From an EMBA project to a responsible multinational initiative

Emile Scheepers, a 2014 EPFL EMBA Alumnus and Vale employee had an innovative idea, to use mining tailings to replace natural quartz in the production of Quartz Surfaces (an alternative to marble and granite). During the EMBA months, he and his team (Marcus Carvalho, Thomas Gisler, Valentin Murariu, Eleftherios Zografos) matured the idea and transform it into a promising project, the “Vale Quartz Project” that Emile and his company Vale presented on 7 June 2018. Learn more about Emile’s journey, his motivations behind his idea and how the EMBA helped him developed a clear business plan.

Founded in Brazil in 1942, Vale is today the world leader in the production and mining of iron ore and nickel, employing around 100,000 people worldwide. Based on its mission to transform natural resources into prosperity and sustainable development, Vale is one of those players that integrate sustainable development into its activities; investing time, money, and effort toward sustainable and responsible projects with an entrepreneurial vision like the one Emile presented.

Canaã dos Carajás, Pará (PA), Brasil, 14/06/2017 - Vista aérea do Complexo S11D Eliezer Batista. Pátio de estocagem. Foto: Ricardo Teles

We are all aware of the importance of water in our lives, so no surprise to learn that it’s the most consumed natural resource. But do you know who takes the second place? This comes with a real surprise, as the second place is today occupied by SAND. The exponential demand for housing and infrastructure is the main reason. The UN Environment Programme’s 2014 Global Alerts paper “Sand, rarer than one thinks” comes with an alarming analysis: with this high demand the extractions are also accelerating at a rate that dangerously endangers marine and river biodiversity.

The Vale Project has piloted with the Quartz Surface industry to help create an ecosystem that could supply a sustainable alternative to natural quartz in the production of Quartz Surfaces countertops. The pilot aims to become a blueprint for supplying other industries, such as perhaps industries that produces concrete products (e.g. railway sleepers), uses plaster sand (e.g. for brick laying) and perhaps even in the sports field, on golf courses and beach volleyball courts.

At the heart of my thinking behind this project was a desire to help create a ‘virtuous circle’, to help Vale transform residues into a resource, thus creating a product that could be used for other businesses.

Emile Scheepers, founder of the Vale Quartz Project & EPFL EMBA Alumnus

Tough conversations: How I convince my boss?

You know your development is not over and an EMBA is an opportunity to be exposed to new ideas and challenge your current perception of the world. You also know that developing your potential is both fulfilling for yourself and beneficial for your company. But how to approach your boss with this new learning project and avoid wrong interpretations? A rather tough conversation in perspective. However, a positive outcome is always possible if we prepare it well enough.

“The truly creative person knows that all creating is achieved through working with constraints. Without constraints, there is no creating.” – Robert Fritz

If the outcome seems to be so promising for both you and your company, why you are feeling uncomfortable opening the dialogue with your boss? Well, this can have so many different sources, and you are the only one capable of finding the actual roots. It can be the fear that your management rejects your learning ambitions, the perception of how well your boss thinks of you, or the thought that your manager takes your project as your first step out of the company. Whatever the reasons are, here is a six steps strategy that can get you closer to a positive output for your project and limit your stress.

1. Be clear about your expectations

What kind of support do you want from your manager and your company? Do you want them to lower your current workload? Do you want them to give you opportunities to apply what you are going to learn? Do you want your company to help you financially? What is mandatory for you to succeed and what is nice to have? If you do not know yourself what support you need and expect, it will be hard to explain it to someone else. On the manager’s side, it will be difficult to understand, and when we do not understand we choose the easiest, riskfree answer. In this case, saying no.

It certainly can shorten the discussion and make the stress go away quicker, but this is only to leave the place to a more significant frustration. So go through all the possibilities and prioritise them. Then put your expectation on a paper if visualisation helps you. Or talk to your partner/colleague if the exchange works better for you and define precisely how your manager can help you.

2. Connect your learning project to company’s needs

How to raise the interest of the management? Every company has a purpose and a vision on how to accomplish it that translates into strategy. How does your learning project can be integrated into the implementation of this plan? Talk to people in your company to understand what are the current pain points and challenges that keep the management awake. List them, then connect them with how your new knowledge and improved skills acquired at the EMBA can solve them. Remember that you want to get the buy-in of your manager and avoid misinterpretation, so by identifying several possible scenarios, you prove your global understanding of the company’s situation and more importantly your interest in the company’s future.

3. Prepare your discussion

Now that your expectations are clear and linked directly to the business needs, you need to think how would you like the discussion to take place. It’s not about writing a rigid script, but more on drafting a sequence on how you want to bring ideas into the dialogue. The sequence and the words used make a significant difference on how your project is perceived. Every word has its weight, and we all react differently, but some patterns are similar. For example, starting with negative words will put the person in front of us in a defensive position by default. Make a list of positive words for you to use during the discussion. Example: “commitment”, “opportunity”, “development” etc.

