Sunday, August 15, 2010

Travel Tips for Social Entrepreneurs

I'm just wrapping up a week of conversation on Social Edge, entitled Travel Tips for Social Entrepreneurs. I'm fascinated not only with the big questions in the social entrepreneurship field, but also the practical practices of doing the job of social entrepreneur better. One of those practices is how to travel as cost effectively as possible. The conversation ranged over how to use Priceline, choosing socially responsible travel products and an idea for staying with other social entrepreneurs. Here's how I kicked off the conversation:
We spend a lot of time talking about the big picture issues around social change. But, sometimes it’s important to get practical and talk about nuts and bolts issues. Being a social entrepreneur is all about doing more with less. So, how do you stretch your travel dollars?

As a social entrepreneur who is typically on the road more than half the time, I find myself thinking about this a lot. What’s the tradeoff between saving time and saving money? Is it worthwhile staying at that cheap hotel if TripAdvisor posts are dwelling on their bedbug problem?

And that’s just on domestic travel. So many social entrepreneurs have operations in multiple countries. How do you deal with travelling to rich countries or poor countries? How do you handle guests who have very different expectations about travel and accommodation?

When money goes from being unobtainium to merely tight, what travel restrictions do you loosen? Paying for hotels instead of hostels? Not forcing team members to share rooms? Taking nonstop flights instead of cheaper one-stops? Or, do you stick with habits honed in resource-famished times?

I love saving a buck, and I still arrange most of my travel myself. I’m looking forward to getting new ideas from other people that can help us all do more with less. I’ll be putting a few of my tactics into the mix as the conversation unfolds, such as:

* How I learned to love Priceline for getting cheap four-star hotels $85 for four star hotels in DC and London!
* How my excessive flying on one airline leads to great service and lots of free upgrades to business class
* The wonders of frequent flier programs, where the airline goes out of its way to take care of its best customers, even those who are always picking the cheapest fares possible
* How I got out of Heathrow on the first California-bound flight after the volcano ash flight suspension
* How we encourage employees to skip on hotels where practical
* Paying employees to not stay in a hotel and buy a nice dinner or a bottle of wine for their host. For example, I almost always stay with one of my cousins in New York City. Benetech will give me $50 a night in lieu of staying in an expensive hotel.

After personnel, travel costs are one of our biggest expenses. I’m sure this is true of a lot of other groups with national or international activities. Being proactive up-front about controlling travel costs and understanding the trade-offs is an important way to hold up your mission.

* What’s your travel tip? Do you have an example of penny-wise, pound foolish travel ideas that backfired?
* Do you have ideas for reducing your environmental impact while getting the job done? How can we make travel more effective and less wearing?

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Making Exercise Equipment Accessible

Benetech doesn't make tangible stuff: we've decided that our expertise is in making electronic bits. Software and content are easily scaled up. But, the world still needs tangible things, and the market often fails to deliver them.

Rich Thesing, a long-time disability activist and fellow Fellow of the American Leadership Forum in Silicon Valley, has been thinking hard on how to make exercise equipment accessible. As someone was injured as a result of an accident, Rich knows that there can be severe consequences for people with these kinds of disabilities if they don't maintain muscle tone in their limbs. There are lots of exercycles that are in health clubs and exercise rooms around the world, but they lack minor accessibility features to make them usable. Most people who are quads have partial use of their limbs, for example, little use of their legs but partial use of their arms. Rich's problem is that he can get his first foot onto the pedal and strapped in, but that he can't get his second foot in. He needs to rotate the pedal crank one half turn and then have it pause there as he puts his other foot into the second pedal. But, standard exercise equipment won't stop there.

Rich has been pushing the manufacturers of this kind of equipment to make this kind of adaptation. He figures that it shouldn't cost much to do. But, the manufacturers are pushing back: they say it will be too expensive. So, Rich asked me what I thought.

My response was that while I wasn't a mechanical engineer, I certainly knew someone who was. My brother, Dan Fruchterman, is a senior engineering manager at a major aerospace firm. I mentioned it to Dan and his response was that it should be straightforward. Not only that, after getting information from Rich on the existing equipment, Dan threw it out to his engineering team (full of mechanical engineers) to brainstorm. They came up with several ideas to adapt the exercycles to make them work easily for many people with quadriplegia. And, none of them cost very much to implement.

So, I really enjoyed a recent lunch with Rich Thesing and my brother Dan, where they talked about ways to help the manufacturers add this minor feature. And Rich was sure to point out the topical nature of this solution: our country has plenty of newly disabled veterans coming home and going through rehabilitation. They are going to need access to exercise equipment they can use independently to ensure their long term help.

It's fun to help solve problems, even if the help is mainly connecting the right people together!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A Modest Complaint to Bookshare

Thanks to incredible work on the part of socially responsible publishers, our volunteers and the Bookshare team, we've been adding books at at incredible rate: more than 10,000 books in the last month. As a result, I recently received the following complaint letter from one of our long-term members, Chancey Fleet:

Jim,

I would like to register a complaint! Bookshare is piling on books faster than I can read the titles. Ever since I was a kid, I was a title glutton. I went through every catalog the NLS had and every Braille Book Review. I did the same later with Web Braille, and whole months have gone by during which I knew every book that hit the collection.

This was viable, maybe even adaptive behaviour in a climate of scarcity. I could pluck out a handful of the finite number of books on offer and leave the rest, and if I didn’t have absolute choice, I at least got to be sure I wasn’t missing anything.

Not. Anymore. Bookshare is adding so much content that favourite authors of mine are creeping into the collection without my noticing. I’m finding whole herds of books I thought would be too frivolous ever to scan but that I secretly wanted to read but that that *I* would never scan because I would look silly. (E.G. a compendium of fashion mistakes spotted in Brooklyn. An anthology of rejection letters. Something called Zen Computer that gives you a meditation for every function key on the keyboard (the @ reminds you to consider your position in the universe!))..)

Seriously, you guys rock. I love this new pace and all the variety. Feel free to share this with whoever’s responsible for the awesomeness.

Best,

Chancey


Thanks, Chancey. We take all complaints seriously!

Footnote: NLS stands for the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, part of the U.S. Library of Congress and the nation's number one provider of books for blind people. They also operate Web Braille, an online Braille ebook service with roughly ten thousand titles.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Exciting Social Enterprise Group I met at the Skoll World Forum

One of the more interesting people I met at the Oxford Skoll meeting this year was Raja Moubarak, founder of Winquest. Raja is a seasoned business executive with senior level experience in multinationals (Coca-Cola, B&W/BAT, BOC Group, Societe Generale) in Europe, Asia and in multiple Middle East/North African countries (MENA), as an entrepreneur and as Managing Director of one of the oldest retail groups in the MENA region.

His idea is straightforward: he believe the Middle East/North Africa region is ripe for values-centered for-profit social enterprises that can both make plenty of money and deliver social benefits. With his long expertise in bringing products to this region, he's working to find connections with companies interested in expanding into this area. But, just companies that have social good as a crucial part of their DNA.

It's probably not a coincidence that the Obama Administration is focusing efforts on entrepreneurship in the Muslim world: there's nothing like jobs to provide a moderating influence on a society. [Plenty of other things would help, like education and more political openness, but successful business enteprises and jobs would be a great start!]

I know I'll be watching to see if Raja's bold idea takes root: seems like a promising approach to sustainable social good.