Seeking Common Ground

Call it the almost-alternative Davos. In an effort to reach out to a broad spectrum of participants--while staving off the antiglobalization demonstrations that have marred meetings in the past--this year's World Economic Forum meeting includes some participants who might otherwise have protested against it.

A project called the Open Forum holds discussions at a school near the Davos Congress Center on topics ranging from alternatives to fair trade to migrant labor to the role of business in areas in turmoil. Rick Aubry, president of the California-based nonprofit organization Rubicon Programs, was one of a group of social entrepreneurs who took part in a panel on ways to integrate the poor into the global economy. He spoke to NEWSWEEK's Arlene Getz in Davos. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What are you doing at Davos?

Rick Aubry: I'm speaking at the Open Forum about social entrepreneurs--one of about 50 here that are connected through the Schwab Foundation. The goal is to combine the works of social entrepreneurs throughout the world with some of the aspirations of World Economic Forum members, to see if there's common ground between our work and the forum's work.

What exactly is social entrepreneurship?

That's the $64,000 question. There are many different definitions. Probably the simplest and most agreed to one is that entrepreneurship is now being applied to social problems rather than to business ones. A social entrepreneur is someone who is less concerned with returns to investors, more concerned with solving a social problem using entrepreneurial methods of innovating new ideas and aggregating resources to solve those problems. Unlike an institution, the [social] entrepreneur looks for a solution to a problem before imagining how he or she is going to pay for it.

Is your organization a nonprofit?

Yes, it has been for more than 30 years. It started off in a traditional nonprofit way providing services for disabled or very low-income people. But after its first 10 or 15 years working in a very poor community in Richmond, Calif., it by necessity had to constantly innovate new ways to continue to provide services. Eventually that evolved into being an enterprise-operating program. It now runs three different social-purpose businesses that train and employ very-low-income and homeless people. We also build affordable housing for people that we work with and provide a large range of more traditional services, as well.

What message are you hoping to send by your presence here?

The message is that there are micro solutions to the problems of poverty in Bolivia, Bangladesh or poor communities in the United States. [They] don't rely on government programs, they don't assume that the business raising the tide will lift all boats, but that in fact people creating these social entrepreneurial solutions will create larger and larger ways to solve these problems. If more and more of these occur, many of them will start to be on a scale where they have more of a macro impact.

Your panel included speakers from countries like Bolivia, India and Cameroon. What lessons can be learned from programs in the poorer parts of the world?

Social entrepreneurship is even more effective in developing countries because in some ways they are below the radar screen. They're not large government programs, they're not international-aid NGO-driven programs. They're started by people in particular communities who have an innovation, who invest their time and energy and then bring in their own resources to provide these things. There's Cameroon, where [panelist] Gisele Yitamben has worked to bring training and employment programs primarily to women using high-tech systems in partnership with Cisco Corp. in California. In Bolivia some folks have created a new cooperative agreement between the growers of certain crops and the exporting of food products into the United States. There's a capacity to do social entrepreneur work in developing countries in some ways on an even more significant scale than we can do it in the States, because less capital is needed to achieve greater outcomes.

The WEF describes the Open Forum as a way of involving groups who otherwise might be protesting against them. Have you been co-opted?

I haven't felt co-opted yet. I think the reason that social entrepreneurs have been invited into the forum is to soften the perception of the forum. I actually take it at face value--[WEF president] Klaus Schwab's interest is that the forum be a place where ideas can be exchanged. That can only occur when you have many different voices here. I find that being part of the forum is a more valuable way than protesting to get my voice heard.

What are the toughest problem facing social entrepreneurs?

The largest challenge for us and, I think at many other programs, is the question of scale. How do we move from [having] 4,000 people a year to 400,000 people a year being impacted by our work? How do we move from 300 people working full-time for Rubicon to 300,000? There are certain challenges in how we're able to generate capital and raise support for what we're working on.