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The shift in expectation on how businesses should behave

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Private sector executives often struggle to understand how to respond to these demands, given that they are complying with the law and (in their view) can hardly be expected to pay more than legally required. But it comes down to a wider issue of balancing their right to make money with their responsibility towards those they are making it from.

Finding ways to demonstrate that responsibility goes well beyond the issue of tax – it requires firms to think about new ways of doing business. For 35 years Ashoka has pioneered the concept of social entrepreneurs. Our founder, Bill Drayton, coined the term and began a global search for extraordinary people dedicated to changing the world. To date, we have elected 3,500 Ashoka fellows in 88 countries, including two Nobel Peace Prize winners, and we calculate that half our fellows have changed national laws and policies within three years of their election.

But in recent years we have gone further, trying to encourage schools and colleges around the world to teach what we call “changemaker values”: the ability to thrive as an individual and make a positive contribution to society in an increasingly fast moving world.

Fundamental skills such as empathy, entrepreneurship, teamwork and leadership are as essential in today’s world as secondary school level literacy and numeracy. If there was more empathy in the boardroom our society might look very different. Furthermore, we are trying to help build a world in which businesses grow because of social impact –from the supply chain to interactions with consumers. We believe that commercial companies can facilitate positive change in areas beyond the reach of public policy makers and the third sector.

Read more about social entrepreneurship and sustainability:

As Paul Pohlman, CEO of Unilever, puts it: “If we focus on improving the lives of the world’s citizens and come up with genuine sustainable solutions, we are more in sync with consumers and society, and ultimately this will result in good shareholder returns”.

Many of Unilever’s household products require consumers to have clean running water, or freezers and reliable electricity at home for their ice cream. It is therefore in the interests of Unilever to help consumers access these essential services because ultimately it would related to more products being sold.

Several partners over the years have helped us build a widening network of supportive businesses, including freuds, which backs us because it believes that all organisations need a purpose beyond profit. In fact, over the past few weeks, it helped Tristram Stuart to launch his new beer brand, Toast, which has the backing of Jamie Oliver. However, Stuart understands that if he’s going to make fundamental changes to the system he not only needs a great idea, but also a commercially viable concept. Maximising publicity is therefore vital.

We believe that organisations need to learn from their partnership with social entrepreneurs. Companies need to become more innovative to survive as the commercial pace of change accelerates, and social entrepreneurs can help them learn these skills.

Of course, there are limitations to all this. Some firms are still more self-interested than enlightened. Others would like to make changes but the short-term demands of the stock market limit any freedom for maneuver. But the basic principle with which we approach the private sector – that firms are now expected to demonstrate social value to the societies – seems more obvious by the day.

Social entrepreneurs are well placed to help companies adapt to this new world. Those that fail to do so will not thrive (or even survive) in the long term.

With that in mind, we salute seven superheroes of the entrepreneurial world, who are fighting global issues with innovation and determination.

Rob Wilson is the Director of Ashoka UK. 

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