Mission-Focused Businesses Subject of Recent Conference
Business partners Spencer Curry and Kieran Foran go to work at their FRESH Farm Aquaponics business in South Glastonbury every day, believing they’re one step closer to solving world hunger.
When Justin Nash was a Captain in the U.S. Army in Afghanistan, his soldiers looked to him for guidance. Now a civilian, he’s using those leadership traits at Til Duty is Done, an organization he created which seeks to provide housing, employment training and career opportunities for returning veterans. Til Duty is Done, Nash said, gives him a renewed sense of purpose.
Before he was 5-years old, Vishal Patel had visited India with his parents and witnessed horrible poverty. The injustice has bothered him since. Today he is the owner of A Happy Life Coffee and the Happiness Lab coffee shop in New Haven, where he is promoting both personal happiness—and the hope of empowering East African coffee farmers.
These up-and-coming entrepreneurs were among the guest speakers at a two-day “UConn Social Enterprise and Entrepreneurship Conference: Creating Value for Business and Society” on April 23-24 in Storrs. In addition to business practitioners, the conference included a full-day symposium featuring academic researchers.
“I think that students found it very insightful to get a first-hand look at people who have set out to address social problems and find creative solutions through business,” said Stephen Park, a professor of business law and one of three conference co-chairs. “They had the opportunity to hear from business people who are essentially creating and perpetuating a new movement. They got a look at both the opportunities and the challenges.”
In October 2014, Connecticut joined a growing number of states that permit for-profit corporations to expressly incorporate human rights, environmental sustainability and other specific social objectives into their core missions. These “benefit corporations” are recognized as a new legal entity, providing enhanced legal protection, accountability and transparency than what exists for traditional for-profit entities.
“There’s a real hunger for knowledge about the many different ways that business based on social values can be pursued,” Park said. “Benefit corporations, along with Certified B Corps, are just one facet, but one that’s received a lot of attention in Connecticut and throughout the country. Scholars, entrepreneurs, policy makers, social advocates and regulators are all trying to figure out what it means.”
“We were able to invite social entrepreneurs with great diversity in age, industry and mission—from the food industry to construction to sustainable countertops and cleaning supplies—who are making social responsibility an integral part of their mission.”
While most of the businesses have only been in existence for a couple years, representatives from several larger national social enterprise brands joined the discussion as well. Jeff Brown, executive vice president at Newman’s Own Foundation, Mike Brady, CEO and president of Greyston Bakery, Anselm Doering, founder of EcoLogic Solutions, and Dafna Alsheh, production operations director of Ice Stone, all presented lessons learned through operating businesses that have helped deliver social value.
Founded by Oscar-winning actor Paul Newman, Newman’s Own has been in existence for 33 years and has donated all of the profits from its food products to charity, a total that will reach $450 million by the end of the year.
“Paul had two rules,” Brown said. “Quality trumps profits and every penny must go to charity.”
Like the young entrepreneurs at the conference, the late actor “was a philanthropist at heart,” Brown said. The company’s first product was an all-natural salad dressing that Newman had created himself.
The newer business owners discussed their struggles, including developing business expertise—the owners of FRESH Farm, for instance, have neither a business nor farming background—deciding what task to focus on first, obtaining funding, delegating responsibility and staying true to their mission.
Brown talked about a major food company that wanted to acquire Newman’s Own, but later revoked its interest when learned that all profits would go to charity.
Several of the new business owners talked about damaging their personal credit in order to keep their companies afloat. They all said greater access to capital would enhance their businesses. “It’s hard to say, ‘Can you give us $10,000 or $100,000?'” Nash said. “I’ve been laughed at a lot. But I just keep going.”
Michelle Cote, managing director of the Connecticut Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation and a co-chair of the conference, said that the business leaders are looking to the university students, faculty, staff and alumni as potential partners.
“We each make choices every day about the purchases we make,” she said. “Companies like Greyston, EcoLogic, Ice Stone, A Happy Life, Til Duty is Done, and Fresh Farm Aquaponics depend on people who are willing to ‘vote with their wallets’ for businesses that gives back to society,” she said.
“However, as a university, we actually have a much greater opportunity to contribute. The companies who came to campus are looking for people with skills to help them grow. They are interested in hosting interns, they want to benefit from student-led research and consulting projects, and they want to explore partnerships that would create shared value and linked prosperity between the university community and their businesses,” she said.
The conference was co-sponsored by the Eversource Chair in Business Ethics and the Connecticut Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (CCEI) and the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center at UConn. Glenn Mitoma, director of the Dodd Center, also co-chaired the conference.
Among the UConn School of Business participants were: Gerlinde Berger-Walliser, professor of business law, Robert Bird, professor of business law and Eversource Chair in Business Ethics, Caroline Kaeb, professor of business law and human rights, and Zeki Simsek, professor of management and Eversource Scholar in Technological Entrepreneurship. Other participants included business professors from Bentley, Georgia Tech, the University of Pennsylvania, Virginia Tech, Yale and other universities.
Romanna Romaniv, acting vice president of the Undergraduate Student Government, who is majoring in finance and human rights, said she enjoyed the presentation.
“I’m excited that Connecticut has passed this legislation and I’m interested in where it will lead. I was impressed by Aquaponics in that they both saw an issue and went ahead to try to solve it,” she said. “I believe the presentation was timely because the world is changing so much. The world is changing, and business needs to change as well.”