A journalist, a lawyer, and a physician walk into Irak after the Gulf War... that could be the beginning of a joke. It is not. That is one of the fascinating true stories that the Minister of Economic Development from Ontario (picture right) shared with me when he visited Plug-and-Play Tech Center. He was one of the first non-arabs to be allowed in Irak in 1991, and to bring back some post-war footage.
Before entering politics, Dr. Eric Hoskins ran a multi-million dollar non-profit and practiced medicine in war zones including Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Sierra Leone, Iraq, Burundi, Afghanistan and Pakistan. He tells us why he thinks the social impact arena will create jobs and strengthen communities.
"Pretty soon, a majority of people will look for more than a job... a job with meaning", tells me the Honourable Eric Hoskins. There are already 10,000 jobs in and around Toronto working on social impact. Ontario sees this sector as a growth opportunity and an international trade priority. That is why Dr. Hoskins attended SOCAP13 last week in San Francisco to announce that the Government of Ontario is partnering with SOCAP -- as well as with MaRS and RBC Bank -- to sponsor an one-day impact investing conference in March 2014. This will be SOCAP's first official foray north of the border, and a new priority for economic development in Ontario.
Like the United States, Canada still lags behind the United Kingdom in impact investing. Obama's administration also decided to enter the social impact arena with the Global Development Innovation Ventures (GDIV) program that UKAID and USAID will run. Building an international platform is up the Federal Government according to Dr. Hoskins who focuses on the local eco-system. Academics, private investors, and social entrepreneurs can grow companies with matching funds from the Government. This is part of a three-year action plan in the Province of Ontario.
"It is important for Canada to coodinate impact investors". The one-day conference will bring ten vetted start-ups each led by a social entrepreneur with a solid business plan. It will also feature an on-line platform managed by MaRS called SVX (video above). Ontario wants to take the lead in Canada and North America. The Minister points to the success of the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) sector with more than 160,000 jobs. Ontario has the highest density of ICT jobs and start-ups in North America after California and Massachussets.
Social impact is part of a new trade strategy with most of the economic growth expected to come from emerging countries. The figures speak for themselves: 96% of the small businesses in Ontario have less than 100 emloyees but only 5% are international. There is an opportunity to be more present internationally. "I'd like them to think they are global companies that happen to be in Ontario" sums up the Minister of Economic Development.
Already, some charities have deep presence around the world. Free the Children was started by a 12-year old social entrepreneur in Toronto to fight against child exploitation. It has evolved into a broader program involving 1.7 million children abroad and in Canada. It has 6 offices, including one in Mountain View, California.
One of the examples of collaboration between California and Ontario is the work that Free the Children and Unite to Light do to bring solar powered reading lights to underserved communities and promote education. A simple light can change the life of a child, allowing to study in the dark in off-grid countries without inhaling toxic fumes from kerosene lamps.
Dr. Eric Hoskins sees a bigger revolution behind those lights, which were made possible thanks to semiconductor breakthroughs to increase the efficiency and lower the cost of solar cells and light-emitting-diodes. According to him the information age is transforming social impact like all the other sectors. It is providing new tools to scale and have a bigger impact. "There is also a philosophical convergence between ICT and social enterprise", he notes. Social enterprises can embrace technology that brings people closer.
It is all part of changing the "social norm". A new generation is emerging according to him. And Dr. Hoskins knows what he is talking about. He spent most of his career to promote the rights of civilians in some of the most difficult conflicts, first in war zones and later by starting War Child Canada with his wife, Dr. Samantha Nutt, in 1999. "I see myself, even now, as a right defender first, then as an activist."
"How did he end up in politics?", I ask myself during our conversation. Former foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy enlisted him in 1997. For three years, Hoskins was his senior adviser on issues such as human rights, child soldiers, peacekeeping and the ban on landmines. Dr. Hoskins was first elected in a byelection that was triggered when former cabinet minister Michael Bryant left politics. The doctor was soon elevated to cabinet as minister of citizenship and immigration. He most recently served as minister of children and youth services.
The Honourable Eric Hoskins recently had high hopes in the leadership race of the Liberal Party for the last elections, but he threw his support to the eventual winner and current Premier Kathleen Wynne when he was eliminated after the first ballot. Last February, he was appointed Minister of Economic Development, Trade and Employment.
The "social activist" is now in a position to influence the arena of social impact. However, there is a big difference between grass-roots work and politics. The main tool of Government is legislation. "Leadership always exists before Government gets into one area." Eric explains to me. "First you have to find the leaders in communities."
Dr. Hoskins used to be one of those leaders on the ground. "I learned to speak out or act when there is an atrocity or a need. I want to help!" he recalls. "There is nothing more rewarding than making a difference."