Tania Ellis: Social innovation can become high speed in an Asian context

 By Bhavani Prakash

Tania Ellis

Tania Ellis runs The Social Business Company with the objective of inspiring and guiding companies and entrepreneurs to engage in or develop innovative solutions that create both economic and social value.  A recognized public speaker, strategic business advisor, and author of the internationally acclaimed book, The New Pioneers, Ellis wrote her Executive MBA dissertation on The Era of Compassionate Capitalism”  to document how changing values in society and spiritual search influence the demands in work life, leadership and business. In 2004, she won the Danish business magazine Berlingske Nyhedsmagasin’s prize award for her paper A Leadership Model for Future Denmark [En Ledelsesmodel for Fremtidens Danmark].

Tania Ellis spoke to Bhavani Prakash of Green Collar Asia during her recent trip to Singapore.

GCA: Can you tell us more about your book ‘The New Pioneers’ and your work through The Social Business Company?

Tania Ellis:  The New Pioneers showcases many different examples of companies both old and new from around the world that have succeeded in doing well and doing good at the same time, i.e., developing innovative solutions to environmental and social problems and making money at the same time. At The Social Business Company, we provide inspiration and communicate the new needs in the market or society. Then we provide training programs and workshops for companies to help them develop sustainable solutions to these new needs.  These solutions should create both economic and social value, which bridge people’s needs with business needs as well as societal needs with business needs.

GCA: Could you give some examples of social innovations that you’ve mentioned in your book that may be relevant for Asia?

Tania EllisMy book showcases New Pioneers from all over the world, who are addressing social and environmental problems with a wide range of innovative business models. A text book example of an inclusive business model is Muhammad Yunus’s microcredit business, Grameen Bank or India’s Aravind Eye Hospitals, whose mission is to eliminate needless blindness. Every year they treat around 2.5 million patients and perform around 300.000 surgeries, with the vast majority of patients treated in the hospitals for free, because Aravind’s health service partnership model with commercial lens company Aurolab earns a 60% profit. But there are many other cases in the book, which reflect how addressing issues of health, poverty, pollution, climate change, resource scarcity, unemployment, social exclusion and more can be turned into a sustainable way of doing business.

GCA:  How can SMEs become more sustainable?

Tania Ellis: When I work together with small and medium sized companies, we look at what are their key business challenges, and what their financial and business objectives are. And then we look at how social responsibility efforts can support the business objectives they have or help them face some of the challenges they have. For example, if one of the biggest challenges for the company in the next five years is to ensure safe deliveries from its suppliers, then it would make good business sense to focus on responsible supply chain management. If you want to save money from your production costs, then it might make sense to look into the environmental aspects and see how you can, for example, utilize sustainable technologies or recycled materials that actually help us save money on the operational costs, while at the same time doing something for the environment. So we are very much focused on finding or creating the business case of it and see how corporate and social responsibility can add value to a company’s business objectives.

GCA:  What are some tangible benefits that sustainability has bought to small businesses?

Tania Ellis: Again it depends on what they focus on, many companies report that it’s a great tool to retain employees and to attract talent.  This means a lot if you are, for example, a knowledge based company and it’s really important that you have the right people on board who have the required mindset. That’s the employer branding aspect of it. Other companies report that they actually save money, particularly companies that work with environmental aspects of social responsibility. Many of them report that they can see it in their operational costs, they can see a direct bottom-line effect. And others increase their opportunities for winning contracts and becoming preferred suppliers, because large companies like Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer have embarked into on the environmental sustainability journey. All this being said, you still need to have the business acumen because being socially responsible and thinking sustainability will not do it alone – you have to have business skills as well.

GCA:  Shouldn’t sustainability also be about doing the right thing for its own sake?

Tania Ellis: Absolutely. And surveys many companies are actually also driven by morality and ethics. But this is the interesting thing about the times we’re living in right now. It is no longer a question of either/or – you can actually do both: you can be driven by morality and ethics AND still run a business.

GCA: Can you explain what the Danish government has done to encourage the sustainability journey in SMEs?

Tania Ellis: What the Danish government has realised is that for Danish companies to remain competitive particularly on the global markets, they should use corporate responsibility as an integrated part of their business strategy.  This will actually strengthen their competitiveness.  It’s part of the national road strategy that the government has done some years ago when they launched Europe’s largest campaign called “People & Profit” for small and  medium sized companies. They provide free, online training tools, work manuals, conferences and other awareness-creating to help SMEs get started.  Many of them are already engaged in these kinds of business activities, they just don’t know that they can call it corporate social responsibility or corporate social innovation. To them it is just a natural way of doing business. So when they start communicating what they are already doing, they get the branding value as well.

If you enter csrgov.dk you can find online tools like CSR Compass, Climate Compass, Idea Compass, Communication Compass and other resources that help SMEs put the many different aspects of corporate responsibility into practice.

GCA: What kind of trends do you see in the sustainability arena in Asia?

Tania Ellis: I am not an expert on Asia, it’s only my second time here but what I have noticed is that it’s very much the innovation potential and business opportunity that appeals to companies here. I believe there is already a lot of entrepreneurial efforts in the region, both social entrepreneurial efforts and large commercial companies that are engaged in the sustainability agenda. And many companies in this region are fast movers contrary to large old European companies. In the West, they do the right things but they do it slowly, so I do believe that social innovation can become high speed in an Asian context. It’s already happening. You know when I came here the first time, I was positively surprised to see that for example when we talk about CSR,  people’s reaction is that they don’t like CSR as it’s seen as ‘philanthropic’ and ‘old school.’  People want business driven corporate social innovation which I think is a positive sign.

GCA:  How can  Denmark and  Singapore learn from each other’s efforts in sustainability?

Tania Ellis: From a personal perspective coming from Denmark – it is a small nation of 5 million people, without much natural resources, it has for years been among the top 5 richest  nations. And comparing to Singapore which is also about the same size population-wise and also a mainly knowledge-based economy, without a lot of natural resources,  I think it would be interesting to see if there is any way we could benefit from each other, by learning and teaching both ways. You know Denmark is kind of a gateway into Scandinavia and also to Europe just like Singapore is a  gateway into Asia. It doesn’t really make sense to talk about national competitiveness strategies because the world is just growing so small. We are facing the same challenges so why not co-create the solutions and take the best from our different worlds and merge them. The challenges we are facing are very critical and we don’t have much time, so let’s work together on this.

About the Interviewer:

Bhavani Prakash is the founder of Green Collar Asia, a thought-leadership portal on developments in the green jobs sector, where macro-level trends, as well as insights from green professionals and entrepreneurs are brought together. Green Collar Asia is the media division of Worthy Earth, a Singapore based executive search & recruitment firm, offering as well sustainability training and speaking services.

Prakash is a recruiter, speaker, trainer and writer in the environment/sustainability sector. She has an MBA from Indian Institute of Management Calcutta and an M.Sc in Financial Economics from University of London.

Connect with Green Collar Asia on LinkedInFacebook and Twitter.  Bhavani Prakash may be contacted via bp[at]greencollarasia.com or through LinkedIn.

Further links you may be interested in:

GCA: Dr Andreas Birnik: Weaving Sustainability into an MBA Programme

Danish Responsibility: High-speed social innovation in Asia

Vimeo: Business with a heart – Interview with Channel NewsAsia

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