Business Leaders Discuss Social Impact of Economics

Former Zipcar CEO Scott Griffith, appearing Thursday night at the Harvard Institute of Politics, emphasized the importance of defining a social mission to attract top talent and achieve success in private enterprises.

He spoke as part of a John. F Kennedy Jr. Forum on the “Social Impact Economy,” which brought together private and public sector leaders in social innovation.

Griffith said that Zipcar’s mission was one of social impact as well as private success: its rentals reduced car purchases and consumer spending on transportation.

“If you don’t understand the mission of your company, you won’t be as good of an employee,” he said. “Purpose-driven companies can attract and retain the best talent, especially millennials, who are attracted more than any generation to businesses that have a mission.”

While some may believe that making a profit is incompatible with doing good, panelist Tracy Palandjian ’93 described the social impact economy as “a market ecosystem that rejects the notion that goals of financial and social success are at odds.” Palandjian, CEO and co-founder of Social Finance, said that “traditional sources of funding, such as government and charity, are insufficient to address problems including recidivism and healthcare outcomes.”


According to Palandjian, Social Finance attracts private capital to invest in government-funded contracts that combat social problems.

Karen Gordon Mills ’75, a current IOP fellow and former administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration, and David Wilkinson, current White House senior policy advisor for social finance and innovation, spoke about the public-private partnerships that aided the recovery from the 2008 financial crisis.

“The economy was a mess for small business and the underserved population,” Mills said.

To make sure small businesses in underserved locations had access to growth funds, Mills’ group created “mini venture funds” to match the dollars of investors who went into parts of the country where venture capital was not going, she said.

However, moderator David Wood said that “the social impact economy is as much a buzz word as a thing.”

To grow the market for social change, Palandjian said that opportunities must be opened for firms, government, and investors to work together on projects that are a “win-win-win arrangement.”

“We need to encourage the government to experiment,” Palandjian. “Reality needs to catch up to hype.

Mills echoed Palandjian’s sentiments, and said businesses need to up the “action-to-talk ratio.”

“Until and unless a major set of financial players get to the table, it's going to be talk, talk, talk,” Mills said. “We're not going to be able to get it done.”


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