This article is part of our Future of Business series, where we look at how startups can have a positive impact on the planet and people, and build profit with purpose. We speak to Cemal Ezel, founder of Change Please, on how businesses can find solutions to world issues by getting social with their mission.
“I don’t think we can solve the world’s problems unless we do it through business.” So says Cemal Ezel, founder of the literally life-changing coffee brand, Change Please, that uses its coffee-powered profits to train people experiencing homelessness as baristas. Providing them with Living Wage jobs, Cemal is proof that founders can build a business around a cause, and make a difference in this world.
For Cemal, the future of business is about more than creating sustainable business for shareholders. Businesses can - and should - make real change. “I think the charitable model is old school; relying on people just giving donations to be ‘good’ isn’t enough [to solve the world’s issues],” he says.
This isn’t about denying profits - because profit is needed to sustain a business and peoples’ livelihoods. How can we instead design our businesses around a model where profits generated by the company benefit more than a select few shareholders? Look no further than the business model of a social enterprise.
“I wholeheartedly believe if people are going to buy a product anyway, and they have the disposable income to do good at the same time, then it’s just a no-brainer that businesses can’t become social enterprises and give to a cause simultaneously.” Cemal says. “I think, then, that’s how we’ll achieve a world that does good.”
Social enterprises are on the rise in the UK. In 2018, around 100,000 social enterprises contributed £60bn a year to the UK economy. And that number is only growing as a result of the events of 2020, such as the coronavirus pandemic, Black Lives Matter and issues surrounding sustainability, where founders and consumers have been moved to support causes and make a real difference.
“There is no shadow of a doubt in my mind that we’ve made more money over the last 5 years than we would have done if we were just a normal coffee business,” Cemal says.
“So, alongside the important fact that founders have an opportunity to support causes they’re passionate about, why can’t changing consumer values and the chance to turn over more revenue motivate other new startups to think about how they can be social enterprises as well?”
Startup founders are problem-solvers. Recent research from Virgin StartUp shows more people than ever are starting up amidst the coronavirus pandemic, with 51% of lockdown entrepreneurs agreeing that they’d never thought about becoming a founder before lockdown itself. There’s no doubt 2021 holds many global challenges - but this presents an opportunity for social founders to support themselves with an income, whilst supporting the wider community and the planet.
We live in an interconnected world, and slow news days are a thing of the past. It can feel like there are an overwhelming number of causes for founders to attempt to find solutions for, and it can feel equally overwhelming trying to seek out where to start. How do you isolate that one cause you feel you are best equipped to support?
“What are you passionate about? What changes do you want to make? Remember, you can still set up a normal business but also benefit the planet at the same time,” Cemal tells us.
“One thing every single person is affected by on this planet is global warming. Or you may have family members who are unwell or another personal connection which might motivate you to start up; for me, I’ve never been homeless myself, but I passed people on the streets in London and the overwhelming inability to not know how to help motivated me to find a solution and start up Change Please.”
Some founders may be motivated by an urge to support a particular cause; others will have a great product or service idea, and will need to flesh out the perfect social mission alongside their offering. So once you’ve identified your cause, how do you pair a great product with it that will get people invested in buying into your business?
“If I was setting up Change Please now, the coffee market is completely saturated, so I would pick another sector - but six years ago, it was the perfect opportunity. It’s about isolating a market that holds a prime opportunity for founders,” Cemal advises.
“Now, we’re setting up a new business, Serious Tissues, which focuses on sustainable toilet paper and paper products. It’s the kind of product you don’t look twice at - most people just buy what’s ‘on offer’ at the supermarket. If you can disrupt loo roll, and provide an alternative, sustainable option, then you can pretty much disrupt anything! There’s a social option for everything - you just need to do some digging.”
As a social enterprise founder, with a passionate cause driving your startup mission, change is often incremental - it does not happen overnight. So it is crucial as a founder to keep your well-being in check and not let your passion slide into something consuming that impacts your mental health.
Cemal knows this all too well. “It’s really difficult to switch off when you really care about a cause you’re trying to provide a solution for. When I first started Change Please, I connected with a lot of the people we were supporting, and I often had people sleeping in my living room so I could try and support them wherever I could. You start out with this passion, and sometimes it can take over all rational thoughts and you find it hard to separate work from life.
“You need to remember the old adage of ‘charity starts at home’, and alter your perspective so you can stay strong. Making sure the founder is strong and can keep going is so important. If you’re on the ropes all the time, you can’t give 100% to the people around you.”
It’s important to remember whilst change starts within, it’s a collective effort. Cemal is already seeing great work being done behind-the-scenes at corporate companies, and he believes the startup founders of today are putting pressure on corporate and government actions, and greater change will follow tomorrow. “So many corporates now have sustainability completely on their agenda which is great,” he tells us.
“We started to see that back at the end of 2019 - and in 2020 we entered the ‘decade of action’, as they’ve been calling it. We’ve seen it in Black Lives Matter; with Greta Thunberg; through the direct action of communities and leaders.
“And we’re all making a difference. Changing the way you buy your coffee; the way you buy your water; switching up your usual products to socially-focused options… 40% of all consumers in the world are the socially-focused Gen Z - and they make up a huge amount of employees within companies - so things are starting to change. Organisations aren’t changing because they want to ‘look good’ - change is happening through a genuine sense of wanting to do good.
“After that, everything else follows. Change is coming.”
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