This article was originally written for Huffington Post.
Still overcoming their sea legs, the founders of 15 social enterprises took to the stage at the State Department to pitch their technology-driven solutions. After travelling to 13 countries with the shipboard program Unreasonable@Sea, they had finally arrived at their last destination and were standing in front of a crowded amphitheater of government leaders, business executives and social innovators.
Their lightning talks, with slides rotating non-stop every 20 seconds, showed their impressive entrepreneurial efforts: capturing carbon pollution from factories in India and processing it into materials used to make Boeing airplanes; expanding a fleet of sailing drones that were used to clean oil spills in the gulf of Mexico to other needy marine environments; spreading teacher training software being utilized in more than 3,000 schools in India to better achieve educational outcomes in other parts of the world; among other bold efforts.
During the event, the State Department’s Director for Global Partnerships, Thomas Debass, announced, “we believe throughout the State Department that these models are game changing.”
In many ways, these hybrid companies are changing business as usual by not only balancing social impact and financial returns but also by blurring borders by prioritizing needs above country’s boundaries. “Communities approach us to develop our products,” Scott Frank, founder and CEO of One Earth Designs, explained to me after his presentation. “We collaborate in the design and ideation, and we work together to test, iterate, and refine in-field to ensure the product meets both the needs and wants of users.”
Working in tangent with Himalayan populations in China, Frank’s company developed a solar-powered cooking stove that can abate approximately four tons of carbon dioxide a year and reduces as much as 70 percent of the fuel they use. The product stemmed from the nomadic populations concern with smoke being emitted from their wood-fired and coal stoves (globally, it is estimated that these pollutants contribute to four million premature deaths a year). One Earth Designs is the first company based in China to be certified as a B-Corp, joining the likes of Patagonia and 732 companies that meet the nonprofit’s legal and performance requirements of “benefiting society as well as their shareholders.”
However, as these social entrepreneurs break the molds of traditional business, they are being confronted with uncertainty that comes with this unchartered domain. “Across many geographies we’ve come to see a variation among definitions of social entrepreneur,” Frank explained to me. “In some cases, people see this term in a positive light. In others, it elicits confusion or skepticism.”
And this confusion is causing some traditional investors to shy away from social enterprises due to an uncertainty, in the end, of how they prioritize both monetary and social returns. However, this sector is also evolving, and increasingly a new type of investor – referred to as impact investing – is building metrics and filling this gap. Last year, an estimated $4 billion worth of impact investments were made, and this amount is expected to reach $1 trillion in the next decade, according to a report by J.P. Morgan.
Although crucial, funding is just one piece of the puzzle. This new breed of entrepreneurs also requires support systems to evolve with them. Unreasonable@Sea is one of the more elaborate programs to rise to the challenge. The business accelerator is focused on building entrepreneurs’ networks by sailing around the world and bringing together a collage of different mentors on the ship including Archbishop Desmond Tutu (Nobel Peace Laureate), Matt Mullenweg (founder of WordPress), and Hunter Lovins (Time Magazine Hero of the Planet), among others.
The bold and borderless endeavors of these social entrepreneurs are also quickly inspiring a larger global movement. And it is these increasingly plugged-in and globally engaged supporters that are proving to be a crucial platform and legitimizing network for these social entrepreneurs. In the end, policymakers, funders, and social innovators are smart to not overlook the momentum behind this increasingly global and connected movement. And although some will dismiss it as naive and youthful, the creative bravery of its pioneers and resoluteness of its supporters will make you reconsider.