FriendlyFires: Sparking Change from Within

This innovative organisation is harnessing the power of emerging technologies and purposeful entrepreneurs to make big business more responsible.

by Olwen Smith, May 2, 2018

With their deep pools of talent, vast resources, and wide reach, the potential for big business to act as a lever for positive change and progress is undeniable. However, all too often, we're seeing this potential fall by the way side. FriendlyFires are working to change that. They're creating alliances between corporations and innovative start-ups, helping companies to instigate change from within by integrating sustainable and socially responsible practices into the core of what they do. We spoke to co-founder, Rosie Turner, about their journey so far, the key challenges they're tackling and what the future holds in store.

Can you tell us about FriendlyFires - What drove you and your two partners, Raj Ramanandi and Scott Cooper, to set it up? 

FriendlyFires was born out of our belief that entrepreneurial activity is key to addressing social challenges, alongside a conviction that big business has a really important role to play in this. Our backgrounds are a blend of these two aspects - entrepreneurial & corporate - we’ve worked at bringing them together and have seen how such collaborations can be incredibly powerful. Today, FriendlyFires is about taking these learnings to create positive social impact through business.

As a team we’ve lots of experience…as entrepreneurs we’ve started up many businesses. As investors we’ve invested in over 50 startups, as corporate innovators we’ve helped large businesses create a culture of innovation and work with startups. We’ve also been instrumental in mapping, and actively building up, startup ecosystems in 15 cities globally.

Because of this experience, we’ve thought a lot about the ‘Impact Ecosystem’ in a holistic sense and how we can help to nurture & grow it: connecting nodes and building out weaker areas so that knowledge sharing and collaboration can thrive. As far as we know, no- one else is currently taking this approach, so FriendlyFires has a founding campaign - ‘Mission Possible’ - that is dedicated to mapping out the Impact Ecosystem in key cities globally. We feel this is central to the work that we do and are excited to be developing this during 2018. Building on this ecosystem thinking, FriendlyFires then goes deeper and acts as a catalyst: designing and co-ordinating collaborations between businesses, impact entrepreneurs, non-profits, investors, and think tanks to advance solutions to social challenges. 

Can you give us an example of a social challenge you’ve worked on? 

A challenge area could be anything we feel passionate about and where we believe big business, entrepreneurship, and our skills can make a meaningful difference. Truthfully, the opportunities are endless, from Financial Inclusion through to homelessness. Last year we had a strong focus on workplace Diversity & Inclusion. This is an ideal challenge area for FriendlyFires as it sits at the intersection of ‘profit and purpose’ and is hugely timely. 

Our projects in this space have been shaped by the fact that technologies & innovations within Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) are still nascent, and we’ve therefore focused our efforts on awareness/ education. We began with an extensive research project into existing D&I startups & technology and are now engaging corporate D&I leaders via startup zones at events like Diversity in Technology, and coordinating collaborations between D&I entrepreneurs and corporate clients. 

Most recently, we’ve created a technology solution, InChorus, to surface insight around non-inclusive behaviours at work and to empower companies to take a more data-driven approach to D&I. This is the culmination of lots of research and we’re excited to be looking to pilot this with several large organisations this year.  

What do you see as the most important steps an organisation can take to ensure a more inclusive and diverse workplace?

At FriendlyFires we talk a lot about the need for action, not just talk, and we’ve found this to be particularly true within D&I. 

Lots of companies are now taking important steps to ensure they hire a diverse workforce, and are exploring actionable technologies to help negate the impacts of unconscious bias etc. However, little has been done - actionably - to advance inclusion. 

Thinking about the two, diversity & inclusion, simultaneously is crucial to ensuring that the top talent that is hired, is retained. In this way, I'd suggest that a really important first step for organisations is to invest in the mechanisms and ability to capture the experiences of their employees and understand their current culture. It’s from having this data that they can then understand how to move forwards and retain talent - not just get stuck in an endless hiring loop.  

What have been some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in getting FriendlyFires off the ground?

FriendlyFires is a passion project, and it is still quite early days for a lot of this thinking! Certainly, our belief that big business has a large role to play in creating social impact is not yet the status quo. There is a long way to go before more businesses take the SDGs seriously, and only when they do that will we really come into our own.

Another challenge, or opportunity, is that the wider ecosystem of startups focused on social impact is limited. Whilst growing, the number of high-quality scaleable solutions currently remains under-developed. This is consequently something that we’re keen to play an active role in trying to develop. 

Fortunately, the market is beginning to respond and there has been a palpable shift across the media, large businesses, and the impact ecosystem. We’re increasingly optimistic about the signs we are seeing!

You talk a lot about the important role that business can play. Can you explain a little more about how this plays out in your work? 

We believe that for impact to happen at the speed and scale needed to meet the SDGs, and other vital social challenges, we have to engage and work with big business: the private sector brings talent, resources, and has a reach, that can’t be matched by the charitable sector & government alone. In that respect, big business will always be one of the biggest levers we have to create change - we want to create, oil, maintain and more regularly pull that lever!

Emerging technologies are often hailed as being central to solving social or environmental challenges. Could you give us an example of such a technology and how it can be harnessed to make business more responsible?

Good question! One thing we would say is that technology can’t solve all problems, it’s not a silver bullet. Instead, we’re going to need a blend of innovative mindsets, broad collaborations, and technology. Having said that, we’ve seen lots of great examples, it’s just tough to highlight one out of context…In the Diversity & Inclusion space Joonko is doing some great work using AI to identify potentially non-inclusive patterns of behaviour and suggest more inclusive alternatives using nudges. 

What’s in store for FriendlyFires in the future? What would success look like for you?

In the short- medium term we hope to inspire large organisations to take this work seriously, collaborate with exciting partners on innovative projects that create a positive social impact, and develop opportunities for top talent within this space. Fortunately the signs are positive! We’re particularly looking forward to pushing this forward with our Mission Possible campaign this year. 

Longer-term, (somewhat bizarrely) we hope to make ourselves redundant. This work should become business as usual - with internal teams having the capability to run programmes and initiatives as we shift towards a future where socially responsible business is the norm. This is the success that we hope to eventually see, and to have played a part in creating. 

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