How can tech benefit the greater good?

Social entrepreneurship, corporate social responsibility (CSR), making an impact. These words have their way to the hearts of almost everyone in the business world. For consumers in the United States, forty-one percent of millennial investors put a significant amount of effort into understanding a company’s CSR practices, compared to just 27 percent of Gen X and 16 percent of baby boomers (according to the Harvard Business School). The statistics also show that ninety-three percent of employees believe companies must lead with a purpose. So, what is social entrepreneurship and who are the social entrepreneurs? What type of a role does technology play in social entrepreneurship? How can startups enhance their vision by having a purpose-led perspective? Let’s dive further into the article to know the answers to these questions.

Social entrepreneurship is the process by which individuals, startups, and entrepreneurs develop and fund solutions that directly address social issues. It is leading with a sense of purpose, it’s about empathy, it’s about working towards the greater good, and it’s about finding a social need in your society. The focus of a leader is to find the common ground between her or his personal values and a relevant social need. Financial success in this area can be a motivating factor, but it is accompanied by a strong sense of purpose and doing the right thing comes before money.

The founders of these companies are social entrepreneurs, so, who are they and what do they have in common? According to the Skoll Foundation, which is a social entrepreneurship foundation with the purpose of driving large-scale change and creating a sustainable world of peace and prosperity, social entrepreneurs are “the people drawn to the world’s most challenging problems, they are incorrigible optimists, always peering out at the landscape through a solutions lens.” As we can see, optimism, perseverance, and creativity are amongst their main strengths. They use innovative approaches to social problems such as lack of access to healthcare, lack of education, poverty, gender inequality, and climate change among other causes. They can all agree on values like honesty, respect, responsibility, fairness, and compassion.

For instance, one example of social entrepreneurship and responsibility is illustrated best by James Burke, the CEO of Johnson & Johnson from 1976 to 1989. Back in 1982, seven people died after taking cyanide-laced extra-strength Tylenol capsules sold in five Chicago stores. After the deaths, the company’s market share dropped to 7%. Under Burke’s leadership, J&J spent $100 million to recall 31 million bottles of Tylenol and re-launched the product two months later in tamper-proof packaging. He saved the brand, and the reputation of the company, and is now remembered as one of the best CEOs in crisis management and social responsibility cases. Social entrepreneurship is about doing the right things as Peter Drucker, the Austrian-American author, quotes: “management is about doing things right, leadership is about doing the right things.”

In parallel, we live in a world where everything is digitalized and while we all know that technology can be harmful to our ability to feel empathy, how can we use technology for the betterment of social work, a world based on compassion and empathy? Some examples of technology empowering the people, and thus a social cause, can be the usage of smartphones during the Lebanese revolution and the Beirut port explosion. Through digital tools, the protesters disseminated news with images and videos via social networks such as Twitter or Instagram as they happened, which helped journalists cover the Lebanese news in a way that traditional journalism could have not allowed. From social media accounts, websites, innovative robots, and new tech machines, to internal phone systems, many startups have thrived using technology in their product/service value.

Being at the forefront of leading technologies at MIT Enterprise Forum Pan Arab, we have witnessed first hand the great examples of how startups are using tech for the greater good and how they are integrating it in social entrepreneurship. We interviewed two of our alumni: Bonocle, a social startup working on an affordable braille entertainment platform targeting blind and low vision individuals, and Paltik, a Social Enterprise that focuses on reducing plastic pollution in Lebanon and the region, by introducing innovative and long term solutions for plastic recycling.

Ramy Soliman, the Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer at Bonocle Inc., shared with us: “Bonocle has fully harnessed technology within our solution. We utilized the power of existing smart devices and built a powerful, affordable companion platform that provides the blind community with additional accessibility and experiences that were never before possible. Bonocle is a portable device that connects to smartphones and utilizes its power to allow blind people to learn braille, play games, or get work done. It does so while also solving the problem of segregation within existing technologies available for the blind. With Bonocle, online multiplayer arcade and action games will allow users to play with or against others regardless of their sight and the distance between them. It also aims to reshape the currently outdated education systems for the blind completely. Instead of using physical tools to teach braille, teachers can now use their technology of choice to communicate with multiple Bonocles and teach an entire classroom simultaneously within a conventional classroom or online in the safety of their homes. In contrast, many blind students had to completely pause their education during the Covid19 pandemic due to the lack of a proper educational communication tool. Bonocle continues to use technology to provide its users with innovative experiences like VR games that simulate an environment through audio and braille or transforming Bonocle into a tool to measure or draw. The use of technology did not only influence the development but was also an integral part of the founder's leadership, allowing us to work with top talent across continents through online collaboration tools, rapid prototyping methods, and a shared passion for using technology to solve social problems.”

Nivine Hachem, the co-founder of Paltic, also gave us more insight into their startup: “Manufacturing is the heart of our enterprise, aiming to transform hundreds of tons of plastic waste into sustainable material. With our current pilot machines, we can transform around 50% of all plastic types, while achieving and maintaining high-quality standards. In addition to creating unique and hand-selected designs with aesthetic and durable finishes that fit interior and exterior projects. Our goal is to further invest in R&D and develop an automated technology, which will help multiply our production capacity, enhance panel scalability, as well as to attain energy efficiency.”

One thing all social enterprises have in common is that their WHY is their North Star.

Being a social entrepreneur is an everyday mission. It is a drive that pushes people to be the best version of themselves by aspiring to make a change in their societies. As the world is fast changing, resources are being depleted, poverty levels are rising, it is our duty to use the powerful tools of technology to create a better tomorrow.

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