“Investments can have more than just financial returns” was the key theme for the 2014 Social Enterprise Conference at Columbia University.
Here I was, sharing a table with people from all over the country who believed in a new era of sustainable change in corporate strategies and capital markets for our global community.
The morning keynote from Alicia Glen, Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development for New York City, left me with a great sense of optimism. Deputy Mayor Glen discussed how the city’s low-income housing market has parted from its traditional model utilizing charity and philanthropic events, and begun a trend toward impact investing. For the first time, there are affordable housing initiatives from social entrepreneurs, but also investors who see opportunity in social impact and not solely maximizing profit.
A later session focused on environment, social and governance (ESG) strategies and how these areas, as a broad set of socially responsible investment interests, can drive a sustainable future. These areas are now considered central factors for many companies that recognize measuring sustainability and ethical impact need to be aligned with their corporate strategies. Eve Ellis, Financial Advisor and Portfolio Manager at Morgan Stanley, posed an interesting question: Should we separate these businesses and investment practices from traditional ones? It is very difficult to find the right answer. Should we now hold all businesses accountable for their impact, whether good or bad? Are we going to require managers and investors to start putting social impact first and money second? Is that even possible, or is it just a crazy idea that can only exist in a utopic world?
The questions ran through my mind as I listened to more presentations by the National Resources Defense Council and Cornerstone Capital, which emphasized social impact and how it is integral to their business model. It was frustrating to have to acknowledge that these high-impact organizations are still the minority, despite having a proven track record achieving financial sustainability. There still exists skepticism of these types of organization and whether they can succeed without putting profit first.
It is a reality that the world we live in is far from what most of us would like to be part of; a world in which shareholders demand that social impact is woven into financial benefits.
By the end of the conference I realized that we are at the beginning of a movement that is revolutionizing the way business is conducted. Investors are realizing that profit alone is not sustainable. Addressing an unmet market at the bottom of the pyramid represents an enormous opportunity while creating high impact for the world’s poorest.
I left feeling that it is my generation that has the tools, the experience, and most importantly, the desire to keep alive this momentum. While creating businesses for the global good is a big challenge, it is not an impossible one. From where I stand, only good things can come ahead .