"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us."
Sounds awfully familiar, does not it?
Charles Dickens could have been an economic journalist in 21st century London, and his Tale of Two Cities could make very appropriate reading today... but I guess this is not the point!
Nigel Kershaw, Founder of The Big Issue, opened his speech with the famous Dickens quote at an event organised late November by Andy Lopata, a renowned business networking strategist.
Nigel spoke passionately about his latest venture, The Big Issue Invest - the first merchant bank dedicated to social entrepreneurship.
Yes, you have read that right: a fully-fledged merchant bank dedicated to social entrepreneurship. Social responsibility is being taken to the next level. We might finally reconcile the pursuit of profit and the increasingly evident need for social justice. And if anyone is, Nigel and his team are definitely best suited for the job!
"The Big Issue was already pioneering in the field of Social Entrepreneurship'', says Nigel. ''We changed, even revolutionized the charity landscape. We applied a business solution to a social issue: homelessness. We gave homeless people the dignity and opportunity to earn a legitimate income, and in the process help them to move away from welfare dependency, begging and crime. Each vendor in principle, runs their own enterprise. Putting together personal finance skills with the confidence gained through successful magazine sales were the innovative part of Big Issue. We help homeless people reintegrate into mainstream society. After about 20 years of operations, it was time to do more for social entrepreneurs. Creating a bank was the next logical step...well, logical to me anyway!'' He laughs.
"Social entrepreneurs are different breed of entrepreneurs. Building a sustainable and profitable business matters to them, but they are not after excess profit. Instead, they crave a sustained impact for the community, for their community. Their business ideas are deeply rooted in their personal and social values. If we observe the Occupy London movement, I believe this trend is only going to get stronger and stronger" he added. ''So we thought about a funding body by social entrepreneurs, for social entrepreneurs. Our projects are selected with a strong social impact filter targeting social innovation potential, market transformation potential and growth potential. We require complete transparency in social value and measurability on social returns."
He declared that "We are aiming to fund a further 100 social businesses a year and are currently raising £60 million."
In times when social justice is an emerging value in the younger generation, I can't help but wonder if this will be a further wake up call for corporations. The average corporation's Corporate Social Responsibility program will not cut it anymore. If they want to attract and retain top future talent they will also need to accelerate their thinking in CSR.
"CSR programs work in an interesting way," observes Nigel. "'In my business I make a profit and then in my CSR I show how good I am'. But it is not about how you run your business and how much profit it makes and then offset that against your CSR and charity. The business has to be looked at as a whole. I believe what is needed here is merging the two so that you don't need CSR, as your core values are embedded in the business. You can then create a Social Profit and Loss. But the world is still not quite ready for that, although there are some farsighted corporations starting to do just this."
Well, I believe the world is definitely ready for Big Issue Invest. More and more social entrepreneurs, when faced with the first crunch point and needing money to grow, appear reluctant to seek funding from traditional sources like VC or angels.
As Charlene Kotwall - the vibrant, young founder of the Mustard Seed Workshop in Hong Kong, small local start up that showcases quality handmade gifts produced by socially marginalized groups from around the world - stated last week at a women entrepreneurs event organized by Hong Kong Women's Foundation: "As we are pursuing a charitable cause, rooted in our faith, we at times have a hard time communicating in pure business language. Some investors do not get us. Hence, having access to a community with both financial savvy and the right sensitivity to social justice is critical."
With a growing number of social entrepreneurship ventures worldwide and about 55,000 social entrepreneurs in the UK alone, there is no doubt that The Big Issue Invest will be yet another resounding success!