To Be or Not To Be (a Social Enterprise)

To Be or Not To Be (a Social Enterprise)

1494 800 Paul Breloff
 

I really enjoyed a recent piece by Daniel Pianko, co-founder and Managing Director at education-focused venture fund University Ventures, one of our investors. In it, he discusses the tricky no-win decision faced by would-be impact investors:

Make the impact argument to potential limited partners (the groups that invest in venture and private equity funds), and risk being pigeon-holed into a tiny fraction of capital reserved for impact investments. Make the case on returns only, and lose out on the small pool of limited partners eager to anchor impact funds.

Instead, Daniel hopes we all can move past the bifurcated lexicon of social vs. commercial enterprise. (And he’s certainly not the only one; see here for another example…) After all, Daniel believes that the companies out there solving the world’s biggest challenges should end up creating above-market returns for funds, regardless of whether they’re called “impact investments” or not. In UV’s case, this means investing to accelerate positive trends in education and employment pathways, and measuring success in terms of metrics like learning and career outcomes.

I think this is right on. This kind of thesis-led investing is the right way to build a fund — and the right way to build a business.

I couldn’t help but recognize a choice similar to Daniel’s when a company like ours decides whether to identify as a “social enterprise” or not. I feel a certain tension, knowing that for many people the term social enterprise has become code for loss making and non-commercial. That sucks!

When I first discovered the concept of social enterprise in law school, working on a startup bank that aspired to double-bottom line returns, I was inspired. At the time, the existence of a band of people and a coterie of companies aspiring to do well while doing good was thrilling and stoked career aspirations to channel the power of business to solve important global problems.

At Shortlist, I feel like we’re doing just that.

We are guided by our mission to unlock professional potential, to create a level playing field where everyone can be considered for opportunities on the basis of merit, not pedigree, and to help companies build the best teams they can. This feels important and worthwhile, and if we succeed with this we think we will also succeed financially in a big way.

So I hate it when labels like “social enterprise” get reduced to an impact vs. commercial dichotomy. Instead, for me, the label social enterprise should signify a values commitment and a thesis on how to build a successful, money-making business.

We want to wear on our sleeve our commitment to mission, not over or instead of profit, but as a multiplying force of our profit.

Why a multiplying force?

  • Because we believe that our commitment to solve a big problem is what attracts and motivates the best and brightest — and we’re awed by the talented team we’ve assembled.
  • Because we believe that pursuing a positive vision of what’s possible is the best way to secure a broad base of support that goes beyond pure capitalists to include philanthropists, foundations, and governments.
  • Because we believe that many of the biggest problems facing humanity are also the hardest and impact the most humans, suggesting that the rewards can be massive for the folks that figure them out.
  • And because we believe that aiming for impact is the most personally motivating, and after all, Achievement = Talent x Motivation.

So at the end of the day, I believe that whether we call Shortlist a social enterprise will always matter less than our shared vision of the better world we’d like to help create.