Sustainable and Social Enterprise Entrepreneurship Roundtable

by SHA Senior Lecturer Jeanne Varney

Entrepreneurs have a keen instinct for recognizing and addressing “underserved” markets. This holds true for both for profit and not-for-profit enterprises. The Pillsbury Institute for Hospitality Entrepreneurship recently hosted the 2016 Cornell Sustainable and Social Entrepreneurship Enterprise Roundtable. A diverse set of participants gathered from a wide variety of businesses to discuss a range of timely topics, including motivations for launching a company with a social or environmental mission, problem-solving and social innovation through social entrepreneurship, access to important resources, with particular focus on human trafficking prevention, and issues related to attracting and retaining human resource talent.

Whether it is the ideation for new business enterprises or the evolution of existing businesses with a focus on social and environmental missions, ideas for sustainable business models came from consistent sources. These sources included self-motivated entrepreneurs that have a desire to “do well by doing good,” educated customers seeking solutions to problems they have identified (thus prompting the company to develop the solution), minimizing corporate risk management, and, of course, enhanced profitability (typically through conservation). Success factors included C-suite, or “E-suite” (Entrepreneur-suite) leadership support, buy-in from stakeholders, resonating with customer values, and setting a path to continuously evolve the product or service to be increasingly sustainable.

Many entrepreneurial enterprises are born out of the need to solve an identified problem. Research has shown that community-based hospitality ventures have proven to be successful at solving both economic issues and maximization of social benefits, with a high degree of independence while not relying on external input. Sometimes these new business ideas are faith-based strategic experiments using calculated risk. In addition, many times companies start with a mission to improve a system that wasn’t optimal, with a goal of transforming the system, such as the Farm to Table movement, which provides community members with greater access to local fresh food products.

Large corporations often have the resources to educate employees and carry positions of special expertise that would administer environmental or social programs. However, for the entrepreneur that is not a part of a larger franchise network or is smaller in scale, many times this expertise is unaffordable from both a time and financial perspective. There is a need to bridge the gap between awareness of issues and access to resources already available in the marketplace, such as education, training, and funding programs. This was particularly evident surrounding the issues of eradicating human trafficking and raising the standard of living for the lowest wage employees.

Talent acquisition and retention remain issues for most companies, and especially so for smaller entrepreneurial enterprises. Aside from competitive wages, several strategies outlined have proven to aid in these issues. Physical work environment matters (high quality physical space), especially in a candidate’s first impression of the company. Experiment and be creative with benefits, such as swapping volunteer hours for vacation time off or offering student loan payments in lieu of 401K contributions. Look to hire people that have values that align with the company’s. If it fits into the company’s framework, encourage employees to release their “inner entrepreneur” and think creatively about growing the company, solving problems, or even creating spin-offs or new ventures.

Sustainable and social entrepreneurship enterprises are being launched every day with the goal of combating a wide array of societal and environmental issues. These issues are addressed through direct business activity, supply chain management, stakeholder education, and other innovative technologies and programming. Overall there is great optimism in the hospitality industry’s ability to be a proving ground for community-based strategic experiments in environmental and socially based enterprises that will result in the transformation of sub-optimal systems into systems that bring new solutions to the global market.