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Tuesday, April 05, 2011

In Seattle, Linking Supply Chains to Reach the Bottom Billions

By Shara Senior

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to attend the Bottom Billons Bottom Line conference, hosted by Seattle Pacific University. The conference explored the role of business in ending global poverty through an examination of a broad range of topics, including social enterprises, corporate global supply chains and microfinance. The conference was the second gathering in two years focused on global poverty hosted by the faith-based university, and attendees ranged from students from nearby universities, business and non-profit professionals,and academics.

As an employee of Philips, I came to the conference hoping to learn from other multi-national corporations (MNCs) with a common interest in creating products targeted to BoP communities. While there was good MNC representation at the conference from HP, the adiddas Group, Microsoft, and Costco Wholesale, the conversation focused on supply chain challenges from both an environmental and social perspective. From an environmental perspective, there are many issues, but from the social perspective, their biggest challenges are related to safe and fair labor practices of the workers who produce the products they sell.

In the morning plenary session Saturday, when the moderator asked how big companies are addressing the fact that 4 billion people live on less than $4 a day, Gregg Nebel, head of social and environmental affairs for the Americas for the adidas Group, replied "through job creation." His answer reminded me of a conversation I had a few years ago with Aneel Karnani, one of my business school professors (and famous BoP skeptic) at the University of Michigan Ross Business School of Business. Karnani wasn't excited about encouraging the poor to become entrepreneurs (through the provision of microfinance), but he did agree that job creation is an effective poverty alleviation strategy.

I felt that the most interesting session at the conference was one with Rashmir Balasubramaniam (left)Balasubramaniam, founder and CEO of Nsansa; and Julie Sunderland, senior program investment officer at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (you may remember Julie from NextBillion's coverage of SOCAP 2010). It was a great session that started with both panelists sharing their interesting backgrounds (both have deep experience with finance), and then moved to a discussion on the various investment vehicles that the Gates Foundation uses, including:

  • Equity investments in the range of $2 million to $10 million
  • Structured debt
  • Guarantees in the range of $20 million to 60 million
  • Advanced purchase commitments
  • Prizes

The key takeaway from this session should provide inspiration to current and aspiring social entrepreneurs: entrepreneurs on the ground who know how to start and run businesses, and "get things done," are in high demand by investors, including the Gates Foundation.

Like so many conferences, the real value in attending didn't necessarily come from hearing the content that was presented, but came from meeting new people and reconnecting with friends and colleagues in the BoP space. What made this conference unique was that given that it was hosted by a faith-based university, God was part of the conversation too. This added dimension was evident in some of the breakout tracks and from remarks by the plenary speakers, and it provided an interesting twist and passion not usually seen in these types of conferences.

I look forward to seeing how the conversation advances in future convenings at Seattle Pacific University. 

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