in Velez’s fraternity kitchen and gaining support from Whole Foods, Velez and Arora gave up their careers in investment banking to become full-time urban mushroom farmers.
“Alex and I both had a passion outside of business, Alex in education and mine in sustainability,” Arora said. “When we came across the idea, we both felt this was the opportunity to combine our other values or missions with our passion for business.”
Their company, Back to the Root Ventures which uses coffee grounds to grow edible mushrooms, is one of the many upcoming businesses in the field of social entrepreneurship, a fast-growing field to promote sustainable solutions to some of the world’s most persistent problems.
Social entrepreneurship, according to the University of Minnesota, is defined as a for-profit or non-profit enterprise with a sustainable vision to address a societal need. These businesses can be based in a variety of sectors from energy and economic development to consumer products and healthcare.
More than 80 colleges and universities are now offering courses, degrees and even establishing a specialized center in social entrepreneurship, according to Ashoka, the leading global organization for social entrepreneurs.
Placing its feet in a variety of majors and fields, social entrepreneurship is not merely limited to economic or environmental sustainability.
Hydros Bottle, often described as a “Brita pitcher on the go,” allows people to filter water in a reusable bottle eliminating the need to purchase bottled water. However, the key stroke of social entrepreneurship lies in its basic sale pitch.
Every time a Hydros product is purchased, the company makes a contribution to its social mission, Operation Hydros, where funds go towards building clean water infrastructure in the developing world.
Social enterprises such as Hydros Bottle, do need to be built on the strong foundation of a solid, sustainable idea.
Founder & chairman of Hydros Bottle, Winston Ibrahim, says it is important for people with the initial interest in sustainability and innovation to find role models in the business to learn from.
“It is very important to nurture these inclinations among students early on, show that there are some alternatives to more established corporate jobs post graduation, and provide them with the resources to reach their fullest potential,” Ibrahim said.
Facing skepticism in the business and from consumers themselves, social entrepreneurship is defying the notion that enterprises based on sustainability cannot be successful or profitable.
However, Ibrahim does admit that a business in sustainability, like any other business, does have its ups and downs as well.
“The challenges are those of anyone who has every started something new — long hours, low pay, and very little outside support of the idea at the start,” said Abraham. “It is really tough to achieve enough credibility with investors, customers, manufacturers, and retailers at the very beginning to get your business going.”
While some entrepreneurs get inspired later in the education paths or careers, some are born social entrepreneurs.
Collecting old television sets and computers to refurbish and sell, or even decorating his own room with old gadgets as a kid, Tom Szaky says he was always intrigued by the ability to turn waste into a new product.
After dropping out of Princeton University, Szaky is now the CEO and founder of TerraCycle, one of the first and only companies to “repurpose non-recycable post-consumer waste into new eco-friendly products and materials.”
“By making products from waste – like turning Capri Sun drink pouches into kid’s backpacks and Frito-Lay chip bags into trash cans – TerraCycle is able to reduce landfill proliferation and the need to use virgin materials to make new products,” Szacky said.
Donating over $4 million to schools and non-profits, Terracycle makes less than $500,000 a year in profit, which Szacky says means they donate more money than they take home.
Szacky says that social entrepreneurship proves that a “for-profit capitalist system can be used for good” as well.
“As we grow our bottom line, we make sure to do it a responsible, socially beneficially way. Yet we are also a well-run for-profit company,” said Szacky. “I think a great synonym for Social Entrepreneur is Capitalistic Activitism.”
With its increasing popularity and growing development in education, practice and innovation, social entrepreneurship is one of the new key business models that many dream of and aspire towards.
“I think that we as a millennial generation have a certain innate sense of social justice that we are aching to bring to life through our work,” Ibrahim said. “The recent events with the country’s financial crisis have made served to accentuate this. Also, it is easier than ever before to take the initial steps to start a business.”
With a ticking clock on many global and social problems from global warming to poverty, many want to take their career paths to the next level and actually live out the fundamental human dream to make a difference in the world.
“It’s a growing trend,” Arora said. “People are looking at the traditional business world and thinking ‘there has to be a better way to do this!’ ”