THE BIG READ: Having a good heart is good for business
What kind of people created the basics of our modern world? Mass travel on jet planes, cellphones and MRI scanners, video games and gene-based medicines, news 24/7 and that laser at the supermarket checkout?
On the subject of shopping, how did we get the container ships that make it possible for us to have almost anything from almost anywhere? Orange juice from China, nuts from India, swordfish from Japan, salmon from Alaska ...
When I investigated 200 years of innovation for my book They Made America I noted the roots of those innovators: we owe mass travel to a beach taxi pilot building on the work of a couple of bicycle mechanics, cellphones to a radio ham, MRI scanners to a one-time tennis coach, video games to a carnival barker, container shipping to a truck driver, 24/7 news to a billboard salesman and the laser to a one-time radio repairman.
But, amid that diversity, there's a common factor. They are all men.
For most of those two centuries women had few chances to innovate anything. The few in business were there only to assist men, no different from women fetching water in the villages and townships of Africa, Asia and Latin America.
The striking thing today is that millions of women are involved in innovation - an innovation of capitalism itself that has singular benefits for women and, through them, society as a whole. This innovation arises from corporations acknowledging three things.
One, that a troubled society is bad for business.
Two, that governments and nonprofit organisations alone can't eradicate unemployment, illiteracy and disease.
Three, that ways can be found to graft the disciplines of business onto programmes of social merit, especially by liberating the energies of half the population.
Muhammad Yunus was inspired to start the Grameen Bank for the poor in 1976 after encountering Sofiya Begum, a village woman in Bangladesh whose little business making bamboo stools was held hostage by usurious moneylenders.
Yunus went on from making micro-loans to collaborating with Franck Riboud, the imaginative CEO of Groupe Danone, to make a low-cost yogurt fortified with protein, iron, vitamins and other additives of huge benefit to growing children. It's distributed by thousands of "Grameen ladies".
A lot has happened since then. Corporations such as Accenture, Adidas, Chrysler, Coca-Cola, Goldman Sachs, Merck, Nike, Procter & Gamble, the Gap and Wal-Mart are endowing women with skills at all levels, and often provide a little capital with which they can start a small business.
Yes, it's a smart public relations move by those companies but it's also a good example of the "shared values" advocated by Michael Porter and Mark Kramer in last year's Harvard Business Review cover story, which won the 2011 McKinsey Award for being the most influential of the year's business articles.
They argue that capitalism - unparalleled in meeting human needs - has wasted its full potential by narrowly focusing on short-term profit without much regard for its effects on communities.
They wrote: "The purpose of the corporation must be redefined as creating shared value, not just profit per se."
Vignettes from across the globe show this philosophy in progress.
- Regina Gomes, a widowed grandmother in a sprawling slum in Rio de Janeiro, found "a reason to live" in her mission to clean up the rat-infested and garbage-laden streets around her. Government help? Forget it.
She did it, and then Coca-Cola helped her expand that success through its 5by20 programme, designed to empower 5million women entrepreneurs by 2020.
Coletivo Artisans enrolled her in design workshops in which she gained the skills to help local women turn salvaged bottles and fabrics into saleable items.
The raw materials come from a recycling cooperative organised by Coke. She started a shop next to the cooperative and is now part of a flourishing trade in craftwork in the slums. She's done well enough to buy a home.
- Kabeh Sumbo, in Liberia, learned record-keeping from Goldman Sachs' 10000 Women programme, and her business, which began with 4 litres of palm oil, now employs 18 and ships oil overseas.
- Gabriel Jaramillo, of the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria, benefited from Coca-Cola's supply-chain expertise so that now life-saving drugs in Tanzania are delivered in five days, not 30.
- Grace Wakado, in Kampala, Uganda, works with Exxon and Ashola to provide solar lamps to 277 women working in direct sales businesses who have brought electric light to 30000 homes.
There are bound to be mistakes as the movement develops and, for sure, a surfeit of the cynicism that benevolence incites. But my guess is that, as the successes of "shared value" businesses multiply, we'll wonder why we didn't do it before. - Evans is Reuters' editor-at-large