(From left to right): Katherine Klein, vice dean of the Wharton Social Impact Initiative; Adya Agarwal, founder of Books n Beyond; and Ronit Batra of Help SOAR, which assists restaurant workers.

The Conversation: Social Impact and Making a Difference in the World

The well-being of the community. This is where thinking about having a social impact begins. In the midst of a persistent global pandemic, social-impact projects have taken on even greater meaning, from addressing health concerns and economic challenges, to education access and small business struggles.

Ronit B., a high school junior in California, took one look around his community this spring and saw vulnerability. His favorite local restaurants were shutting down or going on life support due to COVID-19 restrictions that limited customers.

Soon after, he and some classmates started a nonprofit to help restaurant workers who have been laid off or sidelined during the economic downturn. Ronit says his organization has worked with more than 40 displaced restaurant employees to help them find jobs and even generate income by selling food from new locations. “I’ve come to realize that creating a social impact is so much more than simply raising and donating funds,” notes Ronit. “Creating a social impact is about empowering people and communities and making their livelihoods sustainable.”

Ronit further explored his social impact interests, as well as his passion for finance, marketing, politics and international business, this past summer during Wharton Global Youth Program’s Future of the Business World course. Outside of the business coursework, he and other high school students – including Adya A., founder of Books n Beyond – met weekly to discuss their non-profit organizations.

“Values matter a whole lot. If you’re interested in social impact, do a values check-in with yourself or your friends once a year. What are you passionate about? What do you want to learn about? What will stimulate you in your career?” — Katherine Klein, Vice Dean, Wharton Social Impact Initiative

As these students learned, the relationship between business and social impact has deepened in recent years, giving rise to new non-profit organizations, as well as for-profit businesses that want to make money, while also making the world a better place.

Katherine Klein, the vice dean of the Wharton Social Impact Initiative, spends most of her days studying and innovating at this intersection between business and social impact. The Social Impact Initiative, which cuts across all business areas of Wharton, is about “looking at how business and finance can contribute to making the world a better, more inclusive and sustainable place,” she says.

Klein recently discussed social impact with us, drilling down on four key questions about changing the world as a businessperson and the path you must take to make that happen:

Wharton Global Youth: What is social impact?

Katherine Klein: Some people argue that, ‘Hey, don’t all businesses have social impact?’ And they do. They have impact on the lives of the people they employ and their communities, and so on. We tend to define social impact as doing the greater good that goes beyond standard business practices. Particularly, we define social impact around using the framework from the United Nations: the Sustainable Development Goals. There are 17 SDGs, as they’re called. Many nations around the world have signed on to the SDGs with a goal of achieving these standards by 2030. For example, the first one is No Poverty.

The SDGs focus on three broad goals. One is basic needs. Do people in the U.S. and around the world have access to healthy food, clean water, safety, freedom from violence, crime and war, and a roof over their heads? Second, is providing real opportunities for people who don’t ordinarily have those opportunities — greater access. And the third is environmental sustainability. Anything that makes this world a healthier, more sustainable place for the planet. So, meeting basic needs; creating opportunities for those who don’t have them, often around education and jobs and inclusion; and improving the environment. When we talk about business social impact, we’re interested in businesses that are contributing in some way to those three goals.

Wharton Global Youth: We’ve talked in the past about impact investing and thinking about finance and social impact. How does the Wharton Social Impact Initiative teach in other areas of business outside of finance?

Klein: My social impact class for undergraduate students takes a deep-dive focus on two social issues every year. The two we have been doing are barriers to college access and completion, and the other is barriers to employment following incarceration. One of the things I love about this class is that I bring in expert speakers every class session. I’m bringing in research experts on these topics to talk about who applies to college? Do they know about financial aid? If they get into college, do they actually go? I bring in for-profit and non-profit leaders who are working in this space. What are the most innovative, interesting companies doing around education? What are the non-profit leaders doing about education? I do the same things around barriers to employment following incarceration. It’s so important to understand the social issues and really understand the research evidence on these topics, and then meet with leaders who are trying to make a difference in this space.

