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Money Catches up With Meaning in Social Enterprise

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I recently attended social enterprise and impact investing summits on both coasts, where social entrepreneurs, impact investors, changemakers and change-agents gathered to discuss new developments in the field.

In addition to conventional development initiatives addressing a range of social problems including the building of civil society, there were smart solutions impressive for their specificity. In parts of rural India, where people must frequently wait at home all day for trucks to bring clean water, a social enterprise created by students at Stanford and UC Berkeley, NextDrop.org sends SMS water alerts to neighborhood residents in advance of the trucks, based on computational models and predictions. Other interesting initiatives included the provision of portable housing for slum dwellers in Kenya, the recycling of jeepneys into classrooms in the Philippines, and the use of pets as healers to traumatized populations.

Many of the field practitioners and entrepreneurs were at the meetings to test the six degrees of separation theory -- to find the connections, matches, networks, collaborations, partners, angels, investors and funding they needed to grow their enterprises.

Impact investors I met fell into three distinct groups: advanced level investors -- pioneers who built the field of contemporary social enterprise in front of them, who recognize multiple and narrow approaches to solving problems and intuit and embrace disruptors; intermediate investors who validate new ways of delivering solutions, embrace a diversity of programs large and small, and measure impact in qualitative and quantitative terms; and beginner investors focused on technology and determined to back the next Kiva, the next Vittana, the next Huffington Post.

It needs to be said that there are good and excellent solutions to daunting social issues that lie outside technology's ability to deliver them. The changemakers in Kenya need to increase their portable rental housing inventory. The jeepney recycler needs materials. My social endeavor, Rainworks Omnimedia which produces traveling exhibitions for science and natural history museums, to benefit girls literacy and clean water programs, is as low as low-tech can be.

One of our specific interests is on a topic rarely spoken above a whisper -- feminine sanitary protection. Young girls in poor communities around the world are often forced to miss school when they are menstruating, because their parents cannot afford to provide them with sanitary pads that cost more than sacks of cornmeal and rice. The girls are forced to use rags, mattress stuffing, tree bark, banana peel, and dry cow dung to manage their periods. Many fall prey to infections; they also become vulnerable to sexual advances by male students and teachers, when their sanitary protection fails and they spot their clothes. One of our benchmark goals is to purchase mini sanitary pad-manufacturing machines from India and distribute them to women's groups in under-served communities in Asia and Africa. The machines, which have already been tested successfully in Tamil Nadu, India produce low-cost, biodegradable pads from wood pulp. The manufacture of this basic necessity at an affordable price enables girls in poor communities to remain in school, while generating stable livelihoods and incomes for women and women's groups in impoverished communities.

Nevertheless, it is technology that will allow social entrepreneurs increased access to capital. The most exciting advance in social enterprise is Mission Markets recent introduction of an online investment exchange that facilitates relationships between socially and environmentally responsible enterprises and impact investors. This elegant platform will enable the flourishing of a vibrant marketplace where entrepreneurs and investors can make deals to co-create mission driven companies. It is a vehicle for impact writ large.