“With your words, you wield the power to plant seeds of either success or failure in the mind of another, and in the process, you reveal who you are, how you think, and what you believe.” – Darlene Price

Last, how to be sure that the wanted words are coming out during the discussion? There is only one way: practice, practice and practice.

4. Find the right moment

Your manager has a million things to think and do every day. So catching him at the coffee machine and starting your sales monologue would only put him in an uncomfortable situation: he was looking for a short pause, a relaxing chit-chat before returning to the budget presentation he worked already all morning. Instead, give him ample notice that you would like to share with him a project important to you. Then plan a dedicated time for the discussion. It can be a dedicated, formal meeting or during your next regular one-to-one. The important part is to be sure that you have his full attention.

5. State your project

When the time comes, take a deep breath and think that you want to create a win-win situation. Start the discussion as you have planned and practised, but pay attention to his reactions and give him space to respond: generate a dialogue. Put questions to understand better his vision of what the team needs. How does he see the company’s challenges and strategy? What is the team’s role in its implementation and what are the boundaries? Engage further in the exchange by linking his inputs to your findings and understanding. Then articulate your project and be clear about your expectations.

6. Find a common purpose

Along the way, there might be some differences of opinion and tension can raise. When this happens, you have to remember that you are aiming for a win-win situation. To get there, you have to find a common purpose. You did your homework well, and you have found great ideas. But putting the focus on a common purpose means that you are open to new ideas and strategies developed during your exchange.

An example

Let’s say your company is looking to expand into a new market that is currently dominated by small & agile start-ups. Your management has identified the company is lacking skills to understand this new and dynamic environment. They are missing the bandwidth to go further, and the frustration is growing. You have identified this during the step 2. You also find out that programs like EPFL EMBA equip you with the knowledge and tools of how to harness innovation in a company. You thought it was a good win-win, but your manager doesn’t seem enthusiastic. When asking if you are missing something, he shares with you that is a question of time: the need for today and they need action less theory. A new opportunity pops into your mind while he was speaking: the Strategic and Innovative Project that you need to deliver during the program. You could start working on the project right away and perform a complete analysis of the targeted market and a plan how to enter it. Your management can benefit directly and in an applied way of your learning during the course. What are the chances that your manager consider and support your project now?

There are so many factors that you must consider before engaging yourself on the EMBA learning path. The journey is not one person challenge. It’s a collective, limited but intense effort where your environment plays an important role. If you read our guide “5 questions before applying for an EMBA“, it will be no surprise to you that the decision process implies getting your environment onboard. Your company and your boss is part of this context. By finding a common purpose, your learning project can only be more fulfilling.

What Makes the Social Entrepreneur Different?


 “One of the newest figures to emerge on the world stage in recent years is the social entrepreneur. This is usually someone who burns with desire to make a positive social impact on the world, but believes that the best way of doing it is, as the saying goes, not by giving poor people a fish and feeding them for a day, but by teaching them to fish, in hopes of feeding them for a lifetime. I have come to know several social entrepreneurs in recent years, and most combine a business school brain with a social worker’s heart. The triple convergence and the flattening of the world have been a godsend for them. Those who get it and are adapting to it have begun launching some very innovative projects.”

― Thomas L. Friedman, The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century



As Thomas Friedman mentions the figure of the social entrepreneur and the concept of social entrepreneurship has been gaining momentum from the early 2000s. In 2003, the World Economic Forum has put Social Entrepreneurship on its agenda for the first time by organizing a session with NGOs. “Improving the world and the bottom line simultaneously has never been more on-trend.” And this may very well be one of the major reasons behind the rise in popularity of the social entrepreneur. More and more companies are now embracing the idea of assessing their performance not only based on profits but also based on social and environmental impact within the more general –triple bottom line – framework. Social entrepreneurs are going one step ahead: they generate innovative business models to drive social change as the primary end goal, raising questions about what a responsible and successful business should be like.

Starting with Entrepreneurship… and Adding Up the Social Dimension

There is no clear consensus on what makes a good definition for a social entrepreneur. What makes the social entrepreneur different from a “traditional” entrepreneur? The most straightforward answer would be to differentiate the two by their motivation. Both are individuals who want to go to places where we haven’t been before and initiate change, yet their primary measures of success differ. The “traditional” entrepreneur seeks to optimize the financial performance, while social entrepreneurs are driven by altruism and seek to deliver value first to the society and then to themselves.

