Warning: When dealing with legacy business thinkers, use the term “sustainable” at your peril. Those of us interested in social and environmental outcomes of our ventures are often regarded as operating in a cute, special little world where the normal business rules don’t apply. And by “normal” we mean here the quaint idea that a business has to be profitable and capable of scale.
We wish we had a nickel for every time someone pronounced that they don’t want to mix their normal entrepreneurs and their ventures with ours because, well… because we deal with sustainable ventures and they deal with businesses that are interested in making lots of money. Hello? If you happen to be in the business of selling stoves, food, lights, or birth kits in base of pyramid markets, or irrigation solutions to smallholder farmers, or clean drinking water to 10 million Indians, you come pretty quick to the notion that profit and scale matter. It’s the stuff that fuels your impact and that pays for your food and finery. Yet many in the legacy business community continue to ghettoize ventures with a social or environmental mission behind an imaginary wall where profit doesn’t matter.
To be fair, many neophytes interested in sustainability or social venturing help keep this false distinction alive. At the NCIIA Open Minds conference last month we met more than a handful of very bright and eager young entrepreneurs who aspire to sell food, health, or technology solutions in the BOP, but who thought it important to stress that they didn’t care about the money. Admirable? Virtuous? We think not. Apart from being able to pay yourself and others to do good work, how many you sell, how much you make, and how fast you grow are great ways to keep score.
As much as the sustainable ventures crowd need to stop pretending that money is of secondary importance, the legacy business crowd needs to understand that directing some of their focus and analysis towards social and environmental impacts doesn’t come at the expense of profit, but actually increases innovative thinking, brand, shareholder value, and profit. To those who continue to separate sustainable ventures from the traditional idea of business, we say: Tear down this wall!