From commercial to social: A replicable model of company-driven community building
Jose Soto is the president of I.S. Corporación, an information technology company in Costa Rica. Looking for ways to use the resources and experience of his company to incubate new enterprises to directly serve the needs of his local community, Jose and his team started Corona Dorada (Golden Crown), a network of companies and institutions whose purpose is to create common welfare. In a recent ebbf webinar, Jose shared his perspective on how companies can help communities thrive.
What is the role of companies in helping local economies thrive and recover?
Jose’s father started I.S. Corporación in 1977. Nine years ago, when Jose took over, he wanted to explore how to develop a social mission. How do we apply the principles of fairness, justice and consultation in our company? The result was that more energy, creativity and engagement was created in his company to look beyond just dealing with the daily work problems.
A year and a half ago, they decided to go further with their social mission and created Corona Dorada, a social enterprise, using apiculture (beekeeping) as a direct way to address the social, economic and environmental challenges faced by their community.
The industry had a number of inequities.
The revenue from honey production was concentrated in two companies. Only 20% of the revenue actually went to the beekeepers. There were a lot of adulterated products and some had no honey at all. Costa Rica had lost its permits to export honey to the U.S. and Europe.
Corona Dorada started working gradually in the industry to help this value chain become based more on justice and participation. They focused on the products and looked for premium markets. They formed an alliance of 30 beekeepers. They started lobbying for the apiculture industry. They looked for ways to lower the cost of production. They found an Argentinian company that had developed an innovative approach to honey production, but couldn’t make it work in Argentina due to climate change. Corona Dorada helped develop a collaborative agreement between the beekeepers in Argentina and Costa Rica to use the technology in Costa Rica where the climate was more conducive to good results.
Question and Answer
Are you dealing mainly with men? With women? What’s the situation in terms of male or female management?
We also work with an association of women. From the beginning, we saw them as partners, not as employees. They thought they were being contracted to build the frames for the beekeepers. In rural areas, the culture is male-dominated, so they were in a protective mode. But slowly we consulted with them and helped them understand we are working on this together. The only way to solve these situations is to consult, to be open and transparent. If you react and say “They don’t understand what we want; we’ll do it ourselves.” then you are maintaining the status quo, nothing will evolve.
From that project we were able to contact the mayor of another municipality, who is now our friend. We learned that if we want people to trust us, we need to deliver on our commitments; there is no other way. After building that fundamental trust, now the mayor is openings doors to other government officials, like the Minister of Labor. We’re talking with them about ways to develop the local community and provide opportunities for jobs.
A week after the pandemic hit, we talked to the minister and found out that people weren’t coming to the farmer’s markets and the farmers couldn’t sell their produce. So we offered to build an ecommerce site. Other cooperatives came together to handle the logistics, administration and shipping. The farmers bring the products. This effort will launch its pilot next week.
This is what we mean when we talk about using the entrepreneurial spirit of a company to address needs. Finding, in collaboration with others, the most effective solutions at the speed that is needed in these times of crisis.
Bees are critical to ecosystems, including agriculture. Maybe Costa Rican beekeepers can offer pollination services?
Yes, in Costa Rica, beekeepers do offer pollination services. And a percentage of the bees die because those crops are sprayed with chemicals. We want to produce organic honey and are trying to move in that direction. We’d need a big enough area that is free of chemicals — about 300 hectares.
When a company asks “How can we be most helpful to the community around us?” they may end up doing something very different from their core business. How did this come about for you?
We actually started talking about honey some years before Corona Dorada started. At that point, it wasn’t to get into the honey business, but to help a beekeeper friend formalize his operation. After two years, we decided to explore how to get into the business. Slowly we found these wonderful people and resources.Emanuel our apiculture specialist was looking for new job opportunities. We also met one of the most well known specialists in apiculture in Costa Rica. They took us to this association and the connection was made. Since then the network has grown. Now people from other countries want to replicate what we’re doing. You don’t have to be an expert, just bring people together and facilitate how they interact with each other. Manuel is now totally in charge of that project and has found new momentum and motivation.
Is there any institution or structural connection between your IT company and apiculture?
Yes, I’m in involved in both companies and am learning along the way how I can use my IT experience at the service of this very different industry.
I also found out how many good ideas are out there, however people who have an idea often don’t have many resources or the know how to operationalize it or to distribute it or how to set up an online service.
Our company provided a platform for the new company to get started.
We hope in a year the new company can become independent. Then we can use the resources of our company to replicate this process onto other social enterprises and sectors.
First, could you share your personal mission and values? Second, how did you make the decision to invest in the beekeepers acceptable to your IT company?
To answer your first question… Being a Baha’i, I always thought that these principles we have — unity, consultation, work as worship, etc. — we need to apply them all the time in every facet of our lives. So if I have a company, the company would also need to apply these principles.
As for the second question… The decision was not that difficult. I own all the shares for now, so I can make the decision with no problem (smiling). But the people who work with us were nervous. This business has nothing to do with technology.
It’s hard to make sense of how you get into these new enterprises that are not commercial. But at least we’ve been able to prove it is sustainable. We’ve been doing this for almost 10 years and it has not negatively affected the company. Actually, this work has made the company more sustainable and the people working here more aware of their capacities and of how useful they can be for their local community.
Yes, it’s a challenge to figure out how to share your discourse with others, to explain why you do what you do.