Yet, such a distinction is too simplistic. Indeed, the odds of success even for “traditional” entrepreneurs are so thin that no entrepreneur could make it without a stronger motivation than financial gains. R. Martin & S. Osberg in their review “Social Entrepreneurship: The Case for Definition” suggest that the true difference between the two lies in the value proposition. The entrepreneur designs his value proposition that assumes a market that can pay for the new product or service and thus generate profit. The social entrepreneur, on the other hand, does not organize its value proposition to create financial gains. He aims to carry a transformational benefit to the society with an emphasis on those who are marginalised, neglected and/or poor. Yet, this does not mean that his pursuit of a “mission-related impact” cannot generate income.

The social entrepreneurs have created organisations that are nor businesses nor charities with innovative hybrid business models. 3 possible organisational models exist.

  • Leveraged non-profit ventures

Technically not different from non-profits or NGOs, leveraged non-profits depend on outside philanthropic funding or private partnerships. They promote the adoption of an innovation to communities at the bottom of the wealth pyramid and therefore improve the wealth of the communities they serve. This in turn is attractive to their partners as they may have a vested interest in the continuation of the venture.

  • Hybrid non-profit ventures

Such a venture operates as a non-profit, yet this model usually involves some cost-recovery through the sales of a good or a service to different categories of the populations. Therefore, several entities may exist to accommodate the non-profit and for-profit operations. Funding may come from philanthropic or public sectors in the form of grants or quasi-equity.

  • Social business ventures

This type of venture is organized as a for-profit entity, whose primary aim is to make an impact and reach more people in need rather than maximize profit.  Social business ventures may seek funding from investors that are interested in both financial and social returns on their investments.

Tales of 2 “Heropreneurs”

To illustrate social entrepreneurship in action, here are some examples.

Listen to Deep Parekh talking about his business venture. “PLEASE” focuses on life enablement for aging population by connecting them with carers and volunteers. This way, elders can live in their homes for much longer and have a sense of sociability and enlightenment in their lives.



  • Peterborough Prison and the Social Impact Bond

This case is worth mentioning as it was the first pilot of a new financial instrument – the Social Impact Bond (SIB). SIBs are contracts between a public authority and private investors, in which the investors are paid only if the public project succeeds. In the case of the Peterborough prison, a series of interventions were launched to decrease the rate of recidivism amongst short-term prisoners. The money from the investors was used to pay for the service providers and the investors were repaid only if reoffending was reduced by more than 7.5% versus a control group. If you are interested to learn about how it turned out, you can read an interesting article here. More and more governments are now piloting projects based on SIBs, which by shifting the risk from taxpayers and service providers to investors have the possibility to become a mechanism to expand social services and social enterprises growth possibilities.

Making It Happen: the Challenge of Raising Capital as a Social Entrepreneur

Going after venture capital is already a challenge for a bottom line oriented start-up, so what is there to say about social enterprises, whose objective to generate profit for owners and shareholders is secondary? As we mentioned previously, some new financial instruments such as SIBs are starting to emerge to broaden social enterprises access to capital. (More about these mechanisms can be read here.)

What would potential investors focus on when looking at investment cases? A recent study by PwC on the topic pinpoints 4 principles of what social investors want:

  1. A social enterprise integrates both the social mission and the financial drive to maximise its impact. Any suggestion that there might be a trade-off between the social and financial goals will weaken the business case. Both aspects should be integrated and strengthen each other.
  2. Having a group of people willing to invest time and effort into the social enterprise. A management team gathered behind a leader shows the persuasiveness and the potential of the idea that consumers may follow. It is not impossible to get funding on your own, but it is advisable to bring together people with complementary skills from early on.
  3. A measurable and quantifiable impact. This makes a stronger business case. It is not evident how to measure the impact or outcome of a social enterprise. The advice here is to start with something small, easy to measure, preferably already available in your daily business. An example would be to measure the number of people you employ or the amount of positive feedback you receive. Looking for some metrics or KPIs ideas? In an effort to facilitate social enterprises access to capital markets, a Global Impact Investing Network ( initiative focused on establishing a set of metrics by sector (IRIS metrics ) to be used for measuring the social, environmental and financial performance of an investment.
  4. No mission drift. A mission drift occurs when an enterprise moves away from its initial aim, for example when it shifts towards maximizing financial gains at the expense of the social impact. As mission drift is something that occurs often, investors are looking at safeguards that exist within the venture to prevent this shift.

Ecosystem for Social Entrepreneurship

Aspiring social entrepreneur or simply want to know more about the social entrepreneurship ecosystem?  Check out some of the resources below:

Social Entrepreneurship Network


The social entrepreneur and enterprises are likely to continue receiving significant attention. Today, even established companies are pushed to innovate their models to benefit the society and the social entrepreneur mindset may become a prerequisite for any business leader. Putting the performance measures of the impact on the society on an equal footing to financial indicators does not need to be contradictory, but rather a strategical alternative to differentiate yourself and show the lead.