The Business of Social Change

BOOK
Material Change: Design Thinking and the Social Entrepreneurship Movement
By Eve Blossom
Metropolis Books
160 pp., $30

Eve Blossom’s new book, Material Change: Design Thinking and the Social Entrepreneurship Movement (Metropolis Books), is very much a hybrid: part memoir, part polemic, part how-to. A trained architect who practiced at Gensler, Blossom is the founder of Lulan Artisans, a Charleston, South Carolina–based textile company that partners with communities in Cambodia, India, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. Recently, Metropolis’s executive editor, Martin C. Pedersen, spoke to Blossom via e-mail about her new book, the joys and challenges of social entrepreneurship, and the lessons she learned in architecture school.

In the book you talk about being a “disruptive entrepreneur.” What is that, exactly?
Social entrepreneurship is happening in every corner of the globe and in every business sector. It’s a very exciting time to see millions of people doing such amazing grassroots work that focuses on systemic social change. I use the term “disruptive entrepreneurs” to describe the people inside this movement, who want on-the-ground results and use different contextual processes that fit specific cultures. They can be individuals or groups, people in small start-ups or inside large organizations. But they’re driven to redefine massive problems, and they want to motivate others to do the same.

What do you think a hard-core businessman would take from your book?
I think the book applies to all types of businesses. The future of business and design is changing dramatically. All of our current systems are not sustainable, and we’re all in the process of redesigning them. We have
to, so we can live in a world that can support seven billion people with our limited resources and also include economic opportunities for people, to ensure that poverty, slave labor, and human trafficking are addressed. Material Change includes personal stories as well as many other disruptive entrepreneurs’ voices, but it’s fundamentally a business book with ideas of how to create, collaborate, build, and scale businesses for the future.

The key to your company’s success is collaboration. What do you look for in a good partner?
The first thing I do when I meet a new cooperative of artisans is listen. I want to know how it is organized, socially and structurally, and the extent of its capabilities. Do they have access to local materials? How many people participate in the cooperative? How are they connected to their community? Do they share in our philosophy? We want to see a self-organized, passionate entrepreneurial spirit already present, and from that we can create a long-term sustainable collaboration that pushes design, business, and skills further.

What’s the first piece of advice you give to people who want to become social entrepreneurs?
Start. Just start. These types of businesses are not easy but they’re rewarding and important. Build an advisory team, partner with as many other individuals or organizations as you can, and don’t be afraid of making mistakes. Also, find mentors. It’s one of the best ways for us to scale our work and, even more broadly, the movement—by sharing, teaching, and open-sourcing. The book includes two info-graphics that share the process of how we work on the ground. Readers can copy, share, adapt, and customize the practices that make sense to their work.

How has your company, Lulan, fared during the recession?
The recession was tough on all of us. Two years ago there was a big drop in consumer demand. Around the world, artisan cooperatives shrank and many artisans fell into poverty, and some into human trafficking.
In Cambodia, garment factory after garment factory closed. More than 70,000 jobs were lost. Most of these workers were women between the ages of 18 and 26, and without these jobs they were in serious trouble. The majority of them came from villages. They were the primary earners for their families, sending money back every month. The economic options for these women were bleak. Many ended up in the sex trade or emigrated illegally. During that time, our orders were down dramatically. I wish I’d had the money to hire as many of those women as possible, but we were so strapped ourselves. It was one of the most painful times for me, to watch that all unfold and not be in a position to make a significant difference.

It seems as if the lessons you learned in architecture school were more valuable than the ones you learned in business school. Why?
Business school was instructive, but it didn’t teach about the type of business I wanted to pursue: design-centric, grassroots, collaborative, socially innovative. Architecture school taught holistic problem solving. It taught me that there are many solutions to a problem. Design school also taught me that collaboration makes ideas and outcomes richer, more meaningful—not only in the final results, but also in the process. Life is so much about the process—having fun, playing with others. My artisan partners are the best part of the work I do. Architectural training was hard. Even back then, I knew I would probably not pursue a long-term career as a traditional architect. But I knew I wanted to see the world through that lens to create something beautiful that would impact people’s lives directly.

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