Yasmina McCarty ’08, a graduate of the EMBA-Global program, was a recipient of the Cartier Women’s Initiative Award last year in recognition of GreenMango, a company she developed with business partner Nandini Pandhi.
On May 31st, my business partner Nandini and I got the call we had been waiting for all month. It was from Echoing Green, an organization that provides seed funding and support to social entrepreneurs with “bold ideas for social change.” This year the fellowship had been ridiculously competitive, with nearly 1,500 organizations applying for just 20 available spots. When we learned we were one of the lucky 20, irrepressible smiles rose to our faces and we danced for joy around the apartment. It was an honor to be included with such an inspirational group of individuals.
But what exactly is a social enterprise? And how are we delivering on our bold idea for social change?
Last Saturday, I had my weekly conference call with a top strategy consulting firm that generously donates their time to support GreenMango. While we were talking about GreenMango’s revenue model and customer segmentation, our consultant realized exactly how “bottom of the pyramid” GreenMango is.
“Yasmina,” he said, “why on earth are you focusing on these businesses making a few dollars a day? Have you come here to run a business or do some charitable work? Creating a viable business with this customer segment is damn difficult. Damn difficult. And I’m really not sure you can pull it off.”
Indeed, building a social enterprise is one of the toughest things I have embarked on yet. And of course, it’s not just me who finds this challenging. McKinsey’s recent global survey of 4,000 executives in 116 countries found that 84 percent embrace the idea that a corporation has some social role in addition to its responsibilities to its shareholders. Just three percent of these executives think they are doing a good job delivering this social aspect.
Our vision is to build an organization that delivers financial returns to its investors, provides a positive workplace for its employees and increases the income of millions of low-income entrepreneurs. The customer element is a challenge but to me, tenable; it’s the core of our business. There are millions of informal entrepreneurs in developing countries — carpenters, tailors, electricians, plumbers, mechanics, embroiderers — who struggle to grow their businesses because they are invisible. GreenMango is an affordable marketing platform for them to promote their business and find new customers locally.
Now add in the benefits for our employees. We are operating in India, where staff turnover last year was 40 percent (i.e., nearly half of the country changed jobs). To counter that, we have built a dynamic environment: we spend for staff development and training and have clear career paths. We invest into our employees not only because it’s good for them, but also because it’s good for us. Year to date, we have had zero percent attrition.
Finally, we come to the third tenant of our vision: Delivering an excellent ROI for our investors. Our model is generating revenues but in order to succeed, we must deliver a high level of profits quarter after quarter.
Only time will tell if we can pull off all three elements of our plan.
In the end, of course, there is no clear definition of a social enterprise. And the longer I work at building GreenMango, the more I believe it is just the sum of the many small decisions I take every day. To what lengths will I go to ensure our employees are taken care of? How far will I challenge our team to find ways to serve the poor and semiliterate? How far will we push ourselves to find a revenue model that works at the bottom of the pyramid but delivers topline profits to our investors?
At our EMBA Global graduation, we were challenged and inspired with this quotation from George Bernard Shaw: “The reasonable man adapts to the world. The unreasonable man adapts the world to himself. Therefore progress rests upon the unreasonable man.”