Doing Well By Doing Good
The Rise of Social Entrepreneurship
Non-profit organizations ordinarily provide for those public needs that are passed over by traditional for-profit businesses. But, they need continuing external donations to sustain themselves. An organization model was contemplated in the 1970s, in the UK, that could support their own operation and also be empowered to maximize their chosen societal impact.
Muhammad Yunus, 2006 Nobel Peace Prize laureate coined the term “social enterprise” to describe his establishment, Grameen Bank, that provides micro-loans, to the rural poor, with the goal of the elimination of poverty. Since then such organizations, and the designation, have mushroomed, throughout the world.
A social enterprise’s main purpose is to promote and make collective change, while supporting themselves over the long term, without dependence on philanthropy. Many social enterprises are non-profits with a conventional structure like a co-operative or a charity organization. However, there are also for-profit social enterprises that self-support themselves through selling, sourcing, and/or sharing. Many states have enacted a new legal form called a Public Benefit Corporation that put their mission equal to profits.
Ben VandenWymelelenberg of Woodchuck proclaims, “We want to plant more trees than Teddy Roosevelt”; alluding to the creation of the National Parks to preserve pristine natural beauty. Last summer he went to Antarctica. While he couldn’t find a way to plant a tree there, he did plant them in the southernmost point on earth where trees grow. With over 1.3 million trees planted on six continents, and a measurable positive environmental impact on all seven, he has put a substantial down payment. With 2–5,000 trees planted every day he is living his promise to keep the earth green.
When I met him, he was on his way to California to help reforest the landscape devastated by the fires. It is a full circle from an earlier trip to San Francisco where he saw a sign, while jogging in the woods that read ‘100 years ago this forest did not exist’. This planted the seed that forests are not simply fodder for consumption but a resource for the future health of the planet.
One day VandenWymelenberg cracked the back of his iPhone. He used his experience, as an architect, to laser cut a piece of wood veneer and reinforced the back. Friends loved the look and wanted their own for a case of beer each. It also caught the eye of a buyer at Target who ordered thousands. The catch was that they were on consignment. Ben, who was unaware of the risks of the purchase terms, jumped at the opportunity. The product “was an abject failure” at the stores. Fate intervened and Red Bull came asking to rework the product with their logo on it, as a corporate gift. He not only paid back the loan he took, but even had a surplus. Graduate admission at M.I.T. was abandoned to start Woodchuck as a company producing unique corporate gifts.
Today, the company is a fast-growing designer and manufacturer of wood-encased gifts such as high-end bottle openers, notebooks, flasks and decorative boxes, with revenues doubling each year. About 75 percent of Woodchuck’s sales are corporate gifts, sold to the likes of clients Google, Facebook, Red Bull, Cambria, Sun Country, Sport Engine, Polaris and the NBA. The rest are sold online and at specialty retailers.
In 2015, the concept of ‘Buy one-Plant one’ was born. Woodchuck has planted a tree through a partner global-reforestation program for every product it sells. That slogan is on a card with every gift, including the coordinates of where your tree is planted. It turned out to be an effective marketing campaign because it was simple, memorable and resonant. “People want to vicariously feel the dirt under their fingernails”, he says. “And people who get our gifts are not going to throw them in the trash.”
Ben is steadfast on bringing nature back to people, create jobs in America and put quality back in products through the unique products of Woodchuck.
His achievements have been recognized through various awards, including 40 Under 40 — Minnesota Business Magazine, Division Winner- MN CUP and finalist in the 2018 EY Entrepreneur of the Year.
His latest effort is a book “T#E WORLD NEED$ YOUR F*CKING! IDEAS” on how to build a business and reforest the planet at the same time.
Ben remembers his own experience when he had no credibility and renters were not willing to rent him space, in spite of the promise, without a large deposit. With a group of investors, he bought and renovated the old Ry-Krisp building where Woodchuck is now housed. He has over thirty enterprises, in a co-working setting in his stylishly renovated space.. These companies include The Social Lights- that trains employees in social media, a marketing and digital agency and several apparel concepts.
Today, Minnesota has over 5,000 social enterprises similarly committed to a cause. Social Enterprise Alliance spotlights various social enterprises and their leadership who are ‘Doing Well by Doing Good’.
A version of this article first appeared in Twin City Business Magazine May, 2019.
To see other opinion columns go to “Planting Seeds”.
Rajiv Tandon is executive director of the Institute for Innovators and Entrepreneurs and an advocate for the future of entrepreneurship in Minnesota. He facilitates peer groups of fast growth Minnesota CEOs. He can be reached at email@example.com.