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The Big (Ain't Always) Easy

The meaning of 'social good,' a lot like the Occupy movement, varies greatly depending on your perspective.
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It's night in New York City, the slight chill an undeniable sign of coming change. Two years ago, and two miles south, an organized group of protestors annexed Zuccotti Park to Occupy Wall Street. The movement -- arresting, widespread, incomplete -- catalyzed the collective anger and outrage of soaring income inequality, of social and economic injustice. It told a classic tale of good vs evil, have vs have not. The "99%" was a perfect catch-all, nebulous enough that anyone pissed off about anything could find their niche within it, and, sadly, so broad that its lack of any proposed solutions proved fatal.

And solutions are sorely needed. Our growing little family of human beings are dangerously close to outpacing our planet's ability to house us safely. Finite and corrupted resources (see for example: 'clean water') coupled with an expanding population base equals not so much fun for the next generation. Throw in Syria and the Middle East, government shutdowns, Kenya, floods and fires, Mitch McConnell -- doomsday signs are everywhere if you're looking, and you don't have to be a gay civil rights journalist in Putin's Russia to be worried. So, then, what?

Business is the most powerful driver of change, and "Social Enterprise" is a term that gets thrown around in business a lot these days. And why not! It's a good term. It evokes warm feelings -- a company that cares, happy employees devoted to the greater good, some well-meaning technologists building the sharing economy. The definition itself is pretty clear -- a business that works not just for profits but also for human and/or social good. But therein lies the problem. The meaning of 'social good,' a lot like the Occupy movement, varies greatly depending on your perspective.

There are social enterprises that started explicitly to address a real problem (such as CafeDirect, the world's first Fairtrade coffee and, full disclosure, a former employer). There are this-for-that (tit-for tat?) social enterprises that give a product away for every one they sell (like a Toms or Warby Parker). And there are enterprises that are really just enterprises but make a play for 'social' because it's good for business (like Unilever or Qantas).

Pick your favorite nemesis-as-corporation. Chevron? Monsanto? Pfizer? JP Morgan Chase? There are armies of 'CSR' spokespeople and agencies-for-hire who tell tales of philanthropy, giving back, 'core values.' I know, I've been these people. True, all of the above companies do 'give' -- money to charity or support for a little league team. There are myriad opportunities to take part in the community somewhere, somehow, in some way that enable a good story, a positive spin. There is tremendous power in framing.

The narrative is key. It's storytelling, and storytelling is more than just this year's agency buzzword. Storytelling is as core to human evolution as genetics. It's how we learn. It becomes our history, our religion, our fact. Even more crucially, it's how children learn -- they listen, they mimic, they grow. So it becomes even more important that the story we tell RIGHT NOW, the story we are in the middle of creating, incorporates the social as inseparable from the enterprise, so that the human and environmental bottom lines are equal to the financial ones.

Russell Brand actually nailed it the other night in his show Messiah Complex. Yes, that Russell Brand, all snakeskin boots and long hair and loquacious swagger and real honest-to-goodness rock star charisma. He was talking, among other things, about symbols, and specifically, symbols as placeholders for concepts, as shortcuts to understanding, as keys to storytelling. And he mentioned how easy it was decades ago when the symbols for evil were so obvious, like the swastika. But evil learns, it lurks, it obfuscates. It is much harder to see your own destruction when it's hiding behind symbols as innocuous as mouse ears or common fruit. How we tell the story is as important as the story we tell.

The Social Good Summit wrapped again this week in NYC -- it runs in conjunction with UN week, so while Obama almost meets Iran and Brazil berates the NSA, the Clinton Global Initiative hosts Melinda Gates and the rich and influential, and Mashable cobbles together the technologically inclined, the bloggerati, the entrepreneurs of hope. There are lots of great stories to inspire us, and these gatherings do a great job of building excitement and community around 'good,' of allowing us to feel like our participation at any level pushes the ball forward. Which is great. We need everyone.

The truth though is that building a social enterprise isn't very easy, and it usually isn't big. The vast majority of organizations hardly see the light of day, and if they do, they don't usually see great success. No matter the strength of your convictions, the beauty of your idea, or the dire conditions of the problem you're aiming to solve, if your product or service isn't good, then you're just social. You've got no enterprise. That part of business is unyielding.

I was in New Orleans recently visiting with some of the planet's most impressive 'social enterprise' enablers. I worked with these folks in London, at a foundation for social entrepreneurs, where our job was to travel the country helping those who had tasted some success scale their businesses. Richard and Pooja exported the model (UnLtd) to India, and are now taking it here. They are touring the country with a rag tag crew of social entrepreneurs, creating a network as a foundation for growth. Again, it's a good story, and New Orleans is a great setting.

"The Big Easy" is steeped in history, and soaked in meaning, in voodoo and mojo and creole and mystery. It's a great place for creation myths, for idolatry. On our first night in town, a member of our entourage, a recovering VC investor from Abu Dhabi, strolled casually in sandals across the front lawn of our rented house. The grass triggered an allergic reaction, rendering him dizzy, short of breath and entirely covered in hives. Rather than jambalaya and jazz in the French Quarter, it was emergency rooms and IV's at the hospital.

It was yet another reminder that on the long road to getting it right, a whole lot can go wrong. But it doesn't mean don't go. It just means the big ain't always easy. And big is what we need when it comes to changes in how we conduct, incentivize and legislate business.

The stories that will occupy our future are being created and told right now, all around us, at speeds that would surely send Gutenberg into a frenzy on Tumblr. If the folks in Zuccotti Park had given us a few more chapters, and maybe some direction, perhaps their story wouldn't have ended so soon.