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It is an environmentalist’s dream – harnessing the power of natural resources to provide households with cheaper, more reliable energy. For thousands of American homeowners this is a daily reality – not just a dream, as rooftop solar panels and wind turbines reduce their reliance on traditional power utilities. But for all the promise of user-generated power and the “micro gird”, big utilities are fighting tooth and nail to forestall these efforts, if not stop them completely.  And the reasons for their failure to act, despite a growing body of evidence showing how our appetite for electricity is causing severe – and possible irreversible – ecological damage? The usual suspects – money and power.  What seems like the plot of a poorly-written screenplay is actually the next big battle in the fight to reduce our impact on the biosphere. Distributed power is coming, and Big Utility doesn’t like it.

Distributed power is a key term in the push for sustainable energy practices. Joe Homeowner installs photovoltaic solar panels on his roof, providing enough electricity to power his home, and giving him the ability to store the surplus and sell it back to the grid at times of peak usage. In creating a home-based energy source, the reliance on large, heavily polluting power plants is lessened, as is the potential catastrophic problems that can occur when a grid goes dark. Hospitals and military bases have long recognized the need for a centralized power supply – in the event of a blackout these facilities depend on on-site generators to maintain their systems. But for millions of Americans, the cost of these technologies are simply too high – leaving them no choice but to rely on their local utility companies.

Microgirds – Providing energy services locally

The key problem in this scenario is Big Utility’s ‘Us and Them’ mentality. Rather than seeing distributed power as a welcome and contributing player in the country’s growing energy demand – adding network stability and eco-responsibility, Big Utility is seeing this new movement as a threat to their business. Fearful of the potential impact, utility lobbyists are taking the fight to the political arena, rallying against bills and measures that will allow more homeowners to adopt this technology. Although 42 states currently allow some form of a distributed power network, only 14 have de-regulated enough to allow average citizens to participate. This is in direct contrast with the government-backed programs utilized in other countries. Germany, a global leader in adapting this technology, promises users 4 times the market rate for energy sold back to the grid.

It is still unclear how we can best address these problems without seriously acknowledging and reducing our reliance on natural-resource based energy and the companies that provide it. This is a fight that won’t play out on rooftops, but in state capitol buildings.  And without stronger political support, it could take decades to be decided.  With the threat of potentially large scale consequences from climate change hanging over us, we can only hope it’s not too late.

“The best way to predict the future is to create it.”
- Peter F. Drucker

Girl Scouts of AmericaDespite how you may feel about their only-once-a-year cookie sales, the Girl Scouts of the USA (GSUSA) are not, at heart, a Machiavellian organization. So it comes as little surprise that their management philosophies lean more towards promoting acceptance, diversity, and growth than the typical mid-80′s Wall Street ‘dog-eat-dog’ mentality. These guiding philosophies are not happy accidents, but rather the result of a constant, unfailing quest to answer the question, ‘how can we better serve the girls of America?’

Girl ScoutsFounded by Juliette Gordon Low in 1912, Girl Scouts was formed to foster self-esteem, promote civic-mindedness, and instill strong values among its young members. Despite great success for over 50 years, by the early 1970′s the organization was facing declining membership rates and outdated programs. Enter Frances Hesselbein – an extraordinary leader whose 14-year tenure breathed new life into the non-profit by remaining true to the core values she had learned early in life.

Hesselbein’s initial association with the Girl Scouts was rather atypical. Having no daughters, Hesselbein’s strengths were evident by various volunteer efforts in her local community, as well as acting as an advisor for her husband’s communications company. Initially involved in volunteering through a United Way campaign, she learned how to motivate the community and to share with others the passion for civic duty that she felt. With passion and focus, she quickly rose through the ranks of Girl Scout leadership – from a temporary position as a group leader to CEO of the organization.

Upon taking the role of CEO, Hesselbein’s first exercise was to determine what, exactly, their mission was. After asking members and volunteers countless questions, and distilling the core principles of the founder, Hesselbein arrived at the mission that guides the organization to this day – Help each girl reach her own highest potential. As the accepted female roles in society were changing rapidly, Hesselbein understood that by addressing those changes, and remaining open to new ideas, the Girl Scouts could successfully move into the future.

Interview with Frances Hesselbein

A longtime reader of the management philosophies of Peter F. Drucker, Hesselbein incorporated his writings into guiding the Girl Scouts into a new era. Focusing on the importance of interpersonal relationships, Drucker’s work has been acclaimed by both private and public entities for its insistence that each institution has a commitment to serving all of society. For the Girl Scouts, this message was clearly in line with their goals – to not only support their members, but to strengthen their communities on a national and global level.

Peter Drucker on the Value of Volunteers

Hesselbein’s term with the Girl Scouts ended in 1990, but the convictions and principles that were the hallmarks of her leadership are still guiding beacons for the organization today. Her commitment to and respect of diversity, her willingness to listen, and her focus on service are lessons in business management for the greatest good.

Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.
- Patagonia Mission Statement

It is a question that is raising debate in boardrooms around the world – how do we, as a company, limit our environmental impact while still turning a profit? In a society where ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ is a contact sport, the concept of ethical consumerism has been an oxymoron, with the need for ownership outweighing the damage done to the planet. Going green is only the latest movement in marketing trends, but given the growing awareness of our ecological failings, it is becoming much more than a catch phrase – it’s becoming a lifestyle. And for Yvon Chouinard, he’s not just riding the wave of eco-consumerism – he caught it first.

