That’s right.  The business profiled yesterday is Wal-Mart.  Apparently, though, this didn’t really come as a surprise to those brave enough to venture a guess.  I must be far more transparent than I had thought.

Anyhow, whilst I await my severe flagellation from the anti-Wal-Martians, here are those bullets again, with some specifics added.

  • Mission to serve customers who have not traditionally been beneficiaries of the innovations and successes of the broader economic system
    • Wal-Mart’s initial mission was to serve rural communities that were in many ways excluded from the mainstream economy
  • Obsession with providing the greatest value to customers at price points they can afford
    • There mission statement is, “Save money. Live better.”  Finding ways to provide quality goods at the lowest possible prices is ingrained in the culture.
  • Meritocratic work environment that puts results and work ethic ahead of shining academic credentials and other factors that are more susceptible to “privilege.”  (The organization has consistently rewarded highly capable and hard-working individuals regardless of their level of formal education.  Much of the company’s leadership is made up of these individuals.)
    • Many executives and middle managers started as store or distribution center employees.
  • Works feverishly, both internally and externally, with industry groups and suppliers,  to make improvements in “green-ness” of both internal operations and its supply chain
    • This has been a more recent push, in part thanks to Adam Werbach‘s efforts.
  • Has achieved amazing financial returns and successfully grown and scaled without sacrificing commitment to its original mission (see first bullet); puts some of those profits back into the communities it serves through philanthropic structures
    • Wal-Mart’s financial success is self-evident.  What is less well-known is that both Wal-Mart corporate’s giving program and individual store managers are allowed discretion in putting money back into their communities.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  Wal-Mart should by no means be considered a darling of the social enterprise movement. Throughout its history it has made a number of questionable decisions, including but not limited to:

  • Providing uncompetitive wages and zero health benefits to store-level employees
  • Until recently, writing off green practices as unpractical and unprofitable
  • Using its hegemonic position to place extreme pressure on suppliers to engage in unsustainable business practices
  • Indulging Americans’ insatiable appetite for consumer goods

I’m sure the list could go on, but I’ll stop there.

The point of this exercise is not to lift up or cut down Wal-Mart.  The point is to be provocative and make a point.  Actually, a couple of points:

  • Through scale, BOP businesses can achieve both social impact and financial returns.  And achieving both is ok. This was Prahalad’s initial thesis, but is something that we seem to forget.
  • Classifying companies as social or not is inherently grey business, perhaps undoable, and maybe even undesirable or counter-productive.
  • Any self-proclaimed social business that makes it big will, at some point, be characterized as a sellout.  Big companies, even those with the best of intentions, ultimately make some missteps.  Also, their dominant position comes to be resented and viewed negatively by certain groups.  If you’re a social entrepreneur with larger-than-life aspirations, be ready for this.

Ok, now I’m ready for my flagellation.

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