Social Enterprise: Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen?

The plenary session at the Investors’ Circle 2009 Spring Conference was sprinkled with panelists representing different entities. With delegates to cover the perspective of the entrepreneur, the government, education, and large financial institutions, we were given perspectives of social enterprise from multiple angles. Traditionally, these different entities have kept to themselves in the development of the sphere and their role in it. If it is true that we now live in a world full of collaboration, one in which a down economy encourages people to truly see the value in teamwork, what is the potential for collaboration between entities working to create social enterprise?

Prior to the session, this question was posed to a few audience members. Not all too surprisingly, it received a series of skeptical responses. The consensus was a fear that combining efforts would result in “too many cooks in the kitchen.” But, let’s use this analogy in a different light. If these cooks are already finding success in their own respective kitchens, why not put them all into the same kitchen to ensure that the food being created is not duplicated? Besides, when combining the best chefs from multiple restaurants, would we not simply get far higher quality food?

Perhaps the answer to that would depend upon the type of collaboration between entities. David Crane, who serves as Special Advisor to the Governor for Jobs and Economic Growth discussed one way in which the government is currently working to help the business and social enterprise sectors. Crane stated that the “number one goal from a policy standpoint is to create long term sustainable demand for products, without picking winners.” Crane suggests that it is the government’s responsibility to create an environment in which our policies maintain demand for sustainable products, thereby creating demand for social enterprise itself. But while the government is busy working on such policies, what can entrepreneurs do to create demand for their products or services? The panel provided a perfect example of an entrepreneur who has created a company to meet already existing demand for a product. Peter Frykman, founder of Driptech, a company providing low cost and more appropriate irrigation systems for developing countries, spoke of the already-existing demand for his services upon his company’s launch, with a viable financial return as well. And for Driptech, sales to, and even partnerships with, the government are not out of the question.

Driptech’s story mirrors many of the existing social enterprises that come through the Investors’ Circle network. If IC-type companies work to solve the social and environmental concerns also held by government, large financial institutions, non-profits and for-profits alike, then can’t we seek out more ways for these entities to work together? If, as moderator Jerry Engel suggested, the endgame is economic viability, through which long term sustainability both economically and culturally are the imperative of success, then why aren’t we seeking alternative ways to increase this success? Yes, there is the potential for further red tape created by such collaboration, but isn’t the reduction of red tape always a necessary step in creating partnerships? If, as Engel states, innovation responds to challenges, then let’s take this one on together.

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