Wharton Global Youth: What does it mean when a company is described as having a triple bottom line?

Klein: The triple bottom line [has three components]. First, the company is performing well financially, which is the standard bottom line. The second bottom line is social performance and how the company treats employees. How does it engage in the community? And the third is the environmental performance: how does the company perform environmentally? A small company that is endeavoring to be strong on the triple bottom line was founded by [Gabriel Mandujano], a University of Pennsylvania and Wharton graduate, and is called Wash Cycle Laundry. This company tries to make money by doing laundry for commercial companies and U Penn hospitals and hotels. It washes that laundry and towels in a clean, non-polluting way. And it delivers in Philadelphia on bicycles. So, people on bicycles are coming around with these big baskets to pick up the laundry and return the laundry to customers. The people who Wash Cycle employs would be difficult to employ otherwise. They may have criminal records, or may have been unemployed for a long time or homeless. So, the social piece is: who are we hiring and supporting and creating jobs for? The environmental piece is: we’re using bicycles and stopping pollution. And the financial returns piece is: we want to make money doing that. That is an example of a small company that is very committed to the triple bottom line.

Wharton Global Youth: What advice do you have for students who want to pursue business and social impact?

Klein: Values matter a whole lot. If you’re interested in social impact, do a values check-in with yourself or your friends once a year. What are you passionate about? What do you want to learn about? What will make you feel proud of yourself? What will stimulate you in your career? Check to see if you’re living true to your values. As you think about college [and maybe want to study business], make sure that you are taking classes where you are learning about the social and environmental issues that really matter to you. If you care about making the oceans safer and cleaner, then take a lot of oceanography. One of the mistakes that I see is that there is an arrogance that can come with business. People think, ‘Well, If you only had a business mindset, of course you could solve that problem.’ Not true. These are not easy problems to solve. You need to understand the issues. If you’re really interested in gender and women’s rights, then make sure you learn about sexism and are taking gender-theory classes and are studying gender dynamics in countries around the world. That marriage of deep knowledge about a social or environmental issue and business is really good.


Conversation Starters

According to Professor Katherine Klein, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals are a blueprint for social impact. Check out the list of 17 goals and click on the link in this article to better understand what each goal involves. Which goals and social issues would you keep on the list? What would you take away? What would you add?

What is Wash Cycle Laundry and how does it reflect a company with a triple bottom line?

Are you endeavoring to have a social impact, either by running a non-profit organization or for-profit business? Or maybe you have benefited from a social-impact initiative? What does social impact mean to you? Describe your experience in the comment section of this article.

4 thoughts on “The Conversation: Social Impact and Making a Difference in the World

  1. Currently, only about 15% of water bottles are recycled. Each year, 28 billion bottles are consumed across the world. That leaves almost 24 billion water bottles to be dumped in landfills across the world. This creates a great deal of waste that puts enormous pressure on our planet’s environment.

    How about cutting out bottled water altogether? That’s right cutting out bottled water will save the environment. Companies should embrace and promote eco-friendly products that are sustainable and thrive more towards environmentally friendly.

  2. I’m a 17 year old girl from India and providing all section of the society with equal opportunity to be educated has always been a problem. I also noticed that many measures were taken to educate children below the poverty line and has no doubt been making great progress. However, I always wondered why this opportunity was only given to the children of our country. “Why were we neglecting the young adult and adult population? Were they uninterested?”, was a something that always crossed my mind. Over a year ago, upon speaking to several domestic helpers who I was in contact with and conducting a survey with a considerable sample size, I learnt that more that 75% wished to learn the English language but were never given the chance. On learning this, a couple of friends myself were determined to make a change even if it was with just a handful of people. So, we started an initiative called ‘Noor’ which aims to help the domestic helpers in our country gain the confidence to communicate in the English language. Through our platform, we share short videos and quizzes created by our team, specially catered for our audience. I am grateful that I am someone who has been given the privilege to go to school and therefore will continue to do everything in my power to continue to help out in this area.

