Mark Alsentzer never saw himself as an environmentalist. He was a business man. It turned out, however, that a lucrative business opportunity and a boon to environmental health were meant to be one and the same for Alsentzer.
Alsentzer began investing in the company, Earth Care, in 1996 because he thought highly of its concept for turning tossed-away plastic into a beneficial product, plastic lumber. The business was in financial trouble at the end of 1996, so Alsentzer took over.
Investing in research to speed up the manufacturing process and acquiring other plastic lumber companies helped expand output, while increasing product recognition helped improve consumer demand for plastic lumber. Alsentzer counted on this two-pronged strategy to secure the company’s future.
Case No: SM81
Jack Sheaffer had a unique wastewater treatment system that produced no organic sludge, no odor, and was cheaper than conventional systems. He was worried, however, that his business might suffer if a turndown arose in the marketplace.
A previous business venture of his had failed when interest rates rose at the end of the 1970s. He wanted a business plan that would insulate him from marketplace shocks and found it with the BOOM program of build, own, operate, and maintain.
BOOM put Sheaffer’s company in charge of owning and maintaining the wastewater treatment systems designed by the company. It offered a steady source of income through long-term contracts with food processors, municipalities, and the like.
A facility built on the North Fork of the Shenandoah River in northern Virginia would be BOOM’s first test.
Case No: SM80
Allied Equity Partners provided equity-related financing to minority-owned businesses or minority entrepreneurs for the acquisition of established companies, expansion into growing companies, and start-up or early-stage financing. At the time of the case, AEP needed to raise capital of $80 million for its third and largest fund.
Its challenge was to go beyond its usual sources of funding and gain access to the more mainstream capital sources of funding that, in the last decade, drove growth in private equity capital commitments—banks, corporate trusts, endowments, insurance companies, and pension funds. AEP’s principals knew they had to rethink their strategy in order to secure capital commitments to meet their $80 million target.
Case No: SM61
Founded in 1980 by Bill Drayton, Ashoka was a professional organization that identified and invested in leading social entrepreneurs globally. Analogous to a venture capital firm for social startups, Ashoka found and supported outstanding individuals with ideas for far-reaching social change by electing them to a fellowship of social entrepreneurs.
As defined by Ashoka, the social entrepreneur had the same makeup as a business entrepreneur—in mental attitude, vision, bias for action, and skills—but the social entrepreneur sought to better the world in some way. Until 1997, Ashoka focused solely on locating and supporting social entrepreneurs in developing countries.
Over the next three years, however, Ashoka entered a new stage requiring it to shed its trappings as a “global development organization.” Ashoka updated its mission to address the demands of a rapidly expanding citizen sector and its more than 1,500 leading social entrepreneurs. Because Ashoka’s new mission required a kind of risk-taking and willingness to “make things happen in a bigger way,” Ashoka made a commitment to hire only social entrepreneurs for its key functions.
The new mission and hiring commitment attracted leading business entrepreneurs to Ashoka for the first time, triggering unprecedented organizational growth and allowing Ashoka to open for business in the United States.
This case addresses the challenges facing Ashoka in the United States.
Case No: SM157
Acumen Fund is an international venture philanthropy fund that has recently refined its strategy for providing management support to its investments.
The chief investment officer is reviewing the performance of a portfolio organization, and against the backdrop of Acumen Fund’s evolution and renewed focus on management support, he is trying to determine how much additional support to provide to an organization that has faced significant challenges.
The organization and its goals, performance, and management challenges are described. The company is a small start-up water filter manufacturer and distributor in rural India.
Acumen Fund’s approach to investment and management of philanthropic investments in developing countries is described in detail.
Case No: SM139
In mid-2000, 34-year-old Keith Yamashita, founder and principal of Stone Yamashita Partners (SYP), a nine-year-old strategy, branding, design, and culture change consultancy, sat in a conference room in SYP’s loft office space in San Francisco. As he adjusted his square and stylish black-rimmed glasses and waited for his team to assemble in the room, he thought about the pro bono project he’d recently agreed to do for Public Broadcasting System (PBS).
Yamashita was quite excited about the project; he had grown up watching PBS programs such as Sesame Street and Nova and had long admired PBS’ dedication to education and public service. Yet PBS was facing substantial changes, such as increasing competition from new media, including the internet and cable television, as well as organizational, funding, and governance issues.
The new CEO of PBS, Patricia Mitchell, had asked for SYP’s help. SYP had worked with a number of high-profile corporations, including IBM, Disney, Nike, and HP. Its unique brand of consulting drew more on communications and design than number crunching.
