Eric Stryson addresses at AIESEC conference

GIFT Challenges the discussion on CSR and social enterprise


At a recent AIESEC conference, Ripples International 2010, Eric Stryson was invited to share thoughts on Corporate Social Responsibility and the development of Social Enterprises in Asia.

Amidst growing discussion on the topic of CSR, and an increasing number of University courses focused on the subject, Stryson encouraged the audience of international AIESEC members to question the definitions they may have heard and to determine for themselves what role business ought to play in society.

With an explosion of conferences and articles on CSR, he said the danger is not a lack of awareness of the subject, but rather that the term itself loses meaning. Indeed, the majority of rhetoric around CSR and Social Enterprise in Hong Kong has already reached a point where definitions are too loose and discussion becomes ineffective in achieving anything of merit.

In Stryson’s talk he suggested to participants that if the role of business was to provide society with goods and services, then what are their responsibilities? Definitions of CSR too often default to notions of philanthropy, community development, employee engagement or in the best of cases “triple-bottom line” metrics. Without disparaging such initiatives Stryson encouraged the group to think more fundamentally about a company’s core business and what impact that has on the health, well-being and future opportunities for people within the society. Distilling the conversation down to such terms reduces the tendency toward theoretical concepts which have very little bearing on the realities of the world and the challenges we now face in areas of environmental degradation or socio-economic development.

Stryson then went on to describe the process that participants on GIFT’s Global Young Leaders Programme (YLP) go through in creating new models for social enterprises in the Asia region – all of which include strict focus on governance, financial projections, etc. Again, reiterating the point that much of the discussion has become lazy and imprecise, he stated that by definition an ‘enterprise’ should be self-funded, meaning it has achieved a level of sustainable revenue generation and does not require ongoing external support. Too often noteworthy charitable or grant-funded initiatives are incorrectly lumped into the category of social enterprise in much the same way CSR has become a catch-all for anything a company might do to improve its reputation among consumers.

It is encouraging to see talented young people engaged in this new way of thinking about business and in the years to come, we are bound to see more permutations of ways commerce can benefit society. Through the Global Young Leaders Programme (YLP) and in seminars and talks, the team at GIFT continues to create tangible examples of business models that can lead the way.