Impact Investing

A Look Into Entrepreneurial Approaches to Social Change

My first experience with the world of startups dates back to the early 1980s, when I had the privilege of joining the world's first online service, or what today would be called an "Internet company." One more stop at another startup effort and I finally had the chance to be part of building the company that quite literally brought America Online.

We didn't just build a Fortune 500 corporation, we helped usher in the digital revolution. But I believe our success, in the face of competitors who had deeper pockets and wider networks, rested on a critical point: We were on a mission that went beyond making money. The early team at AOL undoubtedly believed in the power of the Internet to democratize access to ideas, information and communication and level the playing field. It was that sense of mission that drove our passion and perseverance.

Fast-forward to today and a new breed of entrepreneur is increasingly on the rise -- one that is also driven by more than just financial incentive, but by a desire to change the world. Social entrepreneurs are adapting innovative solutions to address some of the most pressing societal issues and complex problems. They are building long lasting, profitable businesses while addressing issues like education, hunger, financial literacy and much more. They understand that an entrepreneurial approach and a solid business model could be key to solving big challenges -- and they're building companies out of bold and innovative ideas.

The Rise of the Social Enterprise

As Julius Caesar once told his armies, "Fortune favors the bold." Social enterprises are thriving across the globe, from Nairobi-based Sanergy, started by MIT grads who have built and deployed nearly 400 "Fresh Life" toilets in urban slums while converting waste to energy and fertilizer for thousands, to Oakland, Calif.-based Revolution Foods, founded by two moms who have transformed the way kids eat in 1,000 schools across the U.S.

As social entrepreneurship continues to grow, a new opportunity has bloomed for investors who want to generate both a financial and a social return -- impact investing. Thanks to pioneering investors and organizations like DBL Investors, Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN), Rockefeller Foundation, and B Lab who have supported the development of infrastructure and measurement systems, created certification programs and invested directly in companies, the impact investing market is poised to become a mainstream phenomenon.

Emblematic of the kind of momentum we are seeing in the market, in June of this year nearly 30 corporations, banks, foundations and individuals -- including Prudential, the Omidyar Network and Capricorn Investment Group -- announced at the White House their joint commitment to invest more than $1.5 billion into companies and funds that strive to generate positive financial and social returns. U.S. government agencies, including the Small Business Administration and the Department of Treasury, also announced programs to support impact investments and social enterprises.

The social investing sector has tremendous potential and much of it has yet to be explored. Over the past two years, we've engaged in hundreds of conversations with current and potential impact investors to understand both the opportunities for the space, as well as the hurdles for bringing more capital into companies and other vehicles that blend profit and purpose. One of our biggest takeaways is that people simply don't know where to start. That's why we released "A Short Guide to Impact Investing," designed to help investors better understand ways to capitalize on companies and growing markets that can deliver both financial and social returns.

In addition, we heard an overwhelming request for more examples of what works for companies and investors in this space who are developing innovative new models and approaches. As a result, the Case Foundation, in coordination with ImpactAlpha, has created a series of profiles on social entrepreneurs, along with the investors who have backed them, who are changing the landscape of business for good.

Each week, will publish a profile of entrepreneurs who are pioneering social change, as well as the investors who are backing their ambitious efforts.

We are thrilled that Entrepreneur is helping us shine a spotlight on these stories through this new Impact Profiles series. It is our hope that three decades from now, we'll be sharing the stories of companies who have successfully solved our global hunger challenges, closed the opportunity gap, and supported a new generation of small business owners, all while delivering positive financial returns, creating jobs and building iconic companies in the process. They will succeed where others said they could not.

See Also:

How 'Happy Family' Became Healthy Baby-Food Pioneers

Microloan Startup Brings Banking to the 'Unbanked'