Pulling the plug on traditional approaches to CSR

We spoke to the CEO of Bethnal Green Ventures to discuss CSR and the best way small businesses can get involved.

Corporate Social Responsibility, commonly known as CSR, is a great way for businesses to contribute to the wider community, and champion their human side. However, for a lot of businesses – especially smaller ones – picking the right CSR initiative is difficult, especially when they’re trying to keep the main operations of the business running smoothly. Despite best intentions, CSR initiatives often fall onto the pile of things to sort out later.

For Paul Miller, CEO of Bethnal Green Ventures, collaboration between SMEs/Start-ups and larger businesses is key to bridging the gap in CSR initiatives and adapting to quickly changing social climates.

Dovetailing technology and CSR in a bid to “make the world a better place”, Paul shares his insight on the benefits of forming communities and how shifts in technology are revolutionising approaches to CSR for the better.

Can you tell us a bit about what you do at Bethnal Green Ventures?

We invest in and support very early stage technology ventures that are trying to use technology to effect important social impact on the world and to be super successful, profitable businesses as well. We’ve now backed over a hundred of those ventures since 2012. We’re super proud of their business success, as well as the environmental and social impact that they’ve had to date. That’s an area we’ve seen growing in terms of founders wanting to do this kind of thing, so that’s heartening for the future of the business.

What sparked the idea to found Bethnal Green Ventures?

I started an education technology business back in 2006, which was really hard work. I think at the time trying to combine social impact, high growth technology, business and investment was a very unusual thing. And it felt a bit lonely; there weren’t many people out there saying ‘oh this is a good thing’ or explicitly saying they would invest in that kind of approach.

What happened next?

When that business closed down in 2011, I thought maybe it would be a better thing for the world if there was an organisation out there that wanted to support people and connect them to investment – to back them at that super early stage and try to make [going into business] a less lonely experience. I wanted to make it a more positive environment for people that wanted to use their skills to have an impact on the world of true business.

What are your favourite or most exciting examples of technology that’s tackling the big social and environmental problems we face?

We list under four themes, so, the first is health and trying to improve health in the 21st century. One business we backed that’s doing really well is called ‘OurPath’ and they run a diabetes prevention program that people can access online. They’ve got a really high success rate of helping at risk people to avoid getting type 2 diabetes. They’re getting thousands of new users every month referred by the NHS and through workplaces as well. I think they’re a fantastic example of using technology to tackle a really tough problem.

Bright Little Labs’ created a set of characters and stories for kids that help them to understand the technology they use; they learn about coding, and where the materials and devices they use come from. It’s all done online so it’s an immersive environment for kids to explore; everything from cartoons, to books and online adventures that kids play themselves. They’ve just had big round of investment from Turner who own Cartoon Network.

Then sustainability is another theme for us. The highest profile would be ‘Fair phone’, who produce a more ethically sourced smartphone that’s trying to avoid using conflict minerals from central Africa and then produced under fair working conditions in China. They have created a product that’s modular, so you don’t have to replace the whole phone if you want to upgrade – you can replace just the camera, for example. And, that really drives down the environmental damage caused by phones being thrown away. They’re doing super well.

Our final theme is democracy, we work with a company called ‘Commonplace’. They help people to get involved in consultations about their local area. Usually about property development, or the way their local council wants to change the high street, for example. Typically, this would be done via a laminated piece of paper on a lamppost that not very many people respond to. So, they came up with the idea of creating a mobile app and they’ve managed to get far more people involved in those processes and hopefully that improves decisions.

What are some of the biggest success stories that have come out of Bethnal Green Ventures?

One example a lot of people might have used, but perhaps don’t know by name is something called ‘DrDoctor’, they started with us a few years ago and run smart appointment systems for the NHS. A huge problem in hospitals is something called DNAs: ‘Did Not Attend’s’ – people who miss their appointment. ‘DrDoctor’ have come up with a really smart system for reducing those DNAs. It’s been really successful in all of the hospitals it’s being used at. A lot of London hospitals use it, I think there’s 5 million NHS patients who now use their service at the moment. They’re a great company who are growing really fast.

Do you think technology is the future of CSR? Is it a better alternative to traditional methods?

I think that the advantage of technology is that it has the ability to scale so you can reach a lot more people. Using technology innovates how you create that social impact and you can actually reach far, far more people. I think that’s one of the reasons founders want to do this; they really want to change the world for the better in a way that has a maximum possible benefit. That’s where the technology side of things comes in. They can see how it would enable them to affect the lives of millions of people, rather the hundreds a traditional approach might have.

What advice would you give to a start-up that wants to make a social or environmental difference, but doesn’t know where to begin?

We’re part of the ‘tech for good’ community – there’s meet-ups for that across London, the UK and Europe. And, it’s quite easy to seek out people who have a quite similar approach, who might have started already, be established businesses, or, other people who are just starting out. The other movement that people are really involved in is the B-corp (benefit corporation) movement, which is the idea that you can set the mission of your company to be about both profit and a positive impact on the world. You get certified as a B-corp by measuring your impact. It’s a good community of people that can help you on the technical side of how you can have a positive impact, but that can also be emotionally supportive in terms of going beyond just profit and having a really strong social purpose.

Bethnal Green Ventures are constantly looking for new ideas, opportunities and start-ups to back, if you are interested in growing ‘tech for good’ then you can find more information here.

Want to know more about how CSR can benefit your business? Read our article below on how championing CSR can help to attract consumers.