Grand Prize Winner
Both business and social entrepreneurs play important roles in advancing the lives of American communities, but the extent of their success and the health of America as a whole depend on how well each can understand the perspective of the other. The template for a successful twenty-first century American entrepreneur that can foster both economic prosperity and social justice may have been best constructed by a nineteenth century French novelist. In Les Misérables, Victor Hugo created an archetype of a morally centered man who used his success in commerce to better his world - the central character of Jean Valjean. The question whether business or social entrepreneurs will better improve America within the next decade may be alternatively cast thus: what would Jean Valjean do?
Les Misérables focuses on Valjean’s journey from bitter ex-convict who proclaims his hatred for the world to a savior figure who redeems both himself and those he encounters. Valjean served nineteen years in a chain gang because he stole a loaf of bread to feed his nephew, and his experience as a convict utterly de-humanized him. After he is paroled, he soon comes into contact with the Bishop of Digne, a Christ-like figure in the novel. The Bishop is the first person to ever show Valjean true compassion, and because of the empathy the bishop shares with him, Valjean’s malice toward the world is turned around. The roots of Valjean’s future success in business and in bettering the lives of others lie in this personal metamorphosis and his newfound passion for putting others before himself.
After his transformative experience with the Bishop, Valjean moved to the struggling city of Montreuil-sur-mer, where he started working at a factory as a simple laborer. Valjean made a discovery that soon revolutionized the factory’s productivity and profitability. After purchasing the factory and implementing his plans, Valjean saves the factory, and by extension, all of its employees and the town itself. Valjean’s business expanded, employing the majority of women and men of the town, and he was eventually appointed mayor of Montreuil.
Although he earned an incredible fortune from the factory’s success, Valjean used his money to fund hospitals, orphanages, and schools. Like the Bishop who inspired him, Valjean lead a humble life and used his business acumen and success for the betterment of his entire community. Through the rest of the novel, Valjean redeems virtually every other character he encounters. That redemptive force is derived from his dual nature as a social and business entrepreneur.
The best way to improve America is for social reformists and business leaders to emulate examples like Jean Valjean. Individuals who strive for change must understand that a successful business can do more than funnel profits to its owners, shareholders and executives. To develop a community, those individuals must also have larger, philanthropic interests. If an entrepreneur is purely business driven, she can accumulate huge sums of money, but if that money only becomes a part of a personal fortune or benefits only those at the very top of the enterprise, that entrepreneur will not improve the lives of those around her. There is mutual benefit in extending a business’ success to a larger community – it can make that success self-sustaining.
Similarly, if a social entrepreneur is driven purely by desires for social change with little or no understanding of the world of commerce or appreciation of the positive social changes that may flow from a robust economy, he may do nothing more than joust with windmills and find no effective way to implement any lasting social change. Hugo’s student revolutionaries in Les Mis are a perfect example. They have great empathy for the poor, but they have no real understanding of the political and business world and no plan to replace the monarchy they despise with a new government that can work to improve the lives they want to change. Their revolution lasts a little more than a day. Most die at the barricades without really accomplishing anything other than their own martyrdom.
There are many establishments worldwide that exemplify the power of a business to effect social change. Two companies that embody the effective balance of business and social service are Ben & Jerry’s and Timberland. Clear mission statements guide these enterprises both in terms of their growth as profitable companies reaching large markets, and as vehicles for bettering the communities where they operate.
While Ben & Jerry’s is most well known for its ice cream flavors, the company’s dedication to improving the community is also nationally recognized. The first tenet of Ben & Jerry’s mission statement claims that it will “operate… in a way that actively recognizes the central role that business plays in society by initiating innovative ways to improve the quality of life locally, nationally and internationally” (Ben & Jerry’s, “Ben & Jerry’s Mission Statement”). The company ensures that its employees earn a “livable wage” by paying them twice the amount of the national minimum wage. This dedication allows their employees to afford housing, health care, and many other basic necessities of life in America. Ben & Jerry’s also expanded their outreach by forming the PartnerShop Program. In this program, local, independently owned Scoop Shops provide training for young adults who may face obstacles when searching for employment. These Scoop Shops actively form relationships with youth development organizations in order to make opportunities for more Americans. Finally, Ben & Jerry’s is adamant about being engaged in community service. “Each year, Ben & Jerry’s employees participate in large-scale community service projects - to fix, clean, build, and restore things that improve the quality of life in their neighborhoods and communities” (Ben & Jerry’s, “Community Action”).
Timberland provides another example of how a business with a social agenda can improve life in America. Timberland’s mission statement addresses the importance of acting righteously and participating positively in the community. The statement exclaims, “Our mission is to equip people to make a difference in their world. We do this by creating outstanding products and by trying to make a difference in the communities where we live and work” (Timberland, “About Us”). Timberland is focused on being a force for change. In 1992, the company founded the Path of Service Program, which initially granted sixteen paid hours for each employee to participate in community service projects. Over the next few years, sales tripled, but Timberland did not desert its roots in social service. The company instead extended the allotted sixteen paid hours to forty, thus proving that a business can increase profit while simultaneously expanding its capabilities in improving the lives of those in the larger community.
Both Ben & Jerry’s and Timberland have captured the philosophy of Jean Valjean, and because of their balanced interests, these companies have been able to expand their markets and profits while promoting the betterment of the community. Like Valjean, Ben & Jerry’s and Timberland operate upon a solid moral base, and they continue to expand that base even as their revenues increase. Both companies operate on the principle that it is not enough to be a business that plays a part in stimulating the economy and providing owners and investors substantial returns; it is in their own best interest, and in the interests of the country as a whole, to be socially active. In the end, the social and business entrepreneur need not be in combat with each other. The entrepreneurial spirit can inspire them both. To foster national progress, the business leader must be guided by the social activist’s compassion for the world and the social engineer must understand that a rising tide of business can elevate the lives of all.
"Timberland®." Timberland. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Nov. 2013.
"Community Action." Ben & Jerry's. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Nov. 2013.
"Partnershops." Ben & Jerry's. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Nov. 2013.
"Livable Wage." Ben & Jerry's. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Nov. 2013.