How social innovators are making a profit by doing good

How social innovators are making a profit by doing good

Join us this week at Entrepreneurship 101 as we look at how you can attract the best talent for your startup despite limited resources, and what types of skill to look for.

“Looking back, I think I’ve always been a bit interested in waste.” That’s how Daniel Bida explains his reasons for founding ZooShare, the much talked-about firm that’s creating a biogas plant to generate energy using manure from animals at the Toronto Zoo.

Under the cheeky tagline of “poo, power, profits” the company, which is a co-operative, has raised $2.2 million by selling bonds to construct a biogas plant that aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of 10,000 tonnes a year.

Bida is among a growing group of entrepreneurs who are also social innovators. These visionaries are tearing up the script that says companies should be motivated by profit alone and building businesses around the idea of making the world a better place.

Bida was speaking at Entrepreneurship 101, where he shared a stage with three other social innovators: Ami Shah, who co-founded Peekapak, an edtech startup that has more than 13,500 users of its curriculum that combines social-emotional learning with reading and writing standards; Bernie Li, co-founder of Pure Energies Group (acquired by NRG Energy in 2014), which enabled hundreds of Ontarians to join the green-energy revolution with its “free solar” offering; and Gavin Armstrong, founder of Lucky Iron Fish, whose low-cost metal “fish” are used in cooking pots around the world to combat iron deficiency.

When profit meets progress

These entrepreneurs are showing what’s possible when profit meets progress. Guided by a conviction in the power of business to create meaningful change, they follow what’s sometimes called the double bottom line—viewing company performance not only on financial results but also on its contribution to society.

That creates another layer of complexity to the already tough challenge of getting a business off the ground. But for entrepreneurs willing to take the leap, the rewards, both personal and professional, are significant.

Shah, who founded Peekapak with a close friend after a successful career working for a multinational firm, derives personal satisfaction from creating a product that helps children learn the importance of empathy, gratitude and perseverance. “This feels good,” she says. For Armstrong, Lucky Iron Fish is his contribution to tackling the malnutrition he saw while volunteering in developing countries. Those experiences highlighted the limits of traditional philanthropy and convinced him that for-profit businesses have the potential to create lasting, sustainable change on issues like food scarcity.

From Panel moderator Kevin Taylor of the MaRS Centre for Impact Investing, Ami Shah, Bernie Li, Daniel Bida and Gavin Armstrong at Entrepreneurship 101.
From left: Panel moderator Kevin Taylor (MaRS Centre for Impact Investing), Ami Shah, Bernie Li, Daniel Bida, Gavin Armstrong

Having a social mission can also help employee engagement. Li, who co-founded Pure Energies Group, says it can be a motivating factor in persuading talented people to work for a startup. That may be especially true for millennials, who repeatedly tell researchers that they value making a difference at work.

One thing all startups need is capital, and sometimes a lot of it. While investors may be attracted to a firm’s vision for change, for the panel, a solid growth strategy and watertight business plan are still essential. “Those conversations were first and foremost financial,” says Li of his pitches to potential investors. Nobody benefits if a business doesn’t succeed.

Finding ways to create meaningful change and turn a profit requires ingenuity, tenacity and a touch of idealism. The entrepreneur who has the right mix of all three might not just build a successful business—she might help build a better society.

Watch the panel discussion

Missed the session? Watch the videos below to catch the discussion.

Meet the Entrepreneurs Social Innovation: Part 1 of 3

Meet the Entrepreneurs Social Innovation: Part 2 of 3

Meet the Entrepreneurs Social Innovation: Part 3 of 3