On Tuesday 15th May 2012, at la Mutualité in Paris, danone.communities hosted a very special event for social business. An event that resonated as an anniversary for danone.communities, which was celebrating 5 years of existence in 2012, in particular with a grand tour: the Global Communities Meeting Tour, which was launched on 8th February and ended in November 2012 at the Global Social Business Summit in Vienna. An international tour, all year round, with numerous partners, to reach as many people as possible and promote social business. Tuesday’s function at la Mutualité was one of the major events of this tour: first, an entire day gathered over 200 social business experts to co-create in workshops. Then, a large-scale conference welcomed over 2000 attendees including, among others, Prof. Muhammad Yunus and Franck Riboud. Here is the story of that special day.
Getting to work
It is 7.30am at the Maison de la Mutualité, a beautiful art déco building situated in the heart in Paris, close to Notre-Dame Cathedral. The entire danone.communities team, assisted by a handful of volunteers, is already busy setting up the venue: in about 90 minutes, 200 social business experts will gather here to spend the whole day in workshops, with the intention of co-creating new solutions to scale up social businesses in every field, everywhere in the world. “Scale up”: a phrase that will often be heard throughout the day. Because “in social business, there is business”. And so many other things…
9.00am – The experts have arrived: academics, entrepreneurs, members of NGOs, students, representatives from Danone and other companies, bankers, etc. Emmanuel Marchant, Deputy General Manager at danone.communities, delivers a welcome speech:
After 5 years, and 10 active projects, we are here to take stock but also to share our do’s and don’ts, to work together, to co-build. Today’s event is a first edition, and we dream that it is the beginning of something.
Olivier Maurel, Social Innovation & Animation Manager at danone.communities, agrees: “We are starting a process. We are the social business wave.” He asks the crowd why they are here today. Unanimous reply: “to share and to learn”. To pollinate ideas. Olivier Maurel reminds the attendees that on 15th May, 123 years ago, the Eiffel Tower was inaugurated: “The sky is the limit!” Later in the night, he will also recall that a year ago, on 15th May, people in Spain gathered in the streets to start the “Indignés” movement. 15th May is a special date. “And today, we may also make history”. Arielle Genton, HR Director at danone.communities, now calls the members of the ten workshops that have been organised in advance: Nutrition, Sustainability, Finance, Access to Water, Measuring Social Impact, Proximity distribution, Co-creation, Developed countries, New Technologies, and a special workshop for the danone.communities SICAV, with the bank LCL. “We are here for a serious game.” Let’s play then.
10.00am – The workshops have all started. The atmosphere is studious. Walking from room to room, from group to group, we discover a different ambiance each time, sometimes quiet and concentrated, sometimes voluble and agitated, but always involved. On the paperboards, the lists of do’s and don’ts get longer by the minute. We run into Marine Plossu, a student at ESCP business school and a member of Make Sense, a network that “challenges people for social business” by connecting social entrepreneurs with individuals who are ready to take up their challenges. There are a lot of Make Sense members here today. Marine tells us about one of their projects, SenseSchool, that
conducts case studies on social challenges that companies or NGOs are facing, and then sets up programmes in the field thanks to design thinking tools, so that these entities can include social impact in their priorities.
12.30pm – Everyone is gathered in the foyer for lunch and a networking session, before the workshops start again at 2pm. A participant enthuses: “They are facilitation geniuses, words come easily here.” Another says that she used to do her job not knowing that it was a “social business”, and that she recently discovered the “label”. She says that she is afraid the expression might draw scepticism from “classic business”, which could be expected to tag all these initiatives as being “marginal”. “But at least it gets people discussing the subject.” We spot known faces: Camilla Burg, Communications Director at Wiser.org. Mélanie Nowik, project manager at Isomir (see her interview here). François Colomban, Director of the Food Design unit at the Danone Research Center.
2.00pm – All the participants are back in the workshops. We meet a young engineer who works in a Danone factory in South-West France. He is a volunteer today. He tells us that as an intern, he worked on the Lemateki project. Thrilled by the challenge (helping to come up with a new product and new packaging, and working on a project with no pre-defined process), he spent most of the afternoon in the Co-creation workshop. A lead for his future? Another volunteer, a business school student, has taken the opportunity to attend the Nutrition workshop. She is passionate about social business and regrets that to most people, it still sounds a bit “alternative”. She spends a great deal of time explaining it to her friends. In the foyer, the danone.communities team sits down to prepare what’s coming up. The walkie-talkies go off regularly. There will soon be a briefing for all the volunteers. The calm before the storm.
Feedback, “craziness and generosity”
5.00pm – It is “restitution” time. As the room fills up with participants, we notice that more and more are wearing the white “GCM” t-shirt, distributed at the door. It is now impossible to tell the difference between the danone.communities team and the experts. Muriel Pénicaud, General Manager of Human Resources at Danone, takes the microphone first to award a prize to “somebody who has done something extraordinary”. To be eligible to compete for this Social Business Youngsters Award, held on Facebook, participants had to be students, under 25 years old, leading an innovative social business project. The winner? Nazia Zebin and her team, from Bangladesh, for The BookWorm Revolution. A project that “makes specially-designed story books available to the poor children of Bangladesh who do not have access to many reading materials at affordable prices, with the aim of increasing the overall quality of education in the country.” Nazia will receive $3000, meet Muhammad Yunus, work with Danone’s Marketing Manager in Bangladesh who will mentor the project, and benefit from danone.communities’ network to make it reality. Long live the BookWorm Revolution!