Chouinard is the founder of Patagonia, a outdoor clothing and gear company that has been in business since 1970. The son of a French-Canadian blacksmith, Chouinard got his start by creating custom rock-climbing equipment, supporting his interest in the sport by selling hand-forged pitons from the trunk of his car. Considered a pioneer in the sport of big-wall and ice climbing, Chouinard’s expertise led him to form Chouinard Equipment, Ltd. to supply climbers with the hard-steel pitons necessary for scaling some of the world’s toughest mountains.

His advocacy of safe climbing soon encompassed a new concern when he learned that his company’s pitons were causing damage to the granite walls of Yosemite National Park – safe climbing must be ecologically responsible as well. Although Chouinard Equipment, Ltd. underwent changes after the company filed for bankruptcy in 1989, it emerged as employee-owned Black Diamond Equipment, Ltd., continuing to supply climbers with the best equipment in the industry.

marginBut where the equipment company failed, Patagonia would prevail. Following the bankruptcy, Chouinard acknowledged that the path to success, while beset with potential pitfalls, was not one untraveled. Studying the management techniques of successful companies, he was able to distill the company’s values and qualities into a concise, powerful mission statement – one that Patagonia employees would learn, live, and preach. The initial spark that fueled Chouinard’s ventures – to pursue an environmentally-ethical business model – found a new home in the clothing industry.

Despite near-disastrous economic troubles in the early 90′s, Patagonia has emerged as a breakaway leader in the outdoor apparel industry. Championing the importance of ecoconcious practices, the company was one of the first to promote organic cotton, fair labor practices, and recycled materials. In addition, Chouinard implemented tithing practices, committing 1% of yearly sales to various environmental groups and supporting employee involvement in local projects. In 2001, the company expanded their efforts by creating a global alliance of 148 companies who also promised to donate at least 1% of sales or greater towards ecological efforts.

Patagonia – Corporate Social Responsibility

A key facet to Chouinard’s business theory is the realization that if business leaders treat their companies – and their products – as purely disposable, that flawed reasoning filters down into other areas. By continually striving to create higher quality goods, Patagonia has raised the bar in the clothing industry – and brought new, un-ironic meaning to the term ‘corporate social responsibility.’

In a civilization fueled by innovation, entrepreneurial enterprise is king. This is no surprise to those of us living in the Information Age – where entrepreneurs are regular features on the covers of the glossy business weeklies – sharing their stories of translating problems into solutions, and making a mint in the process. Creativity, keen intelligence, tenacity and charisma are all defining characteristics – key facets of the ‘je ne sais quoi’ of the entrepreneur – but a new movement is developing that will add another descriptor – social. This is not social in a ‘tea in the garden’ sense, but in the ‘using entrepreneurial know-how to affect social change’ sense. Welcome to the dawn of a new era – the era of the social entrepreneur.

Fabio Rosa is one such entrepreneur, and while his name may not be as well known as many of today’s brightest minds, he is the man who brought light to rural Brazil. This may seem an overstatement, but for the farmers living without the benefit of electricity – up to 70% of the rural population – this is no small thing. In fact, it has made a world of difference.

In 1982, after graduating from university with a degree in agronomic engineering, a chance talk with a classmate’s father would ignite a decades-long quest to bring electricity to rural Brazilian communities. The classmate’s father was actually the mayor of the small town of Palmeras, and after having spoken with Rosa, proposed that he take the position of secretary of agriculture.

The region surrounding Palmeras was one of Brazil’s wealthiest, but the prohibitive cost of energy meant that most farming households went without power. A lack of energy meant a lack of water, as even the most meager wells required an electrical pump to deliver it to the fields for irrigation. Being ‘un-wired’ created a host of unforeseeable problems – inhibiting the farmers’ ability to adequately grow a cash crop, and causing millions to flee to the cities in search of work.

Rosa’s solution was not to adapt the rural communities to the government’s energy system, but to introduce an entirely new design developed by Ennio Amaral. By stripping down the technology to the basics, and using local workers to construct it, Rosa was able to finally deliver the cheap electricity he had promised. Farmers were not only able to keep their farms, but improved irrigation techniques and electrical machinery helped to make them more profitable than ever before.

Facing a shortage of funding due to Brazil’s changing political climate, Rosa created STA, a for-profit business in 1992 to promote photovoltaic solar energy.  Nearly a decade later, inspired by the advancements made in alternative energy, he established a non-profit organization that would address the unique needs of impoverished areas, while being consistently mindful of the environmental and social impact of each project.

The challenges Rosa faced in Brazil may be unique, but his desire to create positive change is not. Entrepreneurs are (generally) by nature social people – as big business requires the involvement and contributions – if not the financing – of many other individuals. We are in the midst of a growing worldwide awareness of social problems, and the accompanying desire to contribute has also grown. With the brilliance of the entrepreneurial mind, there’s no telling what we can accomplish.

Social Entrepreneurs: Pioneering Social Change – Skoll Foundation