It Takes Money to Raise Money: For-profit Businesses Affecting Social Change

 Photo from the Columbia Social Enterprise Conference

Photo from the Columbia Social Enterprise Conference

Where does for-profit business fit into social justice? The 2017 Social Enterprise Conference brought together innovative minds to discuss this question, and share current news on successful business models with positive social impact.

Hosted by Columbia Business School on October 6, the conference centered around climate change reform, recidivism, education reform, and refugee resettlement.

Presenting at the conference, HBO and the International Rescue Committee exemplified a successful partnership between for-profit business with non-profit organization. In their new campaign called “Rescue Has No Boundaries,” the “Game of Thrones” cast brings attention to and raises emergency funds for refugees.

Sandee Borgman, Director of Entertainment and Influencer Relations at International Rescue Committee (IRC) weighed in on the purpose of the campaign.

“This is a huge issue. We aren’t going to solve it with one campaign. But our viewers can take action, maybe write to politicians. It takes the masses.”

“[The goal is to] humanize the people involved,” Borgman said. “By telling the human perspective, people start to hear the message rather than the political buzz around it.”

The cast led a team of cast members to the Middle East, filming interviews with refugees. They hope viewers will better empathize with human stories, rather than stereotype refugees as a category or number.

Spreading awareness is only the beginning. Joy Benfante, Corporate Social Responsibility at HBO, acknowledged this effect.

“This is a huge issue,” Benfante said. “We aren’t going to solve it with one campaign. But our viewers can take action, maybe write to politicians. It takes the masses.”

But by calling attention to a global tragedy through a popular media platforms such as “Game of Thrones” and a well-known humanitarian organization, IRC and HBO combine audiences to raise awareness quickly.

“We do not want our brand on the front lines,” Borgman said.

The goal, according to Borgman, is not to advertise for HBO or IRC, but to keep the refugees as the focus.

Still, as evidenced by the partnership between HBO and IRC, business and nonprofit can partner well and mutually benefit one another. IRC has benefited from the already popular “Game of Thrones” cast through spreading the word about their mission, while the cast also received personal benefits.

“[It is a] life-changing experience in hearing [the refugees’] stories,” cast member Lena Headey said.

The Social Enterprise Conference highlighted the role of business in solving these issues: business is where intention meets action. According to the Migration Policy Institute, “Nearly 2 million immigrants with college degrees are unemployed or stuck in low-skilled jobs [in America].” When refugees flee their homes and jobs, they often can only find low-skill work.

Eat Offbeat is leading the way in problem solving for the lack of skilled labor opportunities. The New York City-based catering company employs resettled refugees as chefs, sharing authentic dishes from each chef’s homeland, combining sustainable for-profit business with skills-based refugee employment.

Eat Offbeat began when Manal Kahi, new to NYC from Lebanon, tasted bad American hummus and was inspired to recreate her grandmother’s recipe. Seeing a market for authentic foreign cuisine, Kahi decided to hire resettled refugees not only because they were a population in need of good work, but also because she saw they had something to share with the city.

“See that photo?” Kahi questioned.“That is really good hummus. Our food makes people come back. Come for the mission, stay for the food.”

By employing resettled refugees in a for-profit business, as Eat Offbeat has done, businesses open up a mutually beneficial relationship. In the company’s case, bringing authentic recipes to America has exemplified a way that businesses can benefit from refugees’ unique skills.

"Our food makes people come back. Come for the mission, stay for the food."

From another angle, attendees gathered together to begin creating their own business models with social impact. The session in design thinking, led by Kristina Drury, founder of TYTHEdesign, prompted the question,“how might we provide opportunities for refugees to successfully enter the job market?”

Seeking a solution, groups used post-it notes to write down challenges keeping refugees from entering the American job markets smoothly, trends which contribute to the challenges, and root causes of the issue.     

“The issue is licensing,” Sarah Johnson, conference attendee, said. “I was an accountant in the U.K for 11 years but my license did not transfer to America so I could not practice without returning to school. Refugees who don’t speak the language must have an even harder time finding resources and re-testing for licenses.”

With inputs like Johnson’s, the group envisioned solutions to the problem while guided by Nitin Magima, Columbia student and conference facilitator. The group proposed a tentative business model: connect resettled, high-skilled refugees with employers and facilitate license transfers (likely requiring lobbying in D.C. for policy changes). The goal of this exercise was to ensure that refugees had the means to support themselves and their families sooner, while also bringing their skills to the American job-market beyond low-skill labor.

While there are other sides to the issue, it is clear through companies like Eat Offbeat that innovation can breed more innovation.