Lessons in Corporate Social Innovation

Interview with Justin DeKoszmovszky, Co-Founder and Chief Impact Officer, INBONIS

Justin, first of all, please introduce yourself to the Business Fights Poverty community. I work at the intersection of strategy, sustainability and innovation. I started my career as a strategy consultant, and as time went by, I began looking for ways to apply those skills to the most intractable challenges…

Interview withJustin DeKoszmovszky, Co-Founder and Chief Impact Officer, INBONIS

Justin, first of all, please introduce yourself to the Business Fights Poverty community.

I work at the intersection of strategy, sustainability and innovation. I started my career as a strategy consultant, and as time went by, I began looking for ways to apply those skills to the most intractable challenges facing our species, issues like poverty and inequality.

I went back to get my MBA at Cornell, which had just hired Stu Hart, and did a project for SC Johnson in Kenya testing and refining the Base of the Pyramid Protocol. I stayed engaged with SC Johnson and joined them to work on emerging markets sustainability strategy after graduation. We didn’t have this terminology then, but what I was really doing was running a portfolio of social innovation projects up and down the value chain. The core question we were aiming to answer was: How can SC Johnson meet business objectives and support social and economic development at the same time? From SCJ, I moved on to Puma, where I focused on a full spectrum of sustainability initiatives and trying to integrate their innovation engine with their sustainability strategies.

I’m now dedicated to improving how large organizations engage micro and small firms. SMEs are responsible for the majority of employment and economic productivity globally but remain woefully under-represented and under-served. I’m doing this in three ways. First, I lead the UK office of Azao, an inclusive business consulting firm, directly working with large corporations on “multi-value” solutions that deliver business objectives and create significant social value. Second, I co-founded INBONIS, and continue working with the leadership team to integrate sustainability into their leading SME risk rating solutions. Third, I am the UK “catalyst” of the League of Intrapreneurs, supporting a community of changemakers inside large organizations.

Tell me a little bit about your work as an intrapreneur at SC Johnson.

I created and managed a portfolio of projects all focused on testing, learning and scaling approaches where SCJ could have an outsized impact using market-based approaches. The portfolio included projects like cause-related marketing around malaria, public-private partnerships (PPPs) to improve Rwandan pyrethrum farmer incomes and a micro-franchise social enterprise cleaning shared toilets in Nairobi’s lowest-income communities. Each project was inspired by business objectives like distribution, brand awareness, etc. combined with local insight on the social and development challenges. Where the two overlapped, we’d build a pilot and, if it worked, scale it up across SCJ’s business.

Our work on malaria education/marketing is a good example. SC Johnson is a leader in consumer insect control with brands like Raid, Baygon, and Off!. In markets with insect borne diseases like malaria or dengue, we built an internal toolkit to enable our local marketing teams to engage with the health sectors to help raise awareness about these dangerous diseases and the solutions available. It started with a pilot in South Africa and further tests in Mozambique, Nigeria and Ghana leading to a codified toolkit that scaled up globally.

On the more innovative end, we developed new business models for emerging consumers. One example is Community Cleaning Services, a social enterprise in Nairobi that is still up and running, though on a smaller scale. It’s a micro-franchise business focused on cleaning and servicing shared toilets in Nairobi’s lowest-income communities. In these communities, there might be one toilet per floor or compound with seven or eight families of 5. We co-created a service delivered by entrepreneurial youths in their own neighborhoods. SC Johnson provided product, training, and materials into these micro businesses but to make the P&L work, we had to innovate on packaging and process to reduce costs as much as possible. These local micro businesses worked very well. That’s the piece that’s still running today as an independent social enterprise. This went on to inform a partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation focused on creating a market-based solution to bring insect control into homes at risk of malaria in Ghana.

How did SC Johnson get into this corporate social innovation-type work?

When I started my MBA, SC Johnson was already working with Stu and Erik Simanis to test what was called the BOP Protocol. This document has not aged very well, but it was an early attempt to define a business development or innovation process for large companies and people living at the base of the pyramid. The results were interesting enough to the business that they wanted to pursue it. John Langdell, who lead SCJ’s Middle East and Africa businesses, was intrigued enough to hire me to head up sustainability in his region. This was a role that hadn’t existed before, but John saw an opportunity, and the organization, with leadership from Fisk Johnson, had the right DNA. So we had the “air cover” and the budget to build some prototypes, test business models and innovate to deliver business objectives, new economic opportunities and product-specific solutions to community challenges like sanitation and malaria.

What was your first step? How did you get started?

The first step was to understand the consumers with whom we wanted to work. There is obviously a massive difference between the bathrooms in Mathare (Nairobi’s oldest “slum”) and the bathrooms in the US or EU that SC Johnson products are designed for. There was a lot of institutional learning and insight generation to understand the context.

From there, we started working with people who lived in that context – young entrepreneurs – to co-create this business. We started with insect control, focusing on cockroaches at one point, and then iterated toward what became Community Cleaning Services. The best opportunity for the business and for impact was around shared toilet cleaning.

It sounds like the company had the patience to let this iteration process to unfold?

Yes, I had great leaders like John Langdell and Fisk Johnson who had the courage to take risks. But we were still operating in a business context and had to show results and quantify opportunities as much as possible. The portfolio approach was designed to buy time and internal capital delivering less risky projects while focusing a lot of time on the more innovative work. Our success in the malaria space and with Rwandan pyrethrum farmers built credibility and support for more innovative business model exploration like Community Cleaning Services.

What advice do you have for other intrapreneurs?

Intrapreneurs can hold many roles. They can be textbook editors and bond traders. But it will help if they’re the best darned editors and bond traders they can be. Being at the top of your game in your day job will earn you the time, space, budget, patience you’ll need to make positive change happen. Then you have to identify others internally with complimentary skills and social capital who are inspired and crazy enough to work with you.

Another key for intrapreneurs looking to do business with low-income consumers is to be prepared to invest real time and effort in building up the level of trust you need. At SC Johnson this took years. I can’t tell you how we could have accelerated that. Being in Kenya for years, moving there with my family, working shoulder to shoulder with partners in good times and in bad, failing together, taking responsibility, never blaming others. Those soft skills are really important.

Lastly, be stubborn about the impact you want to create but flexible and curious about how to deliver it.

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