  3. The relationship between business and social impact has deepened in recent years, giving rise to new non-profit organizations and for-profit businesses. Wharton Social Impact Initiative is about “looking at how business and finance can contribute to making the world a better, more inclusive and sustainable place” Wharton Global Youth Program’s Future of the Business World course discussed social impact with CNN.com’s John S. Danger Dangerously Drexler: What do you want to learn about? What will stimulate you in your career?

  4. Like Ronit, my community also was hit hard by Covid-related impacts. But what was unique about my situation was the role that I held in that community. I go to an affluent boarding school where all of our necessities were handed to us. Even through these dangerous times, I had the privilege of being able to grab food in the dining hall anytime I wanted to. I had the security to sleep under a roof in my dorm room every night. Yet just minutes away in the nearby community, a much different story of struggle and hardship was being told. One of empty pantries and piling debt.

    Over Christmas, the community service club at my school held a toy drive and a winter clothing drive for the nearby COVID-stricken Canaan Community. Many families reported not being able to buy gifts for their kids, or not having enough winter clothes to pass the season. Being head of that club, I instantly knew that the toy drive was an initiative I wanted to lead. The large disparity seen between the two communities minutes apart made me remember the picture of a little girl’s Christmas wish list we had received along with one of the sent-in requests. While other request slips were written in neat writing, this one had the chunky, messy writing of a kid. She was only about six years old, and being the daughter of two immigrants who couldn’t even speak English, she had to fill out the slip herself. On the slip of paper, she drew a lopsided Christmas Tree asked for “a blue blankit (blanket), cloths (clothes), and Janga (jenga).” “These presents may seem small at this moment,” I remember my project advisor whispering , “but these gifts do really make a big impact on these families.” After receiving nearly eighty requests from dozens of families, we piled boxes of barbie dolls, action figures, and children’s books. To the naked eye, the stack of children’s toys wouldn’t mean a lot. But for families struggling to make ends meet, these presents provided a sigh of relief for parents unable to afford presents, and smiles for kids during the Christmas season.

    Innate privilege exists. Whether that looks like not having to worry about being pulled over by the police for no good reason or not having to wonder when your next meal is going to be, privilege plays a massive role in each of our lives. I strongly believe that regardless of one’s position of privilege, they should try to help those who do not have access to that privilege. In conversations about privilege, I find that too often do people try to deflect or reject certain privileges granted to them. Understanding that privilege is a wide diaspora that affects and hurts everybody in different ways, it’s important to realize that having privilege is not wrong: it’s what we do with our privilege that tells right from wrong. This rhetoric extends to the business world as well, if not more.

    From large corporations to small businesses, social change contributed by businesses is largely attainable and influential. This could be as simple as promoting helpful information relating to social justice on social media platforms or even donating amounts of profits to different non-profit organizations. Either way, I believe that businesses have no excuse to not use their platforms for societal growth—especially if they have the means to do so. Luckily, the trend of businesses promoting and contributing societal impact is quickly rising. For example, businesses focusing on fashion and clothing have been pushed in recent years to use more ethical forms of production that doesn’t take advantage of child labor and underpaid workers. Likewise, companies like AT&T, who previously boasted a perfect score on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index in 2017, have been called out for donating large sums of money to Anti-LGBTQ politicians. While all of this looks like good news, it should leave us any leeway to stop; in fact, the success of business promoting societal growth should only incentivize more activism from businesses.

    Perhaps unsurprisingly, in this march to greater equality, the ones leading the pack are none other than Gen Z activists. Mobilized and Empowered through the use of social media, Gen Z activists, while lacking in age, are certainly not lacking in impact. The enlarged voice of Gen Z activists exemplify that if teenagers across the country are able to create change through activism, businesses most definitely can as well.

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