Changing the World, One Backpack at a Time

Yesterday, Fast Company posted a piece on their website about people they called “philanthropreneurs” — individuals who use their wealth for social good, but not in a passive, “here’s-a-check” way. Their exemplars were Bill and Melinda Gates, whose foundation, and their active role in it, is transforming how other charitable organizations do their work. They pointed to others as well, people like Oprah, Bono, and Sir Richard Branson, who use their wealth and fame to draw attention to causes and provide needed funding for them, and also to former US President Bill Clinton, whose Clinton Global Initiative unites world leaders and experts in numerous fields to brainstorm solutions to complex world problems.

These men and women are creating a charitable model that is a far cry from the traditional one:  setting up a trust or a foundation in one’s will; donating money to fund a library, museum or hospital with one’s name on it; writing a check to buy a table at a fundraising dinner and never thinking to ask where the money actually goes.

The Fast Company piece lists the follow four traits of the modern “philanthropreneur”:

  1. Passion to make life better for others
  2. Willingness to give, in money, ideas, and/or time
  3. Ingenuity to envision new approaches to solving problems
  4. Leadership and the ability to direct, organize, and influence the efforts of others

What this piece hints at, but doesn’t really delve into, is a phenomenon that can be observed simply by watching a few episodes of the ABC series “Shark Tank.” (For the uninitiated, on “Shark Tank” small business owners seek capital investments from five wealthy, successful entrepreneurs.) This attitude of “philanthropreneurism” is not being embraced solely by a few in the older, wealthier generation who are looking to actively share their good fortune. It is being embraced by a younger generation of up-and-coming entrepreneurs who wouldn’t dream of doing business in any other way.

By way of example, consider two companies who came into the “Shark Tank” in recent episodes. Both had been started by young people either during or just after their college years, and both involved close connections to the developing world.

Sseko Sandals began when a young American woman, a college graduate, traveled to Uganda and realized that many young women there were bright and educated enough to go to college as she had, but they could not afford the fees. The young American set up this company, training the women to make simple sandals out of local materials and selling them on the internet, creating employment opportunities and the chance for women who wanted to earn tuition money to do so.

Taaluma TotesThe young people who founded Taaluma Totes brought traditional fabrics from their world travels back to America and created unique, sturdy backpacks from them. The bags are made in America by adults with disabilities who otherwise might not find gainful employment, and a portion of the profits from each bag is used to fund a microloan back to the country of origin of the fabric; so, for example, if you buy a bag with the traditional fabric of Guatemala, your purchase will help finance a small business or farm in Guatemala.

In size and scale, these small businesses cannot hope to have the kind of impact that an Oprah or a Gates Foundation can have. But it is reflective of a growing change in attitude toward how business can, and should, be conducted.

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