Earlier this year, Canadian startup, DreamBank.org, launched. DreamBank.org is an alternative gift giving platform that helps people
achieve their dreams and at the same time helps the planet and
important social causes. Instead of giving gifts that although
appreciated may not really be wanted, through DreamBank you contribute to
someone’s stated dream. Plus your gift automatically generates
funds that are given to important social causes.
We sat down with Dawn Bowles, founder and CEO, to discuss her thoughts on being an entrepreneur with a social conscience.
1. First off, what’s your definition of social entrepreneurism?
I believe a true social enterprise is one that builds sustainability and social giving into the foundation of both the financial model of the company as well as the way it conducts its business. While it’s important to have things like “triple bottom line reporting" and audits around social and environmental impact, I believe those initiatives are “after the fact” mechanisms. In some cases that’s great but other outcomes just can’t have numbers put to them — clean water, food to eat, etc.
Now, this is my “if life was perfect” definition. In reality, just starting down the road of exploring ways to build positive social and environmental impact into your business model would be a great start at changing old models that don’t work for the overall benefit of society anymore.
2. What started you down the path to becoming a social entrepreneur?
It definitely didn’t happen overnight. It was a long process. I was working in the investment industry in the early 90’s and witnessed the extreme amounts of money that people and companies were making with little if not zero “give back to society”. It was heartbreaking. At the height of the heyday in investments, my boss told me that if charities contacted us for sponsorships or donation, I was to say “we had a policy of not giving to charity”…
I left the industry not that long after and went traveling where I saw even more of the divide between "haves" and "have nots". I started doing some work with Credit Unions and realized there were other business models that were more about giving back to community and stakeholders in various ways — I sought out higher education around responsible business and found the Masters Degree at the University of Bath, UK. I would recommend the program to anyone wants supported knowledge and practice on change-making. Shortly thereafter, while studying alternative business models and pondering the waste that we produce around the way we give and receive gifts, the idea for DreamBank was hatched and then cultivated to eventually launch to the public in July this year. Finally!
3. Can the goals of social progress and capitalism really co-exist?
Yes and no. Not exactly as they are now but if we can use the
innovation and motivation quotients inspired from the
entrepreneurial/capitalist mind as a base to create new and useful
ideas that generate funds for both a profitable business and for social
finance, that would be the perfect combination. We have to meet people
where they are to make change. I don’t think there is anything wrong
with “profit”, it fuels a lot of good work and projects and, frankly,
keeps the entrepreneurial mothership motivated and alive, both
figuratively and literally. There is a fire that burns in this space
that just does not seem to get sparked in the same way in the
How does the social entrepreneur avoid compromising her values in lean economic times?
As a tech firm, we have required substantial investment capital to get
this far and will continue to need more in the future. To date we’ve
really worked hard to take money from investors who are onside with our
values. This means not accepting investment from those who are just
interested in the good return we can provide. This has sometimes been
really tough when we are down to some ugly numbers in our bank account.
If our investors are “bottom line only” and they have influence through
their ownership votes, eventually there will be contention and
disagreement about priorities. So ultimately the pain now is worth the
gain later, though this certainly continues to be one of our biggest challenges.
4. How has your experience of marketing DreamBank been affected by its social entrepreneurial nature?
In some ways it makes the marketing challenge easier as it maximizes on the consumer trends that are already happening – people wanting to reduce waste, people looking for ways to make their lives more convenient, the increase in charitable giving and the fact that DreamBank is a unique product which is way easier to market than a "me too". That said, because DreamBank is unique and has several benefits – keeping the message clear and focused can be a challenge – but at the end of the day that’s not a bad challenge to have!!
5. Any advice for fledgling entrepreneurs with a conscience out there?
This is a fantastic time to start a social enterprise! Remember though,
it’s still a business and even if the idea could make some really great
positive change, you will want to do all the regular research and
business planning you would do if you were to, say, open a factory. If
you are going to make change with business, the business model and plan
has to be viable and show how, over time, you can become revenue positive. Those basic principals hold
true for any business. If you don’t have a business mind but have a
great idea, get some help from a business person. There are more and
more support organizations and communities out there to help you do it.
And make sure you support yourself and your idea by spending time with
other social entrepreneurs. I recently went to an event through Social
and it really helped to be among like-minded folks and be reminded why we
are doing this. Follow your dream and good luck!