Two years ago, I spent ten weeks working with a women’s collective in Burkina Faso. I’d been placed with the organization – the Kabeela Association – owing to my business skills, which were vital to the organization’s work. As somebody just studying business at university, I barely had those skills, but I knew the basic concepts of profit and loss, marketing and project management. Ultimately, these skills helped me set up a self-sustaining sales scheme for Kabeela women.
Until then, I had taken business studies to be a corporate and capitalist gains oriented structure, but working for the women and the community helped me get a peak of its power.
I grew up in London, with parents who worked in the business world. This world was always an enduring presence, from the hour-long commutes to the ceremonial ironing of shirts on a Sunday night. We were certainly never rich, but I quickly learned about the comfort of a desk job. Perhaps on some level, I began to aspire for this comfort.
Seeing that my immigrant parents had made a life for themselves by working in business, I decided to also enter the world that they had flourished in. I began to pursue an undergraduate degree in Marketing, thinking it was the right balance between creativity and financial comfort.
It wasn’t long, however, before I grew weary with Marketing. I got tired of talking about how to make money and how to make people buy things. My ears always pricked up, however, at some of the conversations that took place around the periphery of the management school. I’d hear rumblings about ‘corporate social responsibility’, and ‘sustainability in business’, and ‘ethical trade’. I’d found my calling: business with a twist.
It turns out that it was not making money that I had a problem with, but the idea of the money only lining the pockets of a small minority. After two years studying plain-old business between the UK and the USA, going to Burkina Faso and understanding business in its bare bones was astounding. The idea of business always being for profit maximization quickly got thrown out of the window. The Kabeela Association is a local, grassroots, minority-run social enterprise, that uses business models to generate sustainable livelihoods for its beneficiaries.
The Kabeela women plant, sow and harvest a variety of crops, producing edible and cosmetic products to then sell in the local town. The money each woman made is directly linked to her contributions throughout the production process, with the overall aim being to give her financial independence in a traditionally patriarchal society.
Social enterprises are not conceptually new, but have recently drawn more media attention as the world slowly moves towards ethical consciousness. They show how business can be used as a force for good, to lift people out of poverty, provide new skills, and build communities.
Grameen Bank is another, well-cited example of a business being used for the common good. Founder Muhammed Yunus, who has a background in banking and academia, launched the microfinance initiative in Bangladesh to provide small business and agriculture loans to those in rural, poor areas. These loans are vital to those in difficult positions, seen as opportunities to work towards a better life.
Mursal Hedayat, a refugee from Afghanistan in the UK, set up Chatterbox that offers refugees to have an income stream as language teachers. Today, Chatterbox has grown to provide services in Swahili, Bengali and Turkish, amongst other languages. Chatterbox is a great example of a social enterprise model that kills two birds with one stone: the customer gets a unique experience of learning a language from a native, and the teacher finds a way to resettle into a new home through regular income.
These are just some of the many examples that show how business skills are vital for any kind of initiative. The vast majority of my friends, who did not study business, disagreed. On multiple occasions, I was told I was “selling out”, “driven by profit”, or even “lacking empathy”. I was taken aback, not only by their hatred of business but also by their inability to see the power that business could have.
I sometimes understand their frustrations with business. We still see companies failing to pay corporation tax, business executives making unethical decisions, and capitalism being largely responsible for the environmental catastrophe. Without refuting any of those facts, I would argue that business and trade are not the problems here. It is rather human greed and excessive competition that has led to bad decision-making.
Assuming that business and unethical behavior are synonymous is the first misconception: business can be a family-run, home-based, freelance, entrepreneur, contractor, start-up, corner shop, independent store, side hustle and much more. Business can exist without capitalism and its damaging consequences. We just have to be open to the opportunities it offers.