Rather than PowerPoint decks of market analyses or positioning suggestions, its deliverables had included a cityscape and role-play exercise for Nike managers that forced them to spend a day as kids from the city of Chicago; a “Summer Jam” session at IBM that helped college kids brainstorm about the future along with the famed scientists and engineers of the Watson Laboratories at IBM; and an in-house amusement park mock-up at HP that showed concrete ways that HP technology might alter the experience of guests at Disneyland.
SYP had avoided traditional consultancy buzz phrases such as “change management” or “business process redesign.” Instead, it talked about “heart,” “visceral experiences,” and making ideas “gritty."
Yamashita said, “We reinvent companies and cultures. We work in the boardroom and on the front lines, taking companies through change.”
PBS was an organization that was facing substantial environmental challenges and would likely need to change its longstanding structure, routines, and conservative, change-averse culture. As Yamashita waited in the conference room for the team to arrive, he thought about how SYP’s approach and principles could be tailored and modified to help PBS transform itself.
Case No: SM119A,B,C
Grameen Bank was a microcredit bank in Bangladesh, annually lending hundreds of millions of dollars to its millions of poor entrepreneurs. The bank’s managing director, Muhammad Yunus, was faced with tremendous challenges brought about by the political upheavals and natural disasters common in this economically developing country.
Floods, elections, and party-backed unions have upset the natural flow of Grameen’s no-collateral lending process, and Yunus must decide how to extend needed aid without undermining the borrowers’ perception that Grameen is a bank, not an aid institution.
The case covers the history of the bank from 1975 to 1998, with a concentration on events in the mid-nineties.
Case No: SM116
Headquartered in St. Paul, Minn., Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) evolved from a small public station that 26-year-old William Kling established at St. John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minn. in 1967. By 2004, Kling’s venture had grown into a regional network of 38 stations, serving more than 5 million people. The organization had more than 83,000 members and boasted the highest percentage of listener membership of any community-supported public radio network in the nation. Much of MPR's growth and success had been built through what Kling referred to as "social purpose capitalism … the application of the traditional principles of capitalism … to a nonprofit organization [to] benefit the public sector.”
Kling's first foray into "social purpose capitalism" was in 1981 when Garrison Keillor, the popular host of "A Prairie Home Companion," wanted to reward loyal listeners with a free poster of “Powdermilk Biscuits,” an allusion to a fictitious sponsor that was part of a Prairie Home gag. The giveaway drew over 50,000 responses, much more than originally anticipated, costing $60,000. To avert finincial ruin, Kling printed an offer for other products that listners could buy on the back of the poster. Netting $15,000 to $20,000 from that poster convinced Kling that there were opportunities to secure MPR's financial situation. Kling created a number of for-profit ventures to support and build the MPR empire.
By 2004, however, MPR and Kling were the subject of unrelenting public criticism. Ostensibly, the issue was MPR’s unwillingness to disclose Kling’s compensation from the private for-profit enterprises spawned by MPR. After later disclosing this information, Kling became the subject of condemnation amid accusations of conflicts of interest and nepotism. Knowledgeable observers, however, saw the real concern to be fear that a public benefit organization was being driven by profit-making priorities.
Case No: SI92
In mid-2006, Overstock.com faced a daunting set of business challenges. Founded in 1999 as an online “closeout” retailer, the $800 million company had more than 15 million unique visitors a month, 10 million life-to-date customers, and greater than 500,000 active SKUs in roughly 20 product categories.
However, while it had come within one half of a percent, the firm had yet to realize an annual profit. Moreover, the tremendous growth that had enabled the company to become on online shopping giant appeared to be slowing at an alarming rate.
At least partly as a result of the challenges facing the core business, Worldstock—the company’s socially responsible initiative—was also in jeopardy. Started by CEO Patrick Byrne in 2001, the division leveraged the firm’s infrastructure to market handicrafts produced by third-world artisans to the mainstream U.S. retail market via a designated portal on the Overstock.com website.
However, working with third-world artisans turned out to be significantly more expensive than originally anticipated. By mid-2006, Worldstock’s “self-sustaining” model for economic development was projected to contribute nearly $1 million to the company’s losses that year.
Although most managers were cautious about criticizing the CEO’s “pet project,” a few felt the company had to address (what they saw as) the negative impact that Worldstock was having on Overstock’s financial performance.
As a result, all those committed to the Worldstock model, from CEO Byrne to Division Manager Angela Ramirez, faced the thorny questions about how to balance these new fiscal imperatives with the group’s philanthropic and social objectives.
While no one wanted to openly acknowledge it, some stakeholders wondered if Worldstock might eventually be shut down or spun off if the situation did not improve.
Case No: SI88