Most people associate startups with youth, entrepreneurial gumption, and the potential for big profits. On top of these fun word collocations, startups also have developed a bit of a rep for solving so-called “first-world problems” with apps that do things like locate the closest burrito joint or allow you to grocery shop from the comfort of your recliner.
I’m in no place to judge these apps or their users. I mean, my favorite app helps me keep track of the brands of wine I like – but knowing that there are startups out there with more noble motivations helps me to maintain my faith in humanity.
Social entrepreneurship is a hot topic these days, and is accounting for a growing segment of the startup community. The founders of these startups utilize business models and values in order to achieve a higher social purpose. Social entrepreneurship is more than a startup with a business oriented brain and a socially progressive heart. It also looks at profit and success differently. Namely in the way they prioritize sustainability and circulation of profit into the communities that they are selling a product to.
It’s a strange idea, selling a product to people in parts of the world most effected by poverty, but in reality these products are being sold to NGO’s and governments, or have a way of earning money and paying for the service built into the sales model. The word gets thrown around often but the idea that the private sector is creating “for-profit” projects that channel profit to both the stakeholders and the public, is (in my book) truly revolutionary.
One of the best examples of this kind of endeavor is LaborVoices, a platform that has the potential to fix the problems that plague global supplies chains in a way that benefits both retailers and factory workers. Mobile phones are now accessible to a growing majority of the world’s population, and could be the key to solving some of the biggest problems associated with the clothing industry’s global supply chains.
LaborVoices provides an anonymous polling service that asks workers about the conditions in their factories and aggregates their response. They then generate reports which can be purchased by factories for a fraction of what a standard (and most of the time – ineffective) inspection would cost.
The idea is that this might eventually help retailers and consumers identify bad producers. I’m the first to blame big corporations for just about anything, but when we look more closely at the issue it becomes apparent that Gap and Walmart don’t actually know who is producing their products due to the majority of the work being sub-contracted into anonymity. LaborVoices’ system is going to make it more difficult for big retailers to not know what’s going on in the factories where their products are being made.
A major target for LaborVoices is fire safety in Bangladesh, this campaign has been made even more relevant in light of the recent tragedies. An 8 story factory collapsed in April killed over 1,100 people and over 600 people have been killed by factory fires since 2006. The loss of human life was made even worse when it became clear that these factories had been inspected. LaborVoices has the potential to empower not only workers, but governments and NGO’s.
They are currently charging about $3,000 for the service, and do not pay workers for the information they give. Obviously the service has great potential, but founder Kohl Gill is the first to remind people that this service has amazing potential to help people but only when it works along side unions, NGO’s, and government bodies. Still, it’s not everyday that you hear about a product that literally gives a voice to millions of the most hardworking and vulnerable amongst us.