Tackling social problems with business solutions | Business| Economy and finance news from a German perspective | DW | 21.01.2015
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Tackling social problems with business solutions

Social entrepreneurs are changing the world by solving problems with entrepreneurial means. Several dozen of them are taking part in this year's World Economic Forum in Davos at the invitation of the Schwab Foundation.

Tom Szaky realized that waste is valuable as a student in New Jersey, when he saw how much garbage was, well, wasted. He wondered what could be done with the valuable materials that were simply being thrown away.

Eleven years later, his company "TerraCycle" has 120 employees, and works together with partners in many countries to show that trash is not just trash.

"Did you know that in Germany 95 percent of the garbage collected in the yellow recycling bins gets burned because it costs more to recycle?" he asks with a grin. The gathered journalists seem shocked.

Re-cycling, literally

But Szaky, too, had been shocked to discover this, and today among the things TerraCycle collects are aerosol containers from the German drugstore chain DM. The recovered metal is turned into bicycles.

The recycling is financed by companies who want to improve their environmental performance. TerraCycle counts 150 large companies worldwide as its partners.

Skazy is a textbook social entrepreneur. He can apply his good business sense to bring about social change - in this case, the protection of resources.

Making the world better

The American is at the World Economic Forum to meet several dozen other social entrepreneurs who have come to mingle with the rich and powerful - and also ask uncomfortable questions. They were invited by the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, founded by Hilde and Klaus Schwab. Since 2000, the organization has actively built up a network that benefits from the contacts made at the World Economic Forum.

Hilde Schwab and Shirin Neshat (Photo: ERIC PIERMONT/AFP/Getty Images)

Hilde Schwab (l) is giving social entrepreneurs a platform in Davos

A woman with a mission

Hilde Schwab takes a personal interest in social entrepreneurs. In Davos, she attends many of their interviews and meetings.

"Social entrepreneurs are often those who don't shy away from tackling systemic issues that would be otherwise neglected or unnoticed," she said in an interview with DW.

"Social entrepreneurs are people who are driven by their commitment to improve or change actual situations, often with bold ideas that address problems at their roots. They are role models and there is so much we can learn from them as society, economies and individuals."

Setting the ball rolling

It's impressive how, again and again, these entrepreneurs are committed to improving social conditions. Shannon May and Jay Kimmelman are with Kenya's Bridge International Academies. They use new technology to bring an "engaging curriculum" to the poorest families in Africa. Some 80,000 students have been taught this way, and the education has changed their lives.

Another taking part in this year's World Economic Forum is Asher Hasan, representing his company Naya Jeevan from Pakistan. Together with major insurance companies, he developed a system to offer basic health insurance to low-income workers. In Davos, Hasan wants to highlight the problems in developing countries as well as find new partners for his social enterprise. And he's come to the right place, because more and more companies are committing themselves to social issues. It's not just customers who are demanding this, but also shareholders.

Making connections count

"Here at Davos we have the opportunity to bring together social entrepreneurs with some of the most influential companies and governments from around the world who are keen to learn from each other, build relationships, and explore collaborative solutions," Hilde Schwab said.

One size fits all

Schwab firmly rejected the idea that social entrepreneurs can only be successful in emerging and developing countries.

"What's fascinating to see is how many innovative models pioneered in an emerging country context are now being imported into more mature economies. Every society, no matter how developed, can profit and learn from this next generation of social entrepreneurs," she said.

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