Social means business: Business means social. Four takeaways from my experience in Brasil


By Peter L. Hartevelt

This past 6-10 April I participated in the five year Anniversary Alumni Reunion Trek (ART) with Emzingo, which culminated with an inspiring day-long Social Innovation Forum (SIF) in the heart of Rio. Time flies, as it had already been three years since I was involved with the organization, working on funding strategies with a small daycare in the heart of Johannesburg, South Africa. Keen to re-engage and reconnect, I was also looking for new perspectives on how to develop my own business, a hospitality consultancy, incorporating worthwhile social initiatives. I was not disappointed.

Emzingo nr 21.- The power of collaboration

Ramon Marmolejos, Co-Founder of Emzingo had a fitting and eloquent example of what exceptional collaboration can bring when people come together. He spoke of the colorful history of salsa music, and how it came to be developed in the Unites States in 1970’s through the collaboration of uniquely different musicians; many of them with strong influences from Latin America, especially Cuba & Puerto Rico. It’s not for nothing that strong performing teams often talk about “making beautiful music together”. It was a powerful analogy for the kickoff of the SIF, which was richly blended with Non-Profits, Corporates, Entrepreneurs and CSR specialists. There was incredible energy and enthusiasm, people who had never met, discovered that they shared many interests and objectives. Simply by sitting together at the same table, new perspectives yielded ingenious ideas on how to tackle shared social issues.

 2.- Scarcity really does spur creativity

One of the innovative companies present at the SIF was Asta. Co-Founder Alice Freitas has built an amazing network of producers, salespeople and consumers across Brasil over the past ten years. Now counting over 700 craftswomen, she acts as a bridge, helping individuals and small cooperatives reach a broader market with their vibrant handiwork, made up of predominantly recycled and locally sourced materials. Alice’s team not only provides design assistance and logistical support, but also there is also complete transparency where ever Real goes. Quite remarkably she can return 50% of the revenues to producers and 22% to sales agents. As a result: original products, honest margins, and a genuine livelihood for those in need.

3.- Evolving Business Models

Changing market conditions have seen ever increasing pressure on NonProfits to shift their operating strategies and function more like For Profit enterprises. There’s a real urgency to generate income, leveraging their expertise and networks, because relying simply on charities and donations just isn’t viable anymore. Much the same, corporates can no longer measure success only in financial terms. They too are being ever more scrutinized in how they conduct business. Social and environmental concerns are rising to the top of the agenda, as many consumers strive to make more responsible buying decisions. The triple bottom line, assessing performance across “people, profit, and planet,” is an excellent example of this. Clearly there is overlap between the sectors; it’s no longer black and white. Rather it’s gray, or perhaps to coin a phrase: it’s the new green.

4.- There’s no taboo in making a profit

Emzingo nr 3All too often people cringe at the idea of making a profit off of those less fortunate “at the bottom of the pyramid”. Among many there still exists a patronizing mentality about those less well off, surviving in very basic conditions. This mentality needs to stop because if a genuine value is delivered, at a fair price, no matter how small the budget, suppliers and clients can benefit at both ends of the spectrum. Case in point is “Light”, one of the key sponsors to the SIF.

Light is an electricity company that well before the pacification in the favelas as of 2008, has been rebuilding power networks across the poorest, often most dangerous areas of the city. In the process, they are dismantling faulty, defective installations that represent fire hazards and offer unreliable supply. They also invest in training on energy saving practices and safety awareness. It remains a massive challenge, in recent years electricity has been siphoned off illegally with many not paying a dime. Light continues to handle this and other challenges in a pragmatic fashion, responsibly ramping up costs in small increments and indirectly subsidizing lower income clients with adapted pricing. Everyone benefits – safer energy, efficient consumption, improved awareness and a sustainable business model.


Food for thought – the best way to describe this dynamic week full of rich impressions. Very refreshing to have been surrounded by so many driven, optimistic individuals – that manage to keep one foot on the ground, whilst also stretching themselves and pursuing their ideals with great determination. Passionate, pragmatic, and persistent: essential ingredients for any idea, person or company to flourish.


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