Under the gilded ceilings of the Paris City Hall, a multi-generational and international crowd meets, mingles and chats. But this is not yet another social event – or perhaps it is, if you take the other meaning of the word “social.” All these people share a strong interest in social entrepreneurship. We are at the 3rd Forum of Impact2, a series of events organised by the Comptoir de l’Innovation “engaging business leaders, policymakers and financial institutions dedicated to the promotion of social entrepreneurship worldwide.” In a few minutes, the conference will start, but for now the entrepreneurs are presenting their work to potential investors and networking. At the danone.communities stand, there is a focus on innovation in finance: we meet the people behind Symba, Île-de-France’s local currency; LaCaisse.org, which facilitates the funding of small and medium-sized businesses through peer-to-peer lending; Morgan Stanley’s Sustainable Investing Challenge and EthicPhone, a mobile phone payment and money transfer solution. In total, 40 social entrepreneurs are represented on stands spread throughout the City Hall’s reception rooms.
The social and solidarity economy is not the world of the Care Bears
It is now time to dive into the subject, and people are taking their seats in the main room. The theme of this 3rd edition is “Paris, world capital of social entrepreneurship.” And Anne Hidalgo, the capital’s mayor, defends this ambition with fervour. “We must support the development of the social and solidarity economy, which represents 10% of employment in Paris. What you do every day, » she tells the crowd, « is proof that pursuing performance and efficiency and respect for our planet and for mankind are not mutually exclusive. Quite the opposite!” Nicolas Hazard, Chairman of Comptoir de l’Innovation, agrees wholeheartedly:
“The social and solidarity economy is not the world of the Care Bears! It represents real and credible alternatives that create wealth and employment while bringing something to society. We’d be wrong to ignore it.”
Philippe Mabille, Editor-in-Chief of economic newspaper La Tribune, is now on stage to introduce the three roundtables that will delve more deeply into the issues related to social entrepreneurship. He quotes Alfred Einstein: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” He welcomes the participants of the first, fairly technical, roundtable, entitled “What prospects for the growth of social entrepreneurship and impact investing?”: Nicolas Schmit, Luxembourg’s Minister of Labour, Employment and Social and Solidarity Economy, Luc Balleroy, Managing Director of polling company OpinionWay, Sir Ronald Cohen, Chairman of the G8’s Social Impact Investment Task Force, and Philippe Gravier, Chief Financial Officer at insurance company Aviva.
They all agree that the financial crisis encourages citizens to act, to take the future of society into their own hands, through solidarity finance, crowdfunding, co-creation, the collaborative economy, etc. Sir Ronald says he believes that impact investment is bound to become an extremely important sector, “because we have no choice. Social problems keep spreading and worsening, and we are having a harder time giving meaning to the phrase ‘equal opportunities’. Welfare states can no longer afford to meet all social needs. Growth, which we thought would be the answer to social issues, has elevated the average living standard but increased the inequalities among citizens. (…) We have the power, if we all act together, to turn impact investing into an extremely powerful tool to face social and environmental challenges.” And Nicolas Schmit, while he salutes Paris’ attempts to encourage the growth of the social and solidarity economy, insists that the sector should benefit from greater support from the European Union. “Europe’s discourse must change in order to show that there are ways out of this crisis, and that the social and solidarity economy is one of these ways.”
Putting together philanthropic objectives and business methodology
What is at stake for impact investing? That is the question addressed by the second roundtable, which welcomes to the stage Wayne Silby, president of the Calvert Foundation, Muhammad Yunus, Nobel Peace Prize winner and champion of micro-credit and social business, and Franck Riboud, CEO of Danone. While Wayne Silby explains that he started the Calvert Foundation to “give meaning” (“What kind of society are we creating?” he wonders), Professor Yunus says that micro-credit was born out of pure necessity, and even suffering and desperation. “The idea I had in mind was to bring a service to people which is not a charity, which is profitable. The right kind of micro-credit is a social business: a business made to help people.” With this choice, Professor Yunus supports a vision of entrepreneurship that is commonly shared in the audience: “Charity is a wonderful thing, but money is used just the one time, it never comes back. Social business brings the money back. With Grameen Danone (a social business created with Danone in 2006 to sell fortified yogurts in Bangladesh – editor’s note), for instance, we have put together philanthropic objectives and business methodology, and used them to help solve a health issue.” Franck Riboud goes on, explaining how the collaboration with Professor Yunus around social business unfolded, and how Grameen Danone was the first step in the creation of danone.communities, the group’s social business incubator which now funds and supports ten social businesses across the world. “I do not feel I have a mission to save the world, but if a company like Danone can use its power and share it with others, we should do so. What we try to do is give meaning to our activities.” When asked if social business is relevant in developed, post-industrialised countries as much as it is in developing parts of the world,
Professor Yunus concludes: “We are trying to build a new kind of business, based on selflessness instead of selfishness. It is not about being in a rich country or in a poor country; it is about changing the system, which is wrong. Everywhere, there are people who are left out. There’s no reason why anyone should be unemployed and poor. We need an inclusive system.”
Changing the mindset
One question remains to be answered: how can we accelerate the movement? Before the third roundtable starts, Louis-Julien Petit, director of the film Discount (in cinemas by the end of 2014), and actor Olivier Barthélémy present a teaser of the movie: it tells the story of supermarket employees who see their jobs threatened by the installation of automatic tills, and choose to take action by setting up a solidarity grocery store where they sell the goods the supermarket throws away. Louis-Julien Petit explains that the movie was partially financed through crowdfunding, and that he wanted to “show that it is possible to fight the system through solidarity. It is important to show that there are solutions.” But small-scale initiatives are not going to be enough to change the system. This is why we need social entrepreneurship, and a major change of mindset, according to Jacky Lintignat, Managing Director of KPMG France: “Historically, the associative model has been very strong in France and lies at the heart of the social and solidarity economy sector. Combining a social objective and economic efficiency is now essential; there is no dissociation possible anymore. We are in the process of building a hybrid model.” David Erickson, Director of the Centre for Community Development Investments at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, insists that “We need more entrepreneurs and social investors. It is a very important growth area in combatting social exclusion and poverty.” And François Villeroy de Galhau, COO in charge of Corporate Social Responsibility at BNP Paribas, appealed to young entrepreneurs: “A bank’s job is first and foremost to fund entrepreneurs and businesses. Be audacious and consistent with your project, and if you want to give us a try, come and see us!” As the conference draws to a close and all participants are invited to enjoy networking over drinks, no doubt some of the business creators in the audience will put his advice into practice immediately.
Photos © Philothée Gaymard