Capitalism with a Cause: Rising Social Entrepreneurs in Canada

by Dale Smith

There is a growing trend toward creating small businesses that make a positive difference in the communities that they serve. Social entrepreneurship has been defined as the use of companies to develop, fund and implement solutions to social, cultural or environmental issues in a way that often blends for-profit goals with a positive “return to society.” Before the Bellhosts Catherine Clark and David Akin each hosted panels of stakeholders and experts, including Minister of Small Business and Export Promotion Mary Ng (Markham–Thornhill, ON), to discuss these new business models.


During the Pulse segment, Katharine Cornfield, founder of ambiSHEous, said that social entrepreneurship defines value differently than conventional concepts of profit or shareholder return.


“When you’re working with young people, they define value differently,” said Cornfield. “In Almost every single case, the business ideas they’re coming up with have embedded in their business model a social or environmental impact, or a community benefit or a political message that they want to support.”


Corinne Pohlmann, senior vice-president of national affairs and partnerships with the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB), said that when social entrepreneurs look at a problem to be solved, they see enterprise as a solution.


“At the end of the day, we all need to have an income, so it has to be done in a way that you can make some money out of it, and that’s the part that’s still in development,” said Pohlmann. “More consumers are asking what you’re doing to help out the community or the world.”


That demand has become a branding consideration, with many business seeking B-Corporation certification to identify themselves as socially responsible. Certified B-Corps have been assessed and approved by B Lab, a global nonprofit organization, as enterprises that balance purpose and profit and are legally required to consider the impact of their decisions on their workers, customers, suppliers, community, and the environment.


Elisa Birnbaum, the publisher and editor-in-chief of SEE Change Magazine, said that the market has played a role in the rise of social enterprises because consumers are savvy about the businesses they’re patronizing.


“Social entrepreneurs are the ones really rising up to respond to those demands and those questions, and the quest for more transparency, sustainability, social responsibility,” said Birnbaum. “That market demand will keep spurring more social entrepreneurs to respond to it.”


Birnbaum adds that there is a lot of “greenwashing” in the market right now but that consumers can discern a lack of authenticity. She said there needs to be a legislative framework to spur movement in the space by assuring legitimacy.


During the Policy segment,Matthew Hoar, the CFO of Flow Water Inc., an alkaline spring water company, said that while it’s more expensive to operate than another water company would be, Flow’s practices allow them to have a deeper connection with their customer base.


“The cost of doing business as a B-Corp [benefit corporation] is real, but the benefit is also real, and we’re seeing that,” said Hoar.


Hoar added that the “table stakes” for any business include having an environmental mindset, and that there is no other way for them to really operate.


Craig Ryan, director of social entrepreneurship at Business Development Canada, said that the growing trend of entrepreneurs who aren’t acting as “profit-maximizing robots” is why BDC has taken such an interest in the social enterprises, and that they’re succeeding because they’re operating differently.


“What gives me the confidence in the strength of this movement is the fact that it’s way bigger than entrepreneurs,” said Ryan. “It’s a broad socio-cultural change defined by people’s use of money. This is a big movement that is not a bubble, that is past the experiment stage.”


Minister Ng said that with her portfolio, she needs to help small businesses realize that there are markets with 1.2 billion people under the three major trade agreements that the government has signed onto — the USMCA, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the European trade agreement — that they can grow into, and that there are programs to support them.


“We’re the only G7 country that has trade agreements with every other G7 country, and that is billions of customers abroad,” said Ng. “We have services and supports for our companies including social entrepreneurs, in starting, growing and accessing new markets, and I’d love to get more of those companies export-ready.”

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