Building Companies That Make a Difference: An Interview with Joey Hundert

Joey Hundert — social entrepreneur, start-up consultant and founder of the “Sustainival,” the world’s first green carnival — has been working for a decade and a half to promote ventures that both make money and make the world a better place. He’s been a social-entrepreneur-in-residence with Wharton Social Impact Initiative for the last several years.

In a recent interview with Knowledge@Wharton, Wharton management professor Tyler Wry talked with Hundert about his experience as an entrepreneur, the social enterprise energy among students, and what it takes to succeed in a business that has dual social and financial aspirations. The following is an edited transcript that originally appeared on K@W on May 20, 2015.

Tyler Wry: How did you get into social enterprise, and what brought you to Wharton?

Joey Hundert: I came here about four years ago, to guest lecture in one of your classes…. [Since then,] I’ve become sort of the social entrepreneur in residence. And while I’m here, I get to learn what they’re doing at the Social Impact Initiative. I’m always amazed at how they’re developing each year. These are super-ambitious people, developing something really unique to help nurture social enterprise. The intent was for me to come and lecture initially, on not just social enterprise and social entrepreneurship, but also entrepreneurship in general, from a deeply experiential point of view.… A lot of students want to get into start-ups, and into venture, only they’re coming at it from a very theoretical, academic basis — lacking experience. And so, some professors, such as yourself, will have students try to create start-up ideas and work on start-ups in class, which is getting them this much-needed experiential component.

I drop into the system to try to work with them, and to give them a heads-up about the experience of entrepreneurship and what they’re missing … and to help them refine their ideas.

Wry: We talk about social enterprise, and we talk about social entrepreneurship. But when you start to really dig into them, people can be having really different conversations about what those two components mean together. How do you define this stuff, and what do you see in terms of the students who are working on it?

Hundert: I define social entrepreneurship, or social venture, as a company or venture, nonprofit or otherwise, that has a social impact baked right into the product, or right into the value they seek to offer society. Not like, “Hey, on occasion, with 1% of our profits, we do this thing for helping people out.” To me, that’s too minor. More so, it’s, “Well, every time you buy this, we give the exact same value to another community.” Or, “By virtue of you buying this product, people are getting educated.”

To me, social enterprise is when the [whole operation is imbued with a] social impact — education, helping lift people out of poverty, helping provide access to food or drinking water, helping to level the quality of life around the world.

These sorts of things — lifting people out of poverty, creating education, inspiration. That [impact] has to be worked right into the product Twitter . [It can’t be a matter of], “Hey, once a year we go volunteer.” That’s not it. To me, an actual larger percentage of costs of goods sold, or a larger percentage of gross revenues, is put to this purpose. And it’s continually reinvested in.

Not only that, but the values of the founders [must be] commensurate with this creating impact. It can be that the founders have figured out that this is a market advantage. It gives them a leg up on their competitors. I don’t really care if that’s the driver. [What’s more important is] that the impact is consistent, it’s measurable, and it’s doing something great in society.

Wry: Let’s talk a little bit about the students here at Wharton. What are you seeing, in terms of the energy around social enterprise with what they’re doing? Do you see the potential of the people who can mix the two?

“What I’m hearing from [students] is that there’s this deep desire to do good in the world.”

Hundert: I’ve been coming here for four years, and what I’m hearing from the student body is that there’s this deep desire to do good in the world. And I think if you look at the millennial set and the younger set, their need to see the world improve is really powerful. If you think about what’s happened in their youth, they’ve seen a terrible recession, a lingering recession. They’ve seen a lot of new data on climate and ecosystems, and terrible weather. This is constantly on their consciousness.

So, the cool thing is, you’ve got these students that are just brilliant at finance, and they want to create a huge impact in the world. You put that together, and it’s a very productive intersection.

Now, they’re also super high achievers, which is actually a bit of a downside, because they can’t stand failure. And entrepreneurship is just one failure after another — and what you do with those failures. The difference between a failure and a pivot is that, at the moment of failure, an entrepreneur [could] put their tail between their legs, pack up and go home – that’s a failure. Or, the entrepreneur who smacks into reality, and their product breaks — they remake the product to more naturally suit that reality, so they can now progress. That’s a pivot. So, while I’m seeing lots of desire to create something awesome in the world, and use these unique skills and financial acumen, there’s also a bit of a mismatch between people’s appetite for failure here, and what’s coming for them in venture, should they get into it.

Read the full interview here.