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From Wingate to Berlin: Influencing social change through summer research

by Luanne Williams

What happens when businesses commit to not only making a financial profit, but also profiting society and the environment? That's a part of what a student and professor at Wingate University set out to discover with help from a Reeves Summer Research grant.

Nik Martin doesn’t know for sure where he will wind up after graduation in May, but after spending last summer conducting research on social entrepreneurship, the Wingate University senior eventually hopes to take his A game to a B Corp.

“In the future I either want to work for a business which changes the world, or found my own business,” says Martin, an international student and swimmer who has been recognized for achievements in the classroom as well as the pool. As a marketing major with minors in math and entrepreneurship, Martin says he’s pretty well-versed in the logistics of business. From finding the right business model to fulfilling legal requirements, he knows what it takes to launch a new venture.

“But I also have a social side, and especially in the modern world I believe helping others is more important than ever,” Martin says.

That’s why he welcomed a chance to team up with Dr. Debbi Brock, assistant professor of marketing and entrepreneurship, through the Reeves Summer Research grant to explore “B Corps” in North Carolina and in his home country of Germany. The B Corp label is a third-party certification administered by a nonprofit called B Lab, not to be confused with the term “benefit corporation,” a type of for-profit legal structure in 34 U.S. states that, similar to the “B Corp” designation, is concerned not only with financial profit but also with how businesses can benefit society and the environment.

North Carolina is not one of the 34 states that recognizes benefit corporations, but B Lab still certifies companies as B Corps in the state. Certified B Corps meet high standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency and legal accountability. As part of their Declaration of Interdependence, these businesses must commit to be the change they seek in the world; to conduct all business as if people and place matter; to strive to do no harm; and to act with the understanding that they are dependent on and responsible for each other.

Beyond the good intentions of those who start B Corps, Martin and Brock wanted to explore how their commitments play out and what influence stakeholders wield on how the businesses are operated. To do so, they interviewed four B Corp founders in North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park, and then Martin interviewed two in Berlin. The duo also distributed an online survey to about 120 companies.

Among other questions, the researchers asked founders how they decided to pursue B Corp status, how stakeholders – from employees and customers to suppliers and funders – influenced their decisions and whether they intend to seek re-certification. They also questioned them about changes they had made in their business based on the certification and about its impact on the performance of the business.

Martin says he was pleasantly surprised by the founders’ openness and willingness to share.

“They knew each other and told stories about each other,” he says. “They had a lot of the same goals and were super inspiring.”

Increasing profits

Although conventional wisdom might suggest that spending money on social goals would undermine profits, Martin says founders told him the social goals actually helped them meet financial objectives.

“Because of what they were doing to help society, employees wanted to work for them, so it was easier for the business to find and hire quality talent,” he says. “These B Corps help to bring people together who have the same goals.”

Martin was also surprised by the diversity among the group of founders he interviewed. Because it is a fairly new business model, he expected to find young business owners who started out from day one with social entrepreneurship in mind. That wasn’t always the case.

“One founder was over 60 and had been about to go into bankruptcy when he got into the green economy and completely changed his business model and is now successful,” Martin says. No one he interviewed was lukewarm on the B Corp idea or had doubts about whether to recertify.

Martin and Brock will compile all their interview findings into an academic article and presentation titled “B Corp certification and the triple bottom line: How social ventures align social, financial and environmental objectives.”

Brock is already an internationally recognized expert in social entrepreneurship. In 2003 she founded the Entrepreneurship for the Public Good program at Berea College, and in 2011 she was recognized by Ashoka U, a company that focuses on social entrepreneurship at universities, for “distinguished service to the field of social entrepreneurship education.” Still, she says there is much to learn about the field, and the summer project rounds out research she performed for her doctoral dissertation.

“My earlier research focus was solely on social entrepreneurship, and it has expanded to understand the influence of benefit corporations to support social value creation,” Brock said.

A group of students look at a laptop and books in a marketing class.

Brock is equally excited about the international attention being garnered by a second project she and Martin completed this summer: developing a website to share teaching resources. “The response has been incredible, with enthusiastic support from faculty around the world, from India to Spain and from Australia to South Africa,” she says.

For several years, Brock has been sharing her experiential course activities, presentations and other resources with hundreds of social entrepreneurship educators all over the world. She did so by granting them access to an online storage site, which was not very user-friendly.

Martin, who began designing websites in high school, built the new platform at so that faculty and program directors can not only access the resources but upload their own files to share. Already more than 100 professors are using the site, even before he and Brock have officially launched it. Martin said work on the platform will continue as more resources are added and new features are rolled out.

He’s thrilled with the networking opportunities the research and website development have afforded him and is excited about how his experience will benefit him as he pursues a master’s degree in innovation and entrepreneurship and lands a role with a company whose goals extend beyond the spreadsheet.

“I would like to work with a business that wants to solve a problem rather than creating one,” Martin says.

He and Brock are among seven teams that performed research funded by Reeves grants this summer.

September 26, 2018

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