People who drive change

Kerryn Krige says we need more people wanting social change in ways that make economic sense.

Since the industrial revolution, our economic progress has accelerated at a rate unseen in previous centuries. According to economist William J Baumol, per capita income in Europe rose 20-30% in the 1700’s, 200-300% in the 1800’s and an astonishing 700% in the 1900’s. But our social development has not risen at the same rate. Despite this new wealth, and the shift of large numbers of people into a broad middle class, the divides between rich and poor have deepened.

Step in our social entrepreneurs who are the catalysts for both social and economic change.

These are the people who are driven by a social mission to achieve change – but their solutions are both system changing and make economic sense. Their work has resulted in both global businesses and non-profit organisations, and the impact of their work continues into the 21st Century.

Social entrepreneurs are not people who see economic growth separate to social development. Rather their innovative solution to a problem results in both social and economic progress. Their work seems common sense now, but then was groundbreaking.

Here is a short list of some of history’s leading social innovators:

Florence Nightingale.

Not just because she revolutionized nursing, but more because she set up the first professional school for nurses, and transformed the way hospitals were built. Her contributions extend past her days as a volunteer nurse during the Crimean War when she earned the nickname “Lady of the lamp.” She wrote extensively and was one of the first users of graphs – which made her writings easily accessible to people, irrespective of their literacy skills. She worked closely in the construction of hospitals, insisting on airy wards with natural lighting, landscaped gardens for recovery, fireproof floors, cavity walls and heating systems – changes that today are commonplace. Her work had an enormous social impact, but also resulted in improved efficiencies in the way hospitals were built and managed.

William Lever and Lever Bros

In the late 1800’s William Lever wrote down his idea for Sunlight soap: “’to make cleanliness commonplace; to lessen work for women; to foster health and contribute to personal attractiveness, that life may be more enjoyable and rewarding for the people who use our products.” Till that point soap was something cut to size in a grocery store, made of tallow and hard to use. Lever revolutionized soap by pre-packing it and using glycerin and palm oils so that it was quick to lather. This was Sunlight Soap, which was quickly followed by other household names Lifebuoy, Lux and Vim.

Lever’s social mission mixed with his strong business acumen meant that his soap factory quickly evolved into an international empire, with factories in the UK, US, Canada, Australia and South Africa. An eccentric (he apparently slept with windows and doors open and was known to wake up in winter covered in snow), Lever pioneered a 6-hour working week insisting that staff spend the extra time off exercising and staying healthy. Today the company he founded, Lever Bros, is global multinational Unilever, which still subscribes to the social mission laid out by its founder. Its strong social mission is considered to be one of the reasons why Unilever weathered so successfully, the economic storm of 2008.

Webster and Wallace

Alexander Webster and Robert Wallace were both clergymen in Scotland in the 1700’s, when life expectancy was less than 37 years. Troubled by the vulnerability of ministers widows who only received half a year’s stipend from the Church of Scotland in the year of the ministers death, the two set about righting the wrong. Over bottles of claret, Webster and Wallace came up with a plan that had clergymen paying an annual premium to a fund that would pay an annuity to widows and orphans on their death. What was different, was that the fund would be invested profitably, so that it would achieve ongoing returns.

Webster and Wallace laid the foundations for today’s insurance industry and actuarial science as a profession. Their projections on life expectancy, annual number of widows and projected growth of the fund were that accurate that their 20-year forecast made in 1748 was only GBP1 out in 1768

Other notable social reformers include Swiss businessman Henry Dunant, who’s war time writings and lobbying work, led to the formation of the International Red Cross, and the framework for the Geneva Convention.

Dr Maria Montesorri established the Casa dei Bambini – The Children’s Home – pioneering education reform in Italy. Her methodology that children teach themselves, is the foundation of the Montessori school system today. She transformed the classroom from a bleak space with blackboard, chairs and table, to one where furniture was child sized, light and easily moved, practical toys accessible, and the outdoors used for games.

I would be surprised if any of these leaders started out thinking that they would be the founders of large movements or international companies.

What they share is a visionary ability to solve and a commitment act.

They are not always perfect people or working in perfect circumstances. Nightingale was cripplingly ill and was often bed ridden, Dunant spent much of his life on the run from creditors and was spurned by the organization he is now credited as founding. Lever’s workforce reforms are criticized as being overbearing and his work in Africa raises serious questions, Montessori was imprisoned in India at the beginning of World War II, clergymen Webster and Wallace lived in times of revolution and civil war.

But they all connect in their ability to recognize where they could influence. All brought on sweeping change in their communities, that ultimately had a broad impact across societies.

Looking to the past helps bring foundation to our work today. What is important for us now, is to move on from the well-written European history books, and to build a history of our own social enterprise, both in South Africa and up through the continent.

Who would your African social entrepreneurs be? And how have they changed humanity?

– Krige is programme manager for the Network of Social Entrepreneurs at the Gordon Institute of Business Science.

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