5.30pm – Each group shows the rest of the participants the results of the discussions in its workshop. One minute to convey an idea with humour and interactivity. The teams vie with each other in terms of creativity: the Nutrition people give the perfect recipe for a social business; the Proximity distribution team presents a sketch to highlight the need to train saleswomen in developing countries; the Developed countries workshop mimes the three main words of the day and asks the crowd to replicate: convergence, solidarity… and joy. Olivier Maurel congratulates everyone: “Thanks for your craziness and your generosity”, and asks the audience to share with the person sitting next to them what new desires this day has brought them. The same words keep bouncing back: learning, sharing, energy, people.In less than an hour, the big event of the night will start. The volunteers bustle about: they have been here for ten hours, but there is still a lot to do.
6.45pm – Outside la Mutualité, the queue swells: over 2000 people are expected to attend the large-scale conference which is about to start in la Mutualité’s théâtre, in presence of many of those active in social business and of Pr. Muhammad Yunus and Franck Riboud. As soon as the theatre is full, Emmanuel Marchant takes the stage, wondering:
Why are there 2000 of us here? Because we all share a dream. For the past 5 years, we have fought to make this dream a reality. The answers we bring are small, but they keep growing.
He takes stock of the achievements of danone.communities’ first 10 projects. The very first, the project that started it all, is Grameen Danone, created in Bangladesh in 2006 by Prof. Muhammad Yunus and Franck Riboud. The latest is Jita, and Emmanuel Marchant calls Saif, its manager, onto the stage to explain the project: a programme designed to help empower women in Bangladesh by giving them work as saleswomen. Currently, none of the projects is perennial because they still do not make enough money to finance themselves. But this is coming.
8pm – On the stage now, 5 people who lead some of danone.communities’ projects: Corinne Bazina, General Director of Grameen Danone Foods (Bangladesh); Bagoré Bathily, Founder and General Director of La Laiterie du Berger (Senegal), Manoj Kumar, CEO of the Naandi Foundation (India), Dr Zhu Zonghan, Professor at the Capital Institute of Pediatrics who worked on the NutriGo programme (China), and François Jaquenoud, co-founder of 1001 Fontaines (Cambodia). Each and every one of them dedicates their business activities not only to improving health and nutrition around the world, but also to transforming this concern into real and viable businesses which are perennial because they provide those who carry them with an income, and because they do not need subsidies to exist. François Jaquenoud explains that the main challenge is to turn the local populations into genuine entrepreneurs, with the competence and mindset to run a business. Baghoré Bathily evokes his concerns on the distribution of his products, in a country where 90% of shops are not on concrete roads. Dr Zhu Zonghan’s main problem is to make Chinese parents aware that good nutrition is crucial in the first years of their babies’ lives, when they mostly feed them noodle soup. Corinne Bazina hopes that soon, Grameen Danone will be able to sell Shokti Doi fortified yoghurt at a price of 5 ta ka – it costs 7 ta ka today, and inflation in Bangladesh is swelling, which of course impacts the price of milk. Manoj Kumar explains that he does not run one company but 250, one for each villager that the Naandi Foundation has helped become a water supplier: his aim is to find more efficient ways to manage this crowd. Challenges for the future that point the way for other social businesses.
8.40pm – What about social business in France? Emmanuel Faber, Deputy General Manager of Danone, explains that of course, it must fit a context: poverty is not the social norm, which means social businesses address minorities. And there is already a string of public policies and social assistance that must be taken into account. On the stage, Didier Piard (Director of Social Action at the Red Cross) and Didier Lamblin (General Director of Bledina) present a project they have been working on together: Malin, that aims to provide better nutrition to young children whose families live below the poverty line. As Didier Piard puts it, “in France, we do not have a culture of co-working and co-creation. We therefore must learn to acculturate, in order to come up with new solutions.”
Martin Hirsch, President of the French agency for community service, reminds the audience that social businesses have existed for many years and that, in his own way, Abbé Pierre launched one when he created Emmaüs. For Mr Hirsch, the main challenge is to
stop excluding those who are a bit “less” than others: less productive, less efficient or less resourceful. We must find a way for them to play a useful role in society that gives them decent means of existence.
To achieve that, Martin Hirsch calls for a radical change in the way our society produces goods, and in the way companies define their goals, so that no one is ever thrown into poverty again.
9pm – It is now time for Prof. Yunus and Franck Riboud to share their thoughts. Prof. Yunus recalls that he met Franck Riboud in a restaurant, that he talked about what he did and suggested to Danone’s CEO that they create a joint venture which would be a social business. Franck Riboud said yes immediately. “I thought we had not understood each other! Who says yes that quickly?” Today, five years later, Franck Riboud states:
It is all about business. Now I wonder: if Danone did its job to perfection, could it be part of the social business world without needing danone.communities? – Finally, that’s what I have been waiting for!
Franck Riboud insists, directly addressing the students who make up a large part of the audience: it is all about business, and you should not choose “social” business over “classic” business, or the other way around. For a business to be social, it must be perennial, hence profitable, hence use all the tools of classic businesses. If a business does not make its own living, it can never be sustainable. Prof. Yunus agrees:
that is the difference between charity work and social business. Charity work is great. But it cannot be replicated. To start again somewhere else, you need more money each time.
And he concludes with a word on creativity, which is the main tool to “create the world that we want, that we will be proud of.” The crowd is enthusiastic.
10.30pm – End of a day packed with ideas and people. 2000 attendees are gathered at the interactive cocktail party, where they can meet all the people that were on stage during the conference, and many more. All are eager to find out more about the projects, presented on colourful boards in a big “marketplace”. Time to take a few more pictures, and to leave la Mutualité. It has been a profitable day.