Studying sustainable business strategies: Fiona Wilson

Nature of Business Radio

Studying sustainable business strategies: Fiona Wilson

My conversation with Fiona Wilson is the second in my four part series on women in sustainability, innovation, and entrepreneurship. Fiona is Assistant Professor of Strategy, Social Entrepreneurship, and Sustainability the University of New Hampshire’s Whittemore School of Business and Economics. We talked about her career in business and now academia, her research on the social business, social entrepreneurship, and sustainability, the direction she thinks the field is going -- and much more.

Wilson started out her career in business at Ogilvy & Mather Advertising where she initially took on roles in senior media research, media planning and international account management. She also served as VP of Marketing for CMGI (the internet investment and development company). Although she enjoyed her experiences, she reached a point where she felt something was missing. So she charted a new course (during the time of Enron and Worldcom) and found a perfect match in the social entrepreneurship world in academia.

Her primary interest is to explore businesses that are created with the explicit purpose of addressing some kind of social or environmental problem. She refers to this new breed of organizations as a hybrid organization. In her words:

“What sets (the companies I study) apart is that they have a primary purpose around social or environmental value creation.  And that social and environmental value creation is at least equal to their purpose of financial return. In many cases it’s a higher priority than their financial return. They have chosen to be a market participant as opposed to non-profit because they see it as the most effective way to create the kind of change that they are looking for in the world.”

In this podcast, we talk about her forthcoming publication co-written with James Post of Boston University titled "Business models for people, planet (& profits): Exploring the phenomena of social business, a market-based approach to social value creation." This paper stands out from other research in its thoroughness and highly qualitative attributes.

For example, Fiona conducts her interviews with COOs, CFOs, Marketing Directors, and Board members as well as the Founders and CEOs.  These diverse perspectives provide rich insight into the DNA of these companies. One takeaway we discussed is the way companies avoid conflict by focusing on the way they design the approach to the marketplace at inception.

Our conversation delves into the work of two companies:

  • Equal Exchange, a company that was created a couple of decades ago to bring fair trade coffee from Nicaragua to the US. It's since expanded into teas, chocolate, bananas, olive oil, and almonds.
  • Preserve, a company that makes stylish, high performance, eco-friendly products out of 100 percent #5 plastic. (See a related Nature of Business interview here with Preserve).

Fiona is optimistic about the field of social entrepreneurship. She feels that small companies are paving the way and showing that the social business is viable, even though the challenges around governance and access to capital remain.She also points out the increased growth of B Corporations and their role in paving the way for even more social businesses.

 It’s a terrific conversation -- so listen in and enjoy the podcast.

Podcast edited by George Papoulias. Photo of Fiona Wilson courtesy of Fiona Wilson.