CSR is not just something you do out of obligation, or as an afterthought, just to put a social spin on your profit making. CSR is absolutely integral – or should be! – to your activity as an entrepreneur. I actually think it’s difficult to be an entrepreneur without wanting to give back, simply because as entrepreneurs we are hard-wired to be problem-solvers.
The problem-solver’s mentality
As entrepreneurs we want to make the world a better place. Of course, it’s not that other people don’t want to do that, but it’s just that, as business people, we are accustomed to seeing everything through the lens of the value we provide. What problem are we solving? What pleasure can our product or service give?
Look around you: the skills that you need, either in business or to make a difference through CSR, are highly similar, and highly transferrable.
A striking example is Connect Ireland. Connect Ireland is dedicated to helping solve the employment crisis in Ireland by proactively attracting foreign multinationals who want to develop a base in the European Union. From galvanizing teams, to organizing events, creating brochures, following up, the processes that they implement with a philanthropic focus are directly inherited from the world of business effectiveness.
Which cause marries up
to your business objective?
Another inspiring example is Eason’s, the bookshop chain. I attended a presentation by Conor Whelan, Eason’s Managing Director, at IIBN. He painted a stark before-and-after picture. He took the helm at Eason’s to help turn the company around in the middle of what he described as “the perfect storm”.
What’s more, Eason’s being a bookshop, they had to contend with the challenges of that specific industry: competition from online retailers, from the Kindle, etc. One cornerstone of their strategy was to start supporting children’s literacy, in conjunction with the charity Barnardos.
Now of course the cynics will be grumbling that they’re only priming more customers. I believe it’s an extremely limited view. Literacy correlates with better life prospects, from being able to study longer, to finding a better job, to being able to navigate administrative tasks, to, of course, being able to enjoy a good book and benefit from the endless mind-expanding possibilities for self-improvement, introspection and reflection that books offer.
If Eason’s had only been in it to try and improve their bottom line by priming future docile customers, I doubt that (a) they would have done this in the first place, and (b) they would have gone about it in that way. If you just want more money, there are more effective, short-term, short-sighted strategies you can implement.
It’s so easy to find a cause that marries up to your basic reason to be in business. Eason’s have survived because they believe in the pleasure of reading, and that pleasure knows many incarnations, from shopping for and buying books, to a child first discovering the magic that’s hidden between the pages of books. One is a for-profit endeavour, the other isn’t, but the skills that you need in one and the other are very similar.
How could you not do it?!
I get a real kick from spreading my message in any way I can. I chose finance as the industry in which to create my business, because it influences so many aspects of our lives, and I want to educate people and open their eyes to that influence.
Empowering others, especially women, to take control of their finances, is the raison d’être of my business. Once again, this has a for-profit aspect, through my training seminars and keynote presentations, but is so easily translated to a not-for-profit aspect. And since I love what I do, why wouldn’t I want to do more of it?
This is why I have organized events with the Roscommon Women Network for International Women’s Day last year, and why I was absolutely delighted to participate in the recent Cork chapter launch of the charity Dress for Success. Cork is the place of my childhood, any enterprise that aims to make life better for the people of Cork has a special place in my heart.
And Dress for Success is right up my alley: the charity offers women who are returning to the work place a host of services to walk into that interview prepared and confident. Dress for Success helps women by gifting interview-appropriate clothes, and offering coaching and training sessions to update their CV and practice their interview techniques. Those who have used the charity’s service say they walk out of Dress for Success with their head held high and a spring in their step, ready to take on that interview panel. Of course I wanted to be a part of the launch!
Interestingly, if you look at the two people behind this enterprise, it’s obvious how their skill sets are highly relevant both in business and for Dress for Success. Carmel O’Keeffe (Executive Director/Founder at Dress for Success) ran an interior design business, trained in NLP and was the principal of a Montessori school. Coaching people, giving them the confidence to reach higher, bringing them from where they are to where they want to be, in a way that is deeply respectful of who they are, is integral to her vision. Siobhan Finn, as Co-ordinator at CorkInnovates, is a seasoned expert of community enterprise: she brings a huge amount as a co-director of Dress for Success to Cork.
Entrepreneurs thrive on challenges
When the challenges of the business have been met and their enterprise is cruising, very often entrepreneurs find themselves pining for the days when it was a struggle. They want to rekindle that fire, that feeling that they’re taking on the world and pulling up their sleeves for a do-or-die challenge.
On a recent trip to Australia I read Richard’s Branson’s autobiography, Losing My Virginity. He recounted how he went through the trials and tribulations of his early career, leaving school early and struggling with dyslexia, then creating a student newspaper, then a record shop.
But after a while things were really taking off and were on autopilot. Creating more and more business was basically a repetition of a well-honed system Branson had developed over the years. One day Virgin sold for thirty million an asset that their bank didn’t even recognize as anything that had value. Things had started to feel unreal.
So Branson wanted to get out of this “rut” and tackle much bigger problems. Not just how to create a massive company, but solve world problems. He started to travel the world in order to meet leaders, political and otherwise, and see how he could help. In the process he helped stop a war before it started. That was a revelation: if he could stop one war, what could ten like him achieve? That was the seed of his next project, bringing together wise world leaders, the Elders, to bring peace and justice to the world (the late Nelson Mandela was one of them).
Well, the kind of goal-driven personality that thrives on solving impossible challenges would of course be like that. It’s addictive. After all, if you managed to pull off once what others said was impossible, what can you tackle next? How impossible can it really be, if for you it turned out to be possible?
And entrepreneurs are real doers, they don’t just sit around and give out. After all a successful business doesn’t just fall into your lap and doesn’t become profitable just like that. Opportunities can certainly knock on your door, yes, but you have to make them bear fruit. You have to work to make them work, and not everything will go swimmingly.
Simply count your blessings
And you also feel very fortunate, that you are able to do what you do everyday. In my own life I enjoy the flexibility that my business affords me. I travel a lot, both at home and abroad. At home, this means I can regularly pop in to visit friends and relatives dotted all over the place.
Abroad, this means I can walk around Brussels’ Grand-Place and enjoy artisan Belgian chocolates, or take a stroll on the coastline promenade in Malta or enjoy any one of the cuisines offered at the London Borough Markets for lunch on a typical working day. I feel blessed, and when that happens to you, you want to share your good fortune with others. You have the ability to go after what you want, and that is something you want others to enjoy for themselves, too.
I honestly think that, as an entrepreneur, there are so many ways that our daily activities dovetail with CSR. We love that feeling of achievement and making a difference – it’s something you can’t help.
Are you on the list?