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Business, Poverty, and a New Value Equation

July 16, 2011

(Barbara Dyer is president & CEO of The Hitachi Foundation,  an independent nonprofit philanthropic organization established by Hitachi, Ltd. in 1985 whose mission is to forge an authentic integration of business actions and societal well-being in North America.)

Abrightidea In many communities, economic recovery feels very far away. Millions of Americans see little hope of joining, or rejoining, the economic mainstream. Part of the solution to their predicament requires a reformulation of how businesses define value -- an understanding that there are business practices that can boost both profit as well as the prospects of low-wealth residents in communities across the country. Entrepreneurs, big and small, are putting this value equation to work and proving the difference it can make for companies and communities alike.

While policy makers and businesses work to find a solution to lagging employment, it's clear the tried-and-true approaches of the past must be revamped to match present and future challenges. A new value must be added to the equation -- one that not only factors in the change but also prioritizes those who have been left behind.

Companies are finding ways to increase their profitability, for example, by investing in low-income workers. Even more interestingly, there are entrepreneurs starting businesses with the clear intention of creating viable enterprises aimed at helping to ameliorate poverty. These creative catalysts for change are banking on and profiting from a quality that motivates people in these communities to persevere and provide for their families.

Indeed, entrepreneurship has the potential to generate powerful solutions for many who are struggling to climb out of poverty. And it reinforces one of the core principles that Americans have passed down over generations: the belief that all of us, regardless of our background, can birth a concept that sets change in motion.

Entrepreneurs can and will use the tools of business to create innovative solutions that address persistent poverty. But while the concept of enterprise as a poverty-fighting strategy isn't new, in recent years we seem to have focused on the efforts of entrepreneurs to combat poverty overseas rather than here in the United States.

We launched The Hitachi Foundation's Yoshiyama Young Entrepreneurs Program in 2010 to focus on this gap, and today we have six vibrant examples of entrepreneurs -- all of whom were under the age of 30 when they started their businesses -- committed to making a difference while making a living. One entrepreneur is helping low-wealth agricultural and forestry communities across the United States through "cleantech" and soil enhancement. Two others operate a kitchen incubator for low-wealth immigrant food entrepreneurs in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Recently, we completed the semifinal review of the applications for the 2011 program, and this October we will announce the selection of a new group of young entrepreneurs. But the most important thing to remember is that young entrepreneurs are working constantly to improve life in the United States, to develop profitable enterprises that tap into the potential of low-income communities, and to engage low-wealth individuals in the process. In communities across the country, they are putting a new value equation to work -- and, given recent economic indicators and the lackluster results generated by more traditional approaches, they merit our celebration and support.

-- Barbara Dyer

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