This month the MFA Design for Social Innovation program at SVA launched a new initiative to transform the way businesses think about social impact by bringing together corporate and nonprofit leaders from the food and beverage, fashion, cosmetics, pharmaceutical and technology industries.
Good Business+Social Design, as the project has been called, is the brainchild of MFA Design for Social Innovation Chair Cheryl Heller and Cheryl Yaffe Kiser, executive director of the Lewis Institute & Babson Social Innovation Lab at Babson College. How can designers play a more strategic role in the companies they work for? How can businesses attract and retain? How do you bring philanthropy, social design, entrepreneuring and business together? These are the questions driving the initiative. Conceived as a series of roundtable discussions in its first phase, it’s meant to extend the influence of the cutting-edge programs that Heller and Kiser lead at their respective institutions in various directions: participants are energized by sharing real-world challenges and successes, and Heller and Kiser gain insights from practitioners and potential employers that they can apply immediately to their students’ training.
Judging from the kick-off event, the project has wide appeal. Held on January 14, it was billed simply as “dinner and conversation,” but drew more than a dozen reps from Fortune 500 companies and successful New York City startups. The evening was remarkable for its candor, humor and far-reaching implications. Reflecting on the evolving role played by corporate social responsibility (CSR) units since they became commonplace in the 1990s, one attendee said, “We used to play defense, but now it’s an offensive game”—good news for those looking to enter or advance the profession.
The discussion tapped decades of collective experience in corporate social responsibility. In attendance were: Natalia Arguello, executive director, NY Designs; Ventura Castro, managing art director, NBC News; Diane DePaolsis, executive vice president and creative director for branding, FCB Health; Manoj Fenelon, director of foresight, PepsiCo; designer Gayatri Jolly; Michelle Joseph, education and energy manager, Verizon Foundation; Lauren Kritzer, COO, Applico; Laura Rodnick, marketing manager, Color Cosmetics; Dave Stangis, vice president, public affairs and corporate responsibility, Campbell Soup Company, and president, Campbell Soup Foundation; and Kay Takeda, director of grants and services, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council.
One challenge felt by both educators and employers is the perception of many young people today that profit and positive social impact are inherently at odds. The attendees uniformly rejected the idea, but acknowledged the perception isn’t entirely without justification. Although CSR is well established in the US, and innovation has proven its value to the bottom line, attendees agreed that there is still work to be done. A management consultant in attendance pointed to a young firm with $800 million in annual revenue whose management had only recently started to talk about social responsibility.
Based on the initial gathering, Good Business+Social Design has an important role to play in supporting CSR professionals and other business leaders. Just days later, one attendee who specializes in branding reported she was in a brainstorming workshop and made a point of suggesting only ideas which had a social design component.