Business as usual is no longer an option
Making money is no longer enough for firms, say ANGELA JAMESON
Is it possible for businesses to do well and do good?
Over the years I've discussed ethical sourcing and child labour over a five-star dinner in Mayfair, with a chief executive who has racked up 5,000 air miles to impart his wisdom to British journalists.
I have heard tales of chief executives visiting pensioners' homes at the weekend to help renew insulation and fit new radiators, only days before another 14% hike in energy bills is foisted on all customers.
There are retailers that spend lavishly and visibly on national charities, whilst keeping staff on zero hours contracts, with little to no job security.
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So I am a little sceptical of UK companies' fervent conversion to what they call corporate social responsibility.
This week's entirely wrong-headed Dove advert from Unilever – in which a black woman became white after using Dove lotion – shows how even those who work hard on company values can get it wrong. Dove had built its brand on 'real beauty' and had championed diversity in the advertising industry.
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Increasingly, companies are recognising that unless they clean up their acts the very heart of their business can be under threat.
Two examples of how quickly reputations can implode and damage businesses are seen in how Bell Pottinger, one of the UK's best known PR firms, collapsed as clients walked away in disgust with a campaign the group ran in South Africa.
Meanwhile Uber is currently trying to work out how it will get its UK business back on track after Transport for London said it would remove its operating licence because of its shoddy practices.
Some of the greatest advocates for doing good in business can be found in the tech sector.
It's not unusual for entrepreneurs to talk about their mission and their vision of how they will change the world, without any trace of irony.
Zinc is a new type of venture that launches this week in London which takes the desire to do good to a new level. It is a 'company builder' that will bring together entrepreneurs to form companies that will tackle some of the developed world's toughest problems – problems that affect at least 100 million people.
It is founded by Saul Klein, the co-founder of Love Film, one of the UK's early tech successes, and Paul Kirby, who worked at the No 10 policy unit and was global head of KPMG's Government and public services division. Ella Goldner, a tech entrepreneur and former media company executive, is the third member of the founding team.
Zinc is drawing on the tested model of Entrepreneur First, another successful company builder that puts people together in the expectation that they will spark something and find an idea with traction.
But Zinc's sharp focus on social problems sets it apart.
The first programme launched this month in Camden and brings together 55 very high calibre entrepreneurs from around the world, to tackle the pressing topic of women's mental and emotional health. The next programme might look at social mobility or loneliness and isolation.
Zinc's model starts with all participants being deeply immersed in research, insight and expertise with talks, lectures and workshops with experts on social policy, mental health, setting up a company, marketing and social innovation.
The commitment from more than 70 speakers from academia, government, the health and business sectors is impressive. About three months into the six month programme, the entrepreneurs are expected to form themselves into between five and 10 companies, to work on developing an idea that looks viable enough to scale.
By the end of the six-months, Zinc will take an 8% stake in the company and the next step is for each startup venture to try to fly on its own, although they will probably receive follow-on funding and close support.
It's a model that has worked well in the for-profit sector, although it's far too early to say what chance it will have against the big problems of our age.
Yet Zinc comes at a time when society is desperate for another approach. If businesses are to be considered worthwhile then they need to show they have social value as well as financial worth.
Disruption of the sort the tech sector appears to relish is proving deeply uncomfortable for many people around the world and has only created great wealth for a relatively elite group. That must begin to change.
Human life begins in a flash of fluorescent light, caused by the release of Zinc when a human embryo is successfully fertilised.
Zinc aims to release the flash of light in the world's brightest minds and bring to life their new businesses. It's a tantalising idea: let's hope the sparks take hold.
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