How Can a Business Drive Positive Social Change?

Computer science major Isabella Muno ’21, who recently attended the Forbes Under 30 Summit in Detroit to explore possibilities for her own campus-created startup, writes about what she learned there.

Grounded in the entrepreneurial spirit of Detroit, the Forbes Under 30 Summit brought together people—CEOs, activists, musicians, tech founders, funders, marketing professionals, and more—from many different fields of innovation. And thanks to support from the Haverford Innovations Program, which also funded work on Gradual, my team’s startup this summer as part of its incubator, I was able to fly to Detroit and attend three days of conversations, learning, and connecting.

The summit featured more than 200 speakers and 9000 attendees. The conversations I got to hear while there ranged from re-envisioning large-scale transportation to the underinvestment in women-founded (and particularly women-of-color-founded) start-ups to the importance of mitigating climate change. Every day brought new information that reframed the way I think about innovation.

Despite the diverse range of topics enumerated above, the speakers conveyed a common theme: businesses are driving positive social change. The prevalence of this theme surprised me because I came of age in a world where the equation for social change was akin to: nonprofit = social change. I struggled to imagine how alternatives could address our many societal injustices and inequities in the ways that nonprofits quietly and loudly do every day.

The Under 30 Summit offered, underlined, and amplified the voices of entrepreneurs who have found an alternative. They are not replacing nonprofits, but they are driving social impact from a different angle: business. For example, there is a bread company started by panelist Daniel Kurzrock that takes food waste generated from beer brewing and uses it to bake bread. A nontoxic blow-dry salon in Detroit founded by speakers Sophia Bush and Nia Batts which both created a space where women with all hair types can get their hair done and that has a philanthropic arm that invests in local entrepreneurship. An app that manages all the details required to run a small business addresses the biggest reasons why small businesses fail. There are startups redefining banking. Shivani Siroya, founder and CEO of Tala, spoke about her fair-lending platform’s mission to reach people who could not otherwise receive a loan to help get their business off the ground. These are only some of the many businesses I learned about that are grounded in a mission to create social change even as they operate for profit.

This ties to my own work with Gradual, a website I worked on this past summer with Blien Habtu ’21 and Ziyao (Claire) Wang ’22, which allows students to map their major and graduation requirements to ensure they are on track to graduate. In particular, it gives me a blueprint for how we can emphasize Gradual’s social impact while also operating as a business.  This is central as we move forward in the development process.

These businesses exemplify another trend I noticed over the course of the summit. The possibilities are not endless, but the spirit of innovation has widened the playing field for positive social change. Social-impact businesses are just another tool that we can use to imagine a better world and drive change.

– Isabella Muno ’21, computer science major, economics minor, and peace, justice, and human rights concentrator


Photo of Isabella Muno by Patrick Montero