By Sir Harold Evans
Jan 21 (Reuters) - What kind of people created the basics of our modern world? Mass travel on jet planes, cell phones and MRI scanners, video games and gene-based medicines and news 24/7 and that laser at the supermarket checkout? Come to think of shopping, how did we get the container ships that make it possible for us to have almost anything from almost anywhere? Orange juice from China, nuts from India, swordfish from Japan, salmon from Alaska ...
When I investigated 200 years of innovation for my book They Made America, I noted the roots of those innovators: We owe mass travel to a beach taxi pilot building on the work of a couple of bicycle mechanics, cell phones to a radio ham, MRI scanners to a one-time tennis coach, video games to a carnival barker, container shipping to a truck driver, 24/7 news to a billboard salesman and the laser to a one-time radio repairman.
But amid that diversity there's a common factor. They are all men. For most of those two centuries women had few chances to innovate anything. The few in business were there only to assist men, no different from women fetching the water in the villages and townships of Africa and Asia and Latin America.
The striking thing today is that millions of women are involved in innovation - an innovation of capitalism itself that has singular benefits to women, and through them, society as a whole. This innovation arises from corporations acknowledging three things. One, that a troubled society is bad for business.
Two, governments and nonprofits alone can't eradicate unemployment, illiteracy and disease. Three, ways can be found to graft the disciplines of business onto programs of social merit, especially by liberating the energies of half the population.
Everyone has heard of Muhammad Yunus, who was inspired to start the Grameen Bank for the poor in 1976 after encountering Sofiya Begum, a village woman in Bangladesh whose little business making bamboo stools was held hostage by usurious moneylenders. Yunus went on from making micro-loans to collaborating with Franck Riboud, the imaginative CEO of Groupe Danone, to make a low-cost yogurt fortified with protein, iron, vitamins and other additives of huge benefit to growing children. It's distributed by thousands of "Grameen ladies."
A lot has happened since then. Instead of moaning about entitlement cultures and the inefficiencies of squabbling nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), great corporations like Accenture, Adidas, Chrysler, Coca-Cola , Goldman Sachs, Merck, Nike, Procter & Gamble, the Gap and Wal-Mart are endowing women with skills at all levels, and often a little capital to start their own small businesses.
Yes, it's a smart public relations move by those companies, but it's also a good example of the "shared values" advocated by Michael Porter and Mark Kramer in last year's Harvard Business Review cover story that won the 2011 McKinsey award as the most influential of the year's articles. They argue that capitalism - an unparalleled vehicle for meeting human needs - has wasted its full potential by narrowly focusing on short-term profit without much regard for the impact on a community: "The purpose of the corporation must be redefined as creating shared value, not just profit per se."
What this can mean in practice is manifest in vignettes across the globe.
* It's Regina Gomes, a widowed grandmother in a sprawling favela in Rio de Janeiro, finding "a reason to live" in a mission to clean up the rat-infested garbage piled high and blocks wide on her streets. Government help? Forget it. She did it, and then Coca-Cola helped her expand that success. Through its 5by20 program, designed to empower 5 million women entrepreneurs by 2020, it linked her to two cooperatives. Coletivo Artisans enrolled her in design workshops, where she gained the skills to help local women turn salvaged bottles and fabrics into saleable items. Those materials come from a recycling cooperative, Coletivo Recycling, organized by Coke. She started a shop next to it and is now part of a flourishing trade in craftwork in Rio's slums that is being greatly assisted by Brazil's artisans. Regina's business grows; the community appreciates the jobs and clean streets. She's done well enough to buy a home but is in the favela every day because, she says, "This is where my soul lives."
* It's Kabeh Sumbo in Liberia learning record-keeping from Goldman Sachs' 10,000 Women program, and her business, which began with one gallon of palm oil, now employs 18 and ships oil overseas.
* It's Gabriel Jaramillo of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, envying Coca-Cola's ability to get its beverages to every remote region, and Coke deciding to lend its supply chain expertise so that delivery times for life-saving drugs in Tanzania have been cut from 30 days to five.
* It's Grace Wakado in Kampala, Uganda, working with Exxon and Ashola, to provide solar lamps to 277 women working in direct sales businesses that have brought light to 30,000 homes. Momentum has come from the unique convening power of former President Bill Clinton. His Clinton Global Initiative, begun in 2005, has been a galvanizing force, getting commitments from companies and NGOs to turn ideas into action. Programs empowering women figure prominently. Muhtar Kent, the chairman and CEO of Coca-Cola, reckons that in just seven years gender equality will increase productivity in emerging countries by 14 percent. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's ambassador for women, Melanne Verveer, and Kim Azzarelli, president of the Women in the World Foundation, are at the forefront of this new form of capitalism. They stress the social effects: "Women are more likely than men," they write, "to put their income into their communities, driving illiteracy and mortality rates down and GDP up."
There are bound to be mistakes as the movement develops, and, for sure, a surfeit of the cynicism that benevolence incites. But my guess is that as the successes of "shared value" businesses multiply we'll wonder why we didn't do it before.