As a young Boy Scout, Warren Emblidge Jr. was taught to leave his campsite cleaner than how he found it. Today, as chairman of 150-year-old Swan Street company McCullagh Coffee Roasters, he feels the same responsibility toward the environment.
So, he took what he knows best – coffee sourcing, production and distribution – to come up with an entrepreneurial way to reduce the amount of waste that ended up in landfills each year. The result was EcoVerde, a line of Rainforest Certified coffee in 100 percent compostable packaging.
There was only one problem.
"Nobody bought it," Emblidge said.
But, as an advocate for "impact investing," he remained convinced that for-profit companies can help address societal problems, not just for the social outcomes but for the financial ones as well. So he kept pursuing it, and he brought on University at Buffalo students to help him reimagine a solution.
Over the summer, one intern from UB's School of Social Work and one from its School of Management joined forces at McCullagh examined the problem. They crafted a detailed plan to create a separate food waste collection company called Ecoverde Organics. It will collect food scraps from McCullaugh's commercial customers and turn them into compost.
If two heads are better than one, it's best those two heads each see the world very differently.
That's the philosophy driving a partnership between the Schools of Management and Social Work, and UB's new Social Impact Fellows program that sponsors the interns along with entrepreneurial mentoring program Blackstone LaunchPad. The two schools, which tend to draw very different kinds of students with differing goals, differing training and differing outlooks, have teamed up to apply the best of both worlds to the pursuit of social innovation.
"These social challenges are only going to be solved with truly interdisciplinary, complimentary types of skills," said Paul Tesluk, dean and professor at UB's School of Management. "Creativity begins when you bring two separate things together and you have a recombination of something different."
Over eight weeks, the Social Impact Fellows program paired 16 students with eight local organizations to tackle real societal problems affecting Western New York communities. Students paired with Erie County Medical Center to devise a system to improve palliative care to the hospital's patients. Students at GObike Buffalo came up with a plan to provide bikes and bike locks to people in need of transportation to jobs, medical appointments and court dates. Students at Child and Family Services crafted an employee assistance program for workers and their families.
The Social Impact Fellows program is the most robust outcome of the collaboration between the schools, but it's part of a much broader, more ambitious initiative. Teachers from both schools teach classes together and have designed a class that counts toward both majors. There are workshops designed to get social work students thinking more like business people, and to help business people consider more than the bottom line. And the schools have held two social innovation conferences, with an eye toward developing more.
It puts UB at the forefront of an emerging movement.
"There are a lot of people watching and waiting to see how well this works," said Nancy Smyth, dean and professor at the UB School of Social Work, who has met with faculty from the University at Southern California to discuss the collaboration. "They're all excited to hear about it, to see what we've learned and then to duplicate the model."
The Social Impact Fellows program culminates in a "pitch for a cause" competition, where students present the problem they're hoping to address and spell out how they'll use prize money to address it. Its first competition, in July, awarded $2,000 to Belmont Housing Resources of Western New York for programming to extend housing for teenagers aging out of the foster care system, and $1,000 to start a T-shirt screen printing business for the homeless at the Matt Urban Hope Center.
Business students are used to packaging and marketing their ideas in such five-minute pitches. Social work students, who work on complex societal issues which don't often lend themselves to sound bites and bar graphs, are not. While students of social work are good at seeing the big picture surrounding complicated social problems, they don’t always know how to demonstrate the return on an investment into social outreach.
But as spending on social services dries up, it is more important than ever for non-profits and charitable organizations to learn how to promote their programs, show their results and secure funding, Smyth said.
"It's harder to get social work students to focus on quantifying impact because that's been more of a business focus," she said. "But I think it's essential for people in the non-profit sector to learn how to do that now. Being able to point to the outcomes and impact on society as a result of their idea; it's going to be a key skill set in the 21st century."
Entrepreneurs tend to have a strong go-for-it impulse and are quicker to implement plans, even if it's on a trial-and-error basis. They're good at things like creating efficiencies, operations, strategy and marketing. But when it comes to addressing social needs, they may not have the breadth of knowledge necessary to navigate the complicated human factors involved
"When you start putting the two together, you find sustainable ways of addressing these social challenges," said Tesluk, the School of Management dean.
Just as social workers are expected to become more business savvy, businesses and corporations are expected to be more socially aware. Millennial consumers, which are poised to wield colossal spending power in the years to come, have high expectations when it comes to social awareness. They have come to expect companies to be environmentally conscious, like Patagonia, and to have a charitable component, like TOMs' "one for one" shoe donations.
As a result, more startups than ever consider themselves social enterprises. Like electronic vehicle company Tesla Motors, they want to make a positive social impact, but they also aim to be a viable company.
At McCullagh Coffee, things are moving fast. Emblidge's student interns took his concept of minimizing food waste and turned it into a full-blown business plan. MBA student Joseph Ricciardi worked out the engineering side of the collection and composting processes, researched the necessary equipment and looked into the local market to find out how it could differentiate its finished compost product from its competitors.
Ecoverde has partnered with Fox Run retirement community in Orchard, one of its commercial clients, which will set aside its food scraps for EcoVerde to collect. It has already leased land where the composting will be done and found farmer partners that will contribute manure, another waste product that is an important compost ingredient. The all natural, locally sourced compost—an attractive product in today's buy-local, buy-natural retail environment—will be available for sale in large batches to commercial clients and to consumers at garden centers.
Social work student Jamie Core, who specializes in criminal justice, suggested EcoVerde get more bang for its social investment buck by working out ways to hire individuals with criminal backgrounds, such as drug convictions, at the new company. Core created partnerships with local governments and agencies to help those new employees successfully reenter the workforce. As a result, Emblidge has already hired three people with criminal backgrounds at McCullagh in order to test out the employment program and hopefully scale it up for EcoVerde.
The company will be funded with private investment with the goal of providing a financial return to investors. To measure its success, the company's results will be verified by a third party. It's all in hopes of showing others in the business world that investing in society can be just as financially rewarding as it is personally rewarding.
It's social innovation in action.
"We're beyond the concept. We're actually doing it," Emblidge said. "Intellectually it's a challenge, but it's a great business challenge. I want to prove that it works."