Making Dreams Come True
May 11, 2021
Principal’s Research Chair (Tier 2) in Social Innovation for Health Equity and Food Security
Okanagan (Kelowna, BC)
PhD, Administration, Schulich School of Business, York University
Master of Arts, Anthropology, Chinese University of Hong Kong
Bachelor of Arts, Fashion and Textiles Studies, Hong Kong Polytechnic University
“We need to think creatively about innovative and alternative business solutions to make positive change.”
UNDERGRADUATE MANAGEMENT STUDENT SHIVEN VINOD KHERA remembers his first meeting with Dr. Eric Li vividly. “He asked me, ‘what’s your dream?’”
Although this might be an unusual question to ask a first-year student, it’s a common theme for Dr. Li. As a Principal’s Research Chair in Social Innovation for Health Equity and Food Security, Dr. Li strives to think about market systems in a new way. Rather than only focusing on the bottom line of revenue generation, he believes organizations should create sustainable value for all society. Dr. Li would like to see all enterprises, from health-care delivery to food production and distribution, work toward social innovation using ethical and responsible business practices.
“The status quo of disparity, whether it’s affordable housing or access to healthy food, is unacceptable,” says Dr. Li, an associate professor in UBC Okanagan’s Faculty of Management and 2021 Researcher of the Year. “We need to think creatively about innovative and alternative business solutions to make positive change.”
Dr. Li adds that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought numerous disparities into focus and made them more intense for many. “Disruptions in food supply chains brought global awareness to the divide between those who have and those who don’t. It highlighted how we’re all linked and how suffering in one part of the world can bring pain to another.”
He points to the example of food processing or manufacturing plants in one part of the world shutting down, resulting in decreased product availability in another. Who can forget the lack of toilet paper or eggs in the early days of the pandemic?
Dr. Li suggests that working with local communities is the key to addressing this issue.
SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY IN BUSINESS
For more than three years, Dr. Li and Khera have been co-developing an inventory management system with the Central Okanagan Food Bank, which provided food for approximately 4,000 individuals in the Central Okanagan region each month before the COVID-19 pandemic. The demand increased around 25 per cent since COVID-19 hit Canada in mid-March 2020. Li and Khera want to help the food bank better predict the supply and demand of food, while also improving food expiration tracking, to help minimize food waste.
Initially, Dr. Li and Khera created a digital donation platform called Smart Donate, which automized donations to the food bank. The system then branched into other ‘Smart’ platforms including Smart Meals, an initiative that encouraged local restaurants to introduce new plant-based menu options and to commit a portion of each sale to the Food Bank.
The partnership with the Central Okanagan Food Bank culminated with the donation management solution, Smart Inventory, which was launched in April 2021. This cloud-based management tool incorporates a number of inputs including food donations from multiple suppliers, stock levels and local food preference.
“This system digitizes the food re-distribution and donation tracking system,” explains Dr. Li. “The goal was to keep stock levels high and food waste low. If we can save just 10 to 20 per cent of food waste, potentially millions of dollars can be recaptured and used to purchase more food.”
Khera admits that initially thinking about how to capture the various data sources was overwhelming, but he was inspired by Dr. Li.
“Dr. Li knows how to break down a vision into manageable bits and how to partner with the right people. After three years, I can see the efforts of our work.”
The next phase of the project will be to connect a local community farmer with the food bank to coordinate donations of produce.
“On average, 17 to 19 per cent of farm produce is wasted,” adds Dr. Li. “Our donation management system aims to reduce this waste by 50 per cent. Unlike other commercialized inventory management systems, ours will be the first Canadian-based system co-developed by the food bank and a university research team.”
Dr. Li acknowledges that he enjoys unravelling complex projects involving multiple players, and feels strongly that learning how to finesse these relationships is a necessary part of the student experience. In particular, he emphasizes the importance of community engagement and academic research both in and out of class experiences adding value to the student experience.
“Real-world applications are a missing component of classroom teaching,” he says. “I like to introduce students to real-life business partners who have actual challenges. Only then does theory become reality.”
He adds that seeing the social impact of implementing a new business plan can influence the decisions students make. For example, the easiest money-saving solution for a floundering business may involve a reduction in staff. However, Dr. Li encourages students to think creatively and not just about the end product or ledgers. Discussions around social responsibility are an integral part of his teaching, and he relishes seeing students evolve from just being entrepreneurial to endorsing this practice.
“While working in the field with partners, students see all the factors that contribute to the success or failure of an organization. This greater understanding may lead to an improved understanding of the importance of sustainable practices — ones that are positive for the whole organization, their society and the environment.”
Khera agrees that he experienced this shift in thinking.
“Initially I was interested in all the entrepreneurial opportunities and hadn’t thought much about making positive changes,” he explains. “While working with Dr. Li and the food bank I became more sensitive to issues around food insecurity. I saw the impact of different business decisions. I came to realize the importance of understanding and researching all the different possibilities before committing to a decision. I’ve learned that short-term gains can’t be made at the expense of long-term problems.”
By influencing a positive mindset in students — one that focuses on the best interest of their environment and society — Dr. Li’s dream is that this practice will echo into future organizations.
“Being socially responsible is just good business practice.”