What is the role of a company beyond just making products, but to help develop the community, especially in an economic crisis?
Mahmud Samandari — You asked for other examples. In Ecuador I had a telecom operation. Basically, I realized that a company is just the sum of skills and capacities within a group. Most of those skills are transferable. Very few are highly specialized. We had an opportunity to launch a distance learning project. It was the same skills we used in the telecom operation. So, 30 years ago, we started a satellite-based interactive distance learning project. We thought it was useful and needed (this was before the internet and webinars ). Yes, the second business was not as profitable as the first one, but it was something we were contributing to society. I did have other partners — it was a matter of discussing and conversing. We were the same group of five or six people at different levels of management that were running both operations. If we go to this my earlier definition of a company — community of capacities and expertise that work together — then the specific business you are in can change. A company may not be sustainable if it wants to do the same thing forever. It’s sustainable when it uses those capacities to do other things.
Jose Soto — Yes, we learned also that we needed to have a research division: to always be looking at technology and exploring new applications for itays to learning how to apply it. We understood a long time ago that there’s too much technology out there that we don’t know how to use. We’ve tried to close that gap between the technology and its application in a wider context than just our company. the actual use of it.
We’ve done that also in education. Now we have an educational technology division and we’ve linked it to the “Internet of things.” and exploring new applications there too.
We also built this other project for urban agriculture. We’re using technology: sensors for humidity, temperature, wind speed and wind direction. We have an irrigation system you can manage from your phone. Because we have to deal with climate change. Using technology, you can make decisions based on the information you’re getting. We hope to move to go to a larger space.
If you have a problem with die-off in hives, you could put small sensors in the hives themselves. There may be other ways to combine technologies.
What we found is that the bees are so well organized, they handle their own temperature. But there have to be things we can do.
What is the role of a business in helping to create a more ethical framework in an industry?
The goal is always to cooperate and to bring this new framework into being. We don’t see ourselves as competition and we don’t want to be seen as competition. We’re just offering what we can in a different way.
The other thing is that one of the reasons we created this new company (Corona Dorada) is that it’s very difficult to change a current structure that works within this framework of competition. We found it easier to build a new company based solely on the new principles and focused on the social impact. But if a company wants to change and apply different principles within the current structure, you can do it. It’s challenging because it means you will have to give up things and people will have to give up interests and benefits they’ve enjoyed for many years.
At our core company, we got rid of all the managers. Now we have a consultative group of 8 or 9 people who discuss and make decisions.
What happened was the managers left because the dynamics changed. People were doing things themselves so they managers weren’t doing as much before. Now it’s easier; we make decisions much quicker and people are empowered. They feel they have responsibility.
Ten years ago one of our technicians was fixing printers. Now he is basically the owner of the project with the municipality. He’s in charge and leading the process. So that’s an example of building capacity, of coming from invisibility to becoming a person who can really make a change.
James Jennings— Encourage you to Include customers before developing a product. A local university in Vermont has developed a ventilator that can be produced cheaply based on insights about human biology and how the lungs work. There’s a man in Vermont who manages 60,000 hives. Because of the global prices in honey, it’s very difficult to make a living. So he looked for ways to add value and now distills honey to make award-winning beveragesgin and vodka. Look outside the box of “honey” and look at what people value. I’m here in Vermont making maple syrup. There’s a bulk market for maple syrup (60% of the market) and the price set in Canada by large industrial producers. I’m exporting an artisanal maple syrup with a particular flavor profile to Switzerland and other countries. So I can pay a premium over the bulk buyers. I let maple syrup producers set their own price. They’re happy; they’re getting more than they would from the bulk buyers. The consumer value proposition really comes down to how do you talk about a product in a way that people say, “I like that.”
Jose Soto— This women’s honey association we work with has, for years, been making beauty and medicinal products from honey. But they weren’t able to show them enough to make them available. So that’s one of the areas we’re looking into.
Rama Ayman — Each person has three things: values, core competencies and technical skills. Often people work in silos around only their technical skills: agriculture. etc. They ignore their core competencies, like analytical reasoning, entrepreneurial skills, marketing skills, etc. This is a good example of looking more broadly beyond technical skills. How can you apply your core competencies and values for the benefit of people outside your technical skills? There are investment bankers who do something for a small nonprofit on the side, but they’re not not applying their core competencies to make a major move like we heard today. There’s a great need for this cross-pollination across sectors. The risk is that you lose focus. People have a limited amount of time. How does that impact your existing business and how do you manage that? In the 70’s and 80’s we had the conglomerate model: huge companies that were diversified around a number of sectors. That failed and people went back into focus. But companies became too focused. How do we address the challenge of losing focus?
Jose Soto — It’s definitely a challenge. But you have to empower other people; you can’t do everything yourself. What we have done is give responsibility to others so they can do most of the work. But we’re always involved and consulting. Because we need to take care of our core business. That’s where we get the resources. It’s a very, very fine balance we keep.
Daniel Truran — We want to continue this exploration of the role of companies in working with and improving the wellbeing of their commuities and will soon be launching an ebbf initiative to attract more ideas and convene more conversations to explore this further.
Jose Soto — This is a great opportunity to meet new faces and to realize how many resources we have. I invite you to follow up. We need social networks to be really social. We need to turn these resources into tools to help society and help build what comes after this.
You can find more information about the next #ebbfwebinars and interact with the global community of ebbf members here: http://ebbf.org/event/