Boost your business with social inclusion

Diversity, disabilities and social inclusion can pave the way for new business opportunities – even in times of crisis. International social business advisor Tania Ellis shows you how.

Employing people with disabilities and working with social inclusion as part of a company’s corporate responsibility efforts is broadly conceived as an act of philanthropy. And in many cases it is.

But what if you could turn disabilities into special abilities, and social inclusion into new business opportunities – and thereby gain a competitive advantage?

This is exactly what some commercial and social businesses are doing, and in the wake of these, concepts such as affirmative business, CSR-(D)isability and bottom of the pyramid are gaining commercial attention.

Here are three international examples:

Specialisterne – an affirmative business (Denmark)

Specialisterne is an IT company where the business concept is centred on utilizing the special skills of people with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Their employees work on tasks such as software testing, programming and data-entries for clients like SAP, Microsoft and IBM.

This Danish business was founded by Thorkil Sonne, a father whose son had been diagnosed with autism. As Sonne soon realised, his son’s future didn’t look too bright, because – just like many other people with ASD – the boy displayed a highly unusual ability to concentrate on details and submit to an exact standard. It was just that the labour market was not geared for harvesting these special skills.

Specialisterne, Gitanjali Gems and CEMEX are just three examples that show us how a company’s corporate responsibility efforts can lead to the growth of both the people you employ or partner up with as well as the growth of your business

Specialisterne’s affirmative business model is so unique that only four years after its foundation the company became a Harvard Business School case study, and the company has since gone worldwide with offices in 12 countries.

Gitanjali Gems – inclusive employment (India)

The world’s fastest growing diamond and jewellery company is Indian Gitanjali Gems. They have made employment of disabled a central part of their talent development and human resource strategies.

This initiative started because of a shortage of labour in Hyderabad that made it necessary for the company to hire local disabled people. Result: lower staff turnover, greater employee loyalty, an increase in productivity and more.

In short, what started out as an HR crisis became a competitive advantage. The disabled turned out to be undiscovered resources, and hiring disabled youth is no longer “just a CSR initiative” but an integral part of Gitanjali Gem’s talent management strategy.

CEMEX – bottom of the pyramid business (Mexico)

Mexican CEMEX is the third largest producer of cement in the world.

Their programme “Patrimonio Hoy” [Houses, now!] enables low-income families to build their own houses by lending raw construction materials with regular payback loans and giving technical advice to ensure efficient use of materials.

This has not only enabled low-income families to build their own homes at a 30 per cent reduced cost, and reduced the average construction period from four to six years to 1.5 years. It has also proven to be a sustainable business case: During the 1994/95 crisis, CEMEX’s overall turnover fell by 50 per cent, whilst the do-it-yourself construction to low-income families segment only fell by 10 per cent.

So what started out as a CSR programme has developed into a sustainable business model tapping into a $500 million market. The programme is now being rolled out in other countries like Colombia, Costa Rica and Nicaragua, so far reaching 265 million families.

So what can we learn from them?

Specialisterne, Gitanjali Gems and CEMEX are just three examples that show us how a company’s corporate responsibility efforts can lead to the growth of both the people you employ or partner up with as well as the growth of your business.

So when you develop your next CSR strategy consider how one or several aspects of diversity and social inclusion could benefit your business – for example, as part of your talent sourcing programme to boost innovation; as part of your procurement policies by choosing efficient affirmative businesses as your suppliers; or as part of your product development efforts to gain access to new customer segments or markets that cater to the needs of minorities or the poor.

Who knows, this might be your chance to turn corporate social responsibility into corporate social opportunity.

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