I’ve been on a mental break from The Green Elephant. It’s not necessarily writer’s block, I hope not; it’s more of a thinker’s reset.
The reason being I recently discovered some interesting connections between Social Entrepreneurship (SE) and traditional Confucius thinking that influenced the Chinese mercantile culture prior to the People’s Republic of China (PRC, not to be confused with the Republic of China). I was digging for law review articles about Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and I came across a few references to the Chinese “family style” business expansions. Under the strict Confucian influence, pure profit model is prohibited, yet the Chinese also recognized the critical role business enterprises played in their social stability. Many merchants established themselves as “family businesses” so to incorporate a sense of duty to their communities. The business adopts the community as part of its extension therefore the business operation owed a duty to the welfare of those around it.
Inexplicably, I’ve been drawn SE as I began to explore entrepreneurship and progressive environmental impacts. Looking back, I now realize it’s due to my inherent sense of Ren, Li, and Xin.
But before I discovered the intimate connection, I’ve never bothered to formally define SE. I’ve always considered it self-evident. To me, SE is about thinking business in a socially reconstructive context, putting mission before profit and balancing our environmental impact, our social responsibilities, and our business objectives in our ventures. That’s why I’ve accumulated my professional body of knowledge revolving around sustainable design and implementation, process improvement, and environmental policy research. I see invariable connections between LEED, Six Sigma, grassroots technology and environmental advocacy.
I founded a one man consulting business, Rethink(i3) – iCube, Integrity, Innovation, Influence, hoping to do just that: advocating for people, planet, and profit through new media and emerging markets. My current projects are new market emergence driven, deeply involved in the mission of conservation and efficiency. My hope is to change the way people think innovation and social influence with their entrepreneurial spirit. I see this as the only way our nation, our planet, our civilization can achieve real progress in the unpredictable future.
My consulting services are extremely selective: I have to feel comfortable about the clients I take on; their missions have to be SE driven, environmentally and socially responsible. If I don’t feel comfortable about the business or the project, I won’t get involved and I won’t take on the client. Sadly, there are very few opportunities for me to develop a client base since more of the business folks do put profit first and mission second. I think just the opposite.
Sometimes I wonder if I’m going about this the right way. Many business mentors I’ve had told me to abandon the life style business model and concentrate on making money. I fight the current and I reject their advice. At times, I feel like Confucius himself, a wanderer of my homeland, aimlessly advocating for something that may never come to fruition.
But where there is a need, there is a struggle; and all good things come with patience. To this day, I hold true to the principles I started with: People, Planet, Profit. Now I add three more coexisting principles to my model: Ren, Li, Xin - righteousness outweighs profits; collective benefits and spiritual values outweigh individual benefits and material values.
Ren is the central doctrine of Confucianism. Ren means goodness, benevolence, humanity, and kind-heartedness. It occupies a prominent role in balancing ethics with the pursuit of profits. The Confucian Hans sought to eliminate excessive profits by eliminating the acts of cheating, manipulating supply and demand to bring about higher prices, and corrupting public officials.
Rén relies heavily on the relationships and represents inner developments toward an altruistic goal. Ren is the realization that one is never alone, and the tragedy of the commons ought to give way to the harmony of an ordered society. Over the centuries, Chinese society have developed complex sets of behavioral expectations amongst the basic relationships, business practices are deeply entrenched in these relationships.
Confucius believed in the constant of change. He believed that the key to long-lasting integrity, in business for example, was to constantly think. In the SE context, this demands that we constantly innovate solutions to our social problems. No one business model is ever perfect, and no one model is ever the solution since the world is continually changing at a rapid pace.
Moreover, Confucius was especially concerned with peoples' individual development, which he maintained took place within the context of the invariable human relationships. Ritual and filial piety are the ways in which one should act toward others from an underlying attitude of humaneness. Confucius' concept of humaneness, rén, is probably best expressed in the Confucian rule: What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others.
Li, literally meaning propriety, also exerted great influences on business activities. One of the virtue's earliest meanings was "ceremonies," in the sense of rituals and structures that people went through at specific times and for specific reasons. From there, the word developed a more general meaning that could mean a set of ethical principles guiding interpersonal relationship in a hierarchical society. Later in Chinese business practices and political engagements, the concept of GuanXi developed. I will reserve this topic for another day.
Li was important in directing people to behave ethically and politely. It has played an indispensable role even in modern business activities where quality services and politeness to customers are priorities. Li is the outward expression of ideals while Ren is the inward expression as described above.
In order for society to truly follow Li, one must also adhere to and internalize these practices. The mentality involved in performing these rituals in society must not exist only there, it must be a part of the private life of the person. This is known as rén.
Xin can be translated to benevolence, righteousness, courtesy, wisdom and faithfulness. Xin requires people to keep their words according to the rules of courtesy with the hope of mitigating the conflicts. This concept is illusive in the philosophical sense, but it is extremely important in the balancing act of People, Planet, and Profit. I will come back to this concept at a later date to expand on my understanding of the word. For now, it is important to note that Confucius held "faithfulness" to be an indispensable virtue for a human being. Only a man of faithfulness would be appointed to some task; otherwise survival would be hardly possible. Xin, in essence, would be the stewardship we assume to the manifestations of Sustainable development. It is our faith of future generations of responsible SE and business thinking.
As I dig more into my law review topic on Corporate Social Responsibility, Chinese Circular Economy Law, SE, and Sustainable business developments, I will continue this topic. Stay tuned and thank you for your patience.