Fulbright students and the 2022 cohort of the Social Impact Business Accelerator Program, organized by Acumen Academy and Fulbright University Vietnam, were treated to an enlightening conversation on the role, meaning, and purpose of social impact businesses in today’s world during the program’s inaugural Speakers Series session.
“There are two questions of crucial importance you need to ask yourself before starting a social impact business. The first deals with your primary intention; meaning do you find it in your heart a genuine desire to serve society? The second thing is whether your business can support society’s most underprivileged people. In other words, intention is more important than action,” said Mr. Nguyễn Phương Lam, an impact investor, at the event.
After a successful career in finance and investment, Mr. Nguyễn Phương Lam is now a philanthropist known for his distinguished contributions to education and poverty alleviation. His philanthropic activities span throughout organizations in Asia and the world, among which is Acumen, a global nonprofit whose mission is to “change the way the world tackles poverty by investing in sustainable businesses, leaders, and ideas”.
Alongside their impact investment fund, the organization also boasts the Acumen Academy, wherein social innovators and future leaders can acquire the practical tools, practices and resources needed to build towards a more inclusive and just world for the people in their local communities. The joint effort between Acumen Academy and Fulbright University Vietnam to organize the Social Impact Business Accelerator Program was facilitated by Mr. Nguyễn Phương Lam, who had previously created the Nguyễn-Phương Family Scholarship for Fulbright undergraduate students.
Accelerating Social Impact Businesses
Titled “Measuring Social Impact”, the first session of the program’s Speaker Series featured Mr. Nguyễn Phương Lam; Mr. Jimmy Phạm, founder and CEO of KOTO; Ms. Trịnh Hương Ly, COO of Blended First Aid; and Dr. Nguyễn Thị Trang, faculty member in Integrated Sciences at Fulbright University Vietnam.
Alongside student attendees were also representatives from 15 social enterprises in Vietnam, including Lagom, Green Joy, EGreen, tMonitor, WeGrow, Dan Lat Handicrafts, Volunteer for Education, Survival Skills Vietnam, SWM, One4One, Harau, Dakado, and ECO Vietnam.
Active in a wide array of work such as waste disposal management, compostable products, biogas energy, sex education, sustainable crafts and community-based tourism, first aid education and training, smart water management and sustainable agriculture – these social impact businesses form the 2022 cohort of the Social Impact Business Accelerator Program.
Over the course of 12 weeks, they will learn the essentials of building a business model that can tackle Vietnam’s most pressing social challenges. While Acumen Academy provides practical assignments, curriculum materials and case studies from global businesses, Fulbright University Vietnam offers an academic environment to host the Speaker Series that can help deepen program learnings and enhance the cohort’s connection.
Measuring Impact for Social Businesses
“One of the goals that I’m pursuing as an educator at Fulbright is for students to understand how their actions can impact the world,” said Dr. Nguyễn Thị Trang. “In any endeavor they choose to pursue in life, as future change-makers, students should be aware of the multifaceted aspects on which their action will exert impact, and whether or not their solutions can actually help improve a situation, rather than aggravate it.”
According to Dr. Nguyễn Thị Trang, the reason why social enterprises should, or ought to, measure their performance is due to the finitude of their resources – be it time, skilled personnel, or money. The results from this analytic and evaluative process will help them recognize where they should concentrate resources on. “Limited as they are, we need to optimize the use of resources to achieve the best results possible. Locate the strongest, and weakest, links in your operation, and allocate your resources accordingly. At any given moment, there’s no perfect solution, only the most fitting solution,” she said.
Ms. Trịnh Huong Ly, COO of Blended First Aid, also found herself agreeing with Dr. Trang’s point of view: “Measuring impact is something we should do everyday, just like your daily exercise routine, or reading at least a dozen pages off a book. It will assist us in the navigation of our goals, to see if we’re on the right track, or whether we’re being caught up in the whirlwind of profitability.”
While Ms. Trịnh Huong Ly can measure the impact of Blended First Aid through the number of people signing up for the training program (as well as their feedback upon completion), for Mr. Jimmy Phạm, founder and CEO of KOTO, social businesses can also measure their impact on broader societal levels.
KOTO is a nonprofit that provides hospitality training for at-risk and disadvantaged Vietnamese youth. After more than 20 years of operation, KOTO now boasts over 1,200 graduates who have gone on to become executive and sous chefs, hotel and resort general managers, business owners as well as university graduates. Whether their success can be illustrated by the story of a struggling shoe vendor who now owns a modest coffee shop to support his wife and kids, or that of a girl who used to sell sticky rice on the street, then earned a scholarship to study in Australia, and now runs a social enterprise that assist women suffering from domestic violence – according to Mr. Jimmy Phạm, KOTO’s impact on society is fourfold.
First, it provides highly skilled labor for the hospitality and tourism industry in Vietnam and across the world. For customers, it means quality services and products. It also demonstrates for government officials the effectiveness of their program, so that they can advocate for policies that can incentivize social businesses and support disadvantaged people. But most importantly, KOTO graduates can set examples that inspire their families towards efforts to overcome poverty and create for themselves a better life. “Nothing compares to the empowering of people through the enrichment of their skills and self-confidence, so that they can pass on to their siblings, their children, as well as their local communities, this empowering belief in life’s possibilities,” said Mr. Jimmy Phạm.
When asked whether social businesses should measure their impact on a qualitative or quantitative basis, Mr. Nguyễn Phương Lam responded by sharing an intriguing fact that at Acumen, the year-end reports of the social enterprises that they have invested in would most oftentimes show losses rather than profits. But these businesses also assert that throughout their operations, they have uplifted and transformed the lives of around 500 million people worldwide. “Personally, I’m not entirely concerned with how they come up with that number. From the perspective of an Acumen investor, we don’t set expectations for financial returns on investment. Since the money has already been given away, it doesn’t matter whether we personally gain or loss,” said Mr. Nguyễn Phương Lam.
“On technical ground, it is indeed necessary for social enterprises to measure their impact. But for investors, the reason we’re doing this is because we’re deeply invested in and care about societal issues. If not, we would divert our resources to projects that can maximize our earnings and profits,” he said. “Each social enterprise will have their own goals and missions, and so, they need to decide for themselves how they should measure impact. The ultimate, and most important question, for me is whether we are truly creating positive impacts for the world’s most underprivileged people. A social enterprise should reflect our personal search, and self-actualization, towards a higher purpose, which I deem crucial and fundamental for anyone of us who wishes to lead a meaningful life”.