How can corporates have a positive impact on societal challenges?

We always talk about innovation. But what about its flip side? The unanticipated impact on society or the environment? Social entrepreneurs can inspire and help corporates to shift towards a purpose-driven business that benefits the whole of society.
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This was the theme of November’s Accenture Alumni Connect, co-hosted with Umicore, at Co.Station in Brussels, during which six inspiring examples of Innovation with Purpose from Belgium were showcased.

“Social entrepreneurs demonstrate that you can build a successful business while tackling society’s most pressing social and environmental challenges”, explained Magali Frankl (CSR Lead Accenture Belgium & Luxembourg) in her introduction. “Innovation with Purpose is about corporates co-creating innovative solutions with new ecosystems resulting in win-win-win partnerships. For example, in 2019, Accenture became a strategic partner of BeCode(see below) - an organization that is training disadvantaged members of society to fill the digital skills gap. We have hired 10 ‘Becodians’ this year in Belgium and our annual target is 25. This is just one example of how we want to inspire and show our clients that they can also address their business challenges in a socially responsible and sustainable way.”

Presenting the 17 United Nations Development Goals, Magali pointed to the sense of urgency: “To achieve the Global 2030 Agenda, we all need to take action. Growing income inequality and climate change is placing a lot of pressure on our current economic model. Nevertheless, only 48% of the world’s largest corporations have adopted sustainability and integrated it in their operations. It’s time for a re-set. It’s time to move beyond Corporate Social Responsibility and rethink our existing business models in order to have a positive impact on these development goals. The solutions are out there.” 

Building a truly inclusive workforce 

Frank De Saer (CEO Atrias) has made it a personal mission to help people at a distance from the labor market to get jobs. He partners with Passwerk, an organization working with autistic people, and the printing and packaging company Mirto. Passwerk helps people with autism to find work in areas they are uniquely equipped for: testing complex technology systems and data cleansing. “Autistic people represent a huge untapped talent pool for this kind of work. Their USP is being extremely analytical, they have an extraordinary eye for detail and above average intelligence. Today, Passwerk has 100 clients in all sectors and around 106 testing engineers.” Mirto employs people with a disability is innovating the printing services it offers, from creating a publication from scratch to delivering the finished product. “When you need these kinds of services, think about companies like Passwerk and Mirto. I gain huge satisfaction from working with them. Not only do they deliver high quality services. Knowing that our collaboration also benefits people who would otherwise not be in employment or recognized for the value they bring is immensely rewarding.”

Closing Belgium’s digital skills gap 

“We are fortunate as Alumni; we all found another job after Accenture.” With these opening words, Kanchan Rocha (Head of Campus at BeCode) told the story of how BeCode recruits invisible and untapped talent on the labor market to close the digital skills gap. “By 2020, there will be a deficit of 30,000 technology profiles in Belgium. Currently, 20-25% of Belgian youth are unemployed. They leave school without a diploma and they are not registered as unemployed. BeCode offers a solution to both these problems via six campuses across Belgium offering free training in development and emerging skills such as AI and cybersecurity.” BeCode recruits are coached for six months while receiving unemployment benefits. They can then follow internships at partner companies. If there is a fit and the interns are hired, the companies pay a fee to BeCode. “We are demand driven, but our purpose is not making money. Our purpose is helping youth and other marginalized groups to find a job and build a life, and helping business find the skills it needs to remain competitive.” 

Highly specialized jobs for newly arrived migrants

In 2015, Benjamin Gérard (Founder of Rising You) had the idea to integrate newly arrived migrants in Belgium via sports training, specifically climbing. Rising You was inspired by a 16 year-old refugee and victim of war from Afghanistan, who fled his country without his family and traveled more than 7000 km alone to Belgium. Placed in the Belgian school system, he struggled and had zero motivation. “He told me ‘the only things I have to do are the things I’m not good at’. He was physically and mentally strong. He wanted to create a job out of his talents, and we helped him to do this.” Through climbing trainingRising You helped this young man become a painter of high voltage masts. Since 2017, the non-profit has trained and certified more than 100 newcomers in this unique and highly specialized job. With certification, they have no trouble finding work for major companies across the country who need top climbing talent, whether it is high voltage masts or on construction sites. 

Putting sustainability at the core of business strategy

Umicore started the strategic exercise to define its future as a sustainability leader 20 years ago at a time when reporting on non-financial aspects of business barely existed. Today, it’s a very different situation and Umicore is now looking at ways to gain a competitive edge through sustainability, as Wouter Ghyoot (Group Director Sustainable Value Chain Umicore) explained. To illustrate he shared the story of cobalt. Demand for cobalt has tripled in 10 years due to the estimated 2 billion smartphones sold each year that use cobalt in their rechargeable batteries. Where do these devices end up? In our drawers at home. What if industry could access these end of life materials so that they can be reused? 60% of cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) by large industrial corporations. But artisanal miners there also risk their lives to mine this precious resource. “It’s a responsibility for Umicore even if we don’t have our own cobalt mining operations. As well as a responsible supply certification system, we work with local organizations and NGOs in the DRC to support local people and provide education. Can the world do without cobalt? Probably not. But urban mining and recycling will grow and one day, it may be possible to not mine cobalt any longer. A win-win for the environment and for the artisanal miners of the DRC.”

Doing business for doing good: It’s time to act now!

B-Corps accreditation is gaining ground, certifying companies that meet the highest standards of social and environmental performance, transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose. One example in Belgium is Edmire, an Antwerp-based design agency on a mission to accelerate sustainable innovation. Vincent De Smedt is its founder. “B-Corps certification ensures that our small team follow the highest social and environmental standards. We think before we design, and our sole focus is doing business for doing good. We create solutions for companies that believe in sustainable growth and provide a platform for our clients and other thought leaders to share the ways they are tackling social responsibility.”

Edmire’s services include circular packaging (reducing, eliminating or re-using non-recyclable materials by reviewing existing product designs and/or creating new, sustainable designs), behavioral change campaigns (helping consumers understand the impact of their buying behavior) and optimizing product efficiency to use fewer resources and increase profit margins while being sustainable. “We do this by cutting the process in pieces and measuring the impact of each piece. There is a lot of demand for solving small issues and a huge win-win potential. Small changes to existing products can create competitive advantage and make a big impact. It’s time to act now!”

Curious to know more about how to make the shift towards a purpose-driven business model? Reach out to contact Magali Frankl, Felix Amez or Jérôme Ruhwiedel

Author: Liz Morrison