A World of Economic Do-Gooders

Too often progressives reject the world of business as inherently corrupt or tainted. Even worse, we will often ignore it entirely, recycling the business section of the daily paper unopened. But if the only practices we undertake are shopping for organic produce or buying fair-trade goods from Global Exchange, we're missing a golden opportunity to make a difference.

The message woven throughout "The New Heroes," a four-hour PBS series that begins on June 28, is that well-meaning individuals can create immense change in the world. Each episode visits places where enterprising people have combined business skills with a desire to improve peoples' lives. The results are magnificent and uplifting. In India, Kailash Satyarthi raids a camp to free children and adults enslaved by the international rug trade. In Peru, Albina Ruiz Rios turns garbage into money by helping people start waste-management companies. Closer to home, Mimi Silbert runs the Delancey Street Foundation in San Francisco, a cluster of businesses including restaurants and a moving company that give ex-cons a chance to turn their lives around.

Several of the projects featured in the series make use of innovative technology to solve very basic problems. Nick Moon and Martin Fisher's company ApproTEC has distributed low-cost irrigation pumps and oilseed presses throughout Africa; the boost in productivity allows people to move beyond subsistence farming to make a better living, and the resulting boom in businesses contribute about $35 million a year to the developing country's economies.

And in India, Dr. Govindappa Venkataswamy and David Green revolutionized medical care based on their belief in "compassionate capitalism." The two men trained local workers in high-tech medical and manufacturing procedures, and have since opened five hospitals across India that treat nearly 2 million patients a year, at a cost low enough to make health care available to India's poorest people.

What these very different projects have in common is "social entrepreneurship," the concept at the core of "The New Heroes." Instead of seeking to reap profits, social entrepreneurs use their innovations to create social change, starting from the bottom up. It's an idea brilliantly summed up by the work of Bangladeshi banker Muhammad Yunus, who says, "The whole principle of conventional banking is 'the more you have the more you get.' I said the logical thing would be the less you have, the more attention you should get, and if you have nothing, you are the one who should get the highest priority."

Yunus' Grameen Bank in Bangladesh started in 1976 with a loan of $27, split between 42 people who used the money to start small businesses like selling rice at the market. In the last 29 years, Grameen's "micro-credit" loans have spread worldwide, and in Bangladesh the bank has provided nearly $5 billion in loans to four and a half million people. And because 96 percent of Grameen's borrowers are women, Muhammad Yunus' simple idea of small loans has changed the social structure of Bangladesh by giving women the power of self-sufficiency.

This is the spirit of social entrepreneurship writ large, and it's the idea behind "New Heroes" house parties organized by the Skoll Foundation, a major funder of the series. "We believe that if you see these stories you will be inspired," said the Skoll Foundation's Terri Nagel. "We're hoping to motivate people to actually get out there and help, whether it's writing a check or starting your own social entrepreneurship program."

The idea behind the viewing parties is to get friends, families and coworkers to discuss the ideas of social entrepreneurship, and especially how everyone can make a difference. The Skoll Foundation sends out DVDs of the series along with a toolkit including topics to discuss after watching the episodes. The foundation will match up to $100,000 in donations to any of the groups in the "New Heroes" series.

Providing the series on DVD is a new step for this kind of viewing party. Instead of being tied to the PBS schedule, viewers can watch the shows at their convenience, and make a plan for when to get a good group together.

"The DVDs are meant to help people really appreciate the stories in an atmosphere where they have an opportunity to talk with others about them," Nagel said. "We are encouraging our house party hosts to work together as a group to find out what they can do to make the world a better place."

"The New Heroes" airs on PBS starting June 28. Check local times on the PBS Web site. To get a house parties toolkit, visit NewHeroes.org.

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