New breed of social entrepreneurs foster ethical enterprise – The Ismaili Org

“Islam, therefore, guides man not only in his spiritual relationship with God, it also guides man in his relationship with his fellow men and his relationship with the material world around him. It encourages enterprise, but warns that enterprise, without a social conscience, is not acceptable. It is in this respect, where Islam’s message applies to all aspects of man’s life, that he will be judged not just on what he does but the manner in which he does it.”
— Mawlana Hazar Imam at the opening of the Ismaili Centre, Burnaby, 26 July 1982

The notion that enterprise should be conscious of its impact on society rather than focusing exclusively on the pursuit of profit, has long been part of the Muslim ethic. It is also an increasingly visible trend in business: the idea of producing a measurable social, as well as an economic return on investment.

Rather than exclusively seeking to maximise shareholder value, social enterprises are businesses with a set of community or environmental goals. These objectives, from providing employment to those who might not otherwise have a chance, or generating renewable energy, may be accompanied by unconventional ownership and decision-making structures. Examples of social enterprises in the United Kingdom include the co-operative, worker-owned model pioneered by John Lewis, or the charitable foundation that controls Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen restaurant.

E&KO founder Kresse Wesling was an impassioned and informative speaker at a recent event organised by the Aga Khan Economic Planning Board for the UK. Photo: Riaz Kassam
E&KO founder Kresse Wesling was an impassioned and informative speaker at a recent event organised by the Aga Khan Economic Planning Board for the UK. Photo: Riaz Kassam

Social enterprise is not a new concept, but it is increasingly seen by many as the business model for the 21st century. This is partly because, in a tough economic climate, a broadening of horizons helps social entrepreneurs to see opportunities where others might see problems.

This was certainly the case for Kresse Wesling, founder of the social enterprise E&KO, who spoke at a recent event organised by the Aga Khan Economic Planning Board for the UK as part of its Intelligent Ideas series.

E&KO is a luxury goods brand with a difference. The handbags and accessories designed by Wesling and her partner are all made from reclaimed materials that have been re-engineered to create items that can be loved and used again and again. The great entrepreneur, Henry Ford, was reputed to be utterly obsessed with reducing waste from his assembly lines, and E&KO is a great example of how modern technologies and imaginative thinking have seen this ethos develop across industries.

Kresse found her inspiration in the 100,000 million tonnes of waste that goes to landfill each year in the UK. She discovered that used firehose, a durable material that does not degrade, is simply landfilled, when — to an imaginative mind — it still has years of useful life ahead. E&KO’s work is also making an impact in a more familiar way: they produce reusable bags for Sainsbury’s from materials such as used coffee sacks.

A full audience of budding Ismaili entrepreneurs listened to Kresse with considerable interest. Fielding a barrage of questions, Kresse explained that the key to success was passion and drive, warning that “it’s harder to run a business, be ethical and give back, than to just be greedy.”

The business card exchange facilitated a form of speed networking among participants. Photo: Samir Bharwani
The business card exchange facilitated a form of speed networking among participants. Photo: Samir Bharwani

Luckily, there is support at hand. Discussing the stages she went through when developing her business model, Kresse emphasised the importance of research and building a network of contacts. The event’s business card exchange format — a form of speed business networking — provided attendees with the opportunity to start this process there and then.

More widely, the UK’s Social Enterprise Coalition — itself a social enterprise — aims to be an umbrella support organisation for the social enterprise sector. It also has a programme to support minority ethnic initiatives that benefits a huge range of industries and sectors. One example is Ummah Foods, a halal chocolate company that uses part of its profit to fund numerous social projects. According to a survey by the se² partnership, social enterprises account for 5 per cent of all UK businesses with employees, and contribute £8.4 billion per year to the UK economy. So new social entrepreneurs are hardly alone.

As Kresse Wesling pointed out, the internet has made it possible to draw inspiration from around the globe. In Canada, Toronto Green Community (TGC) started in 1994 as a community-based conservation group. But as sources of government funding dried up, the group was forced to reinvent itself. Within a few years TGC was incorporated as a non-profit organisation and had its first paid employees, including Minaz Asani-Kanji, its Executive Director. The range of activities in which TGC is involved is vast, including co-founding a pioneering car sharing company and putting in place Canada’s first urban wind turbine on Toronto’s waterfront. Many of their projects have grown so fast that they have spun off as separate organisations.

Minaz’s husband Karim Kanji got involved with TGC more recently. “As someone who had seen her passion, drive and determination go into this organisation for 10 years,” he says of his wife, “I wanted to see if there was anything I could contribute.” Kanji was interested in exploring new ways for TGC to tell their story to inspire potential volunteers, employees, partners and fundraisers.

Social networks were key — TGC now has a prominent presence on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. It also spun-off GREENtuity.org, a bold organisation that raises awareness and funds. GREENtuity spearheads an annual week when customers of a host of businesses from across Toronto can donate a “tip” towards green projects in the city.

TGC’s story highlights one of the most important characteristics of social enterprises: they connect people of shared the ideals who are driven to do great things, with the business acumen to make them economically viable. Through its events, the Economic Planning Board hopes to continue facilitating such connections and make enterprise with a social conscience an even bigger part of the UK and global economies.

The Ismaili

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