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Entrepreneurs must lead the drive for social justice in capitalism

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The world’s biggest companies make a great deal of noise about the social initiatives that they undertake. Starbucks and Apple are examples of those that are seen as having good CSR practice at their very cores. Both were set up from the start with strong social ideologies that the brand has become synonymous with and, as a result, they are both extremely keen to highlight their various initiatives.

Closer inspection shows that the bigger they have grown, the further both companies have moved away from these ideals; Starbucks uses far less Fair-trade coffee than they would have you believe and Apple are coming under increasing fire for the treatment of their staff at Foxconn in Thailand.

So, if Starbucks and Apple can’t do CSR, what chance do the likes of GE, Microsoft and Tesco have? Can big companies initiate late-stage CSR initiatives that create lasting social value or is good PR the best they can achieve?

Fundamentally, I don’t believe that big companies driven by a desire to maximise returns and thereby please investors can afford the time or resources necessary to implement a CSR strategy that shares value and profits. It’s simply too difficult, too time consuming and the investment is not repaid quickly enough, if ever.

This is where entrepreneurs come in. Those that start their own businesses from scratch are in a unique position to put CSR and socially valuable practices at the top of their agenda from day one.

I’m not saying that delivering social value should take precedent over making money. The two goals really can be comfortable bedfellows – if they share an equal footing right from the start. But for this to happen in a way that truly benefits the planet and its people will require a significant change in spirit, both from companies and governments. 

Enabling and encouraging this belief on a global scale is the ultimate goal of the world entrepreneurship forum (WEF) and a focus of many of the start-ups supported by the small business incubator at EMLYON business school.

The WEF’s stated mission is to develop entrepreneurship at the bottom of the pyramid and create innovative and high growth companies that create jobs around the world. Examples of successful enterprises that have been produced through the event abound. Over the last few years WEF members have created a new bank in Tanzania for women and young entrepreneurs while in Ecuador, a new position of “Secretary of State for Entrepreneurship” has been created after a government delegation for the country saw a presentation on how Singapore is facilitating social entrepreneurship.

Entrepreneurs are the people that can produce both wealth and social justice through their enterprises. Socially-minded businesses can deliver profit as well as social value – but a change of attitude amongst investors, aspiring business people, governments and budding entrepreneurs needs to occur to make it possible. 

This is a process that we are hoping to give real impetus to. It’s a big challenge and it will take time – but if the world’s aspiring entrepreneurs make it their duty to create social value through their businesses from the very beginning, we will be in a position to change the way the world does business for the better.

Professor Michel Coster is the head of EMLYON Incubator and think-tank member of the World Entrepreneurship forum

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