Social entrepreneurs have plenty of lessons to offer more conventional managers.
On August 10, this year’s New Zealander of the Year, Ray Avery, will launch his new book, Rebel With a Cause. Avery is a bona fide social entrepreneur: an ethical scientist with 30 years’ experience in pharmaceutical manufacturing, bringing 200 products to US Food and Drug Administration approval.
But it is Avery’s groundbreaking work in the developing world that has brought him international respect and recognition.
Avery designed and commissioned two modern intraocular lens laboratories in Nepal and Eritrea, which supply 16 per cent of the world’s market for the lenses, used in cataract surgery. Right now, 15 million people are wearing the lenses; by 2020, 30 million people will be. Avery also invented the Acuset IV Flow Controller, used by hundreds of millions in hospitals internationally, and a low-cost infant incubator for use in the developing world.
Avery’s business, Medicine Mondiale, enlists the help of other scientists and social entrepreneurs. These include New Zealand companies Procreate NZ, which is designing the infant incubator shell and components, and Texmate NZ, which is designing the computerised control system.
Ellis Terry Law looks after all the patents and intellectual property. “All these guys work for free for the greater good and act as ethical businesses,” says Avery.
What motivates Avery? His argument is, if the Western world is benefiting from medical breakthroughs why shouldn’t the developing world?
“To me, it’s a no-brainer. I would not be happy with myself if I did not intervene.”
Avery is no head-in-the-clouds “do-gooder” and is well aware of the commercial benefits of what he does. Medicine Mondiale operates as a business, not a charity. The profits go back into research and development.
His knowledge is recognised by organisations including Air New Zealand and Pepsi-Cola. “Companies, you find, get introverted with the way they see themselves. We have been able to get into Air NZ about doing business with fewer resources. We are very passionate about that.”
He has also urged Pepsi-Cola to put better ingredients into its potato chip products, sold widely in the Third World.
“We said, ‘Why not put some good stuff in?’ Then you get to be the good guys.”
Avery says there is much to be learned from travels in the developing world. In Nepal, there are examples of pure entrepreneurialism: you can buy a pack of cigarettes, a cigarette or even a puff of a cigarette.
In South Africa, you can rent mobile phones by the minute. “We can look at developing countries for the lead in a commercial sense,” says Avery.
Social entrepreneurs are different only in that they are looking at the efficacy of their product in terms of health and social well-being.
“What we need to do in New Zealand is convince businesses that it’s good to be a social entrepreneur, that there’s a market for the products.”
According to John Elkington and Pamela Hartigan, co-authors of The Power of Unreasonable People: How social entrepreneurs create markets that change the world, multinationals are scouting the world for social entrepreneurs.
They say social entrepreneurs like to experiment with new business models. “Business model innovation can be hard to achieve … tomorrow’s leaders should be looking at what social and environmental enterpreneurs are doing.”
Elkington, co-director of Volans Ventures, says German organisations such as international finance company Allianz are bringing in social entrepreneurs to give executives a different view of the world.
He says what canny businesses are realising is that social entrepreneurs are creating models and approaches that bigger companies can use.
Social entrepreneurs also have big-picture ideas, such as creating a middle class. America’s Henry Ford raised his workers’ pay to create conditions that would allow them to buy the cars they were making.
Social entrepreneurs in New Zealand have not always had an easy row to hoe. Hubbard Foods chairman Dick Hubbard says he has always thought of himself as a social entrepreneur but people have scoffed. “Roger Kerr accused me of economic treason,” says Hubbard.
“Hubbards were the first to have triple-bottom line reporting – eight or nine years ago. People said our business model would never work.”
Hubbard believes his social entrepreneurialism showed in the way he treated his staff.
When the company reached its 10-year anniversary, Hubbard hired a jet and took every staff member to Samoa. A couple of years ago, when it looked at moving the factory out of Auckland, Hubbard called it off because his Polynesian staff did not want to leave their families.
Hubbard also got involved when Air New Zealand’s survival looked in danger after the Ansett debacle. “We put full-page ads in the Herald telling people to show their support by travelling with Air New Zealand and volunteering not to use air points.”
Hubbard spent three years in Niue as project manager at a tropical fruit factory. It influenced his thinking about a commercial operation with an objective to put money people’s pockets. “I saw the great satisfaction of seeing the effect of business as a force for good.”