David LePage

Managing Partner of Buy Social Canada

David LePage is the Managing Partner of Buy Social Canada, a network that advocates for and promotes leveraging existing procurement to create community value. Buy Social Canada provides direct support to governments and corporations on social procurement policy, practice and measurement, and offers a third-party Social Enterprise Certification Program. David LePage is engaged with social enterprise in multiple roles. David serves on the Boards of Directors of the Social Enterprise Council of Canada. He was the designer and initial Executive Director of Community Impact Real Estate in Vancouver’s Inner City and a founding partner of the Social Enterprise Ecosystem Project and Social Enterprise Institute. David is a Professor for the University of Frederickton MBA program in Social Enterprise Leadership, and author of the book Marketplace Revolution, from Concentrated Wealth to Community Capital.

Work and impact

It’s what I do. For many years, it’s been the whole purpose of the work I do, because it’s been evolved around using business models to create social value. So whether it was working in community radio or working in social enterprise. Whether it’s been managing or starting or supporting, it’s what I do, otherwise I don’t find any satisfaction. In a situation where my job is here, and my passion is elsewhere, my passion is about things like social justice, and opportunities, and equity and inclusion. So if I’m not doing that, in my job, I don’t find any satisfaction.

So the biggest thing right now is how do we integrate social procurement? How do we integrate those values into how we work in the marketplace, because every business is involved in the marketplace. But for the most part, for the last 300 years in the Americas, it’s been around a European capitalist model, which is around exploitation and exclusion. Right now I see we have to change that value system, and go back to what is more of an Indigenous model, or what would be a future model of a marketplace, because we still need to do goods and services. So we’re always going to need accountants, but we want to hire the accountants who are contributing to the community, and we want to make sure that what the accountants are doing are contributing to community. So how do we build not an economic marketplace based on economic transactions, but a marketplace that’s based on social value and community building?

It actually came out of my university studies. In university I was very lucky to be in a program that was really focused on social justice and understanding. I didn’t study anything in business. I mean, I’m sure they taught it on campus, but I have no idea where. We were, looking more at social justice issues, economic equity, bigger picture macro social and economic issues, and it just became part of my value system. So I was working in jobs that didn’t relate to anything like that, so that’s was a job, not really what I enjoy doing.

tWe didn’t know what it was, so it was never called that, but I knew I wanted to do something like that, but that wasn’t always the opportunity. I ended up looking at opportunities like, social work, which was disastrous, because social work, actually was the epitome what I didn’t want to do because the social workers were just implementing the dominant value system, they weren’t changing the system. So then I moved and found much more engagement working in the nonprofit sector that was around not nonprofit work, but around community economic development.

I think it’s the fact that people like you are carrying on this discussion. I don’t think this would have been part of the coffee discussion 10 years ago at many companies, and 20 years ago you probably would have been fired by now for saying you’re involved in looking at sustainability, because it would have been taking away from the value of the customers who are trying to maximize profits. Now companies say you’re bringing a different set of values. So to me, the exciting thing is that there’s actually this discussion is going on. In the MBA program that I teach in, I teach social enterprise. That didn’t exist in any MBA program in Canada till 2013. Now it’s in several.

I think the biggest misconception is that there still is the dominant model of rewards and investment are all based on financial measurements. Even though we talk about sustainability, there still is idea that how you measure success is how much money did you make. So we’ll say ‘why should we be sustainable?’ Will we make more money? So the driving factor, and the measurement continues to be that. I call it triple bottom line. It’s like an Oreo cookie, you can take it apart, and if you didn’t make enough money this year, you can disregard the social or the environmental, but if you think about it as blended, so think about it as pesto. You can’t take it apart once you say we’re going to do it. So like other companies will say, ‘we’re sustainable because we do social procurement.’ That’s a policy, but there’s no measurement on it yet, so we have to start to get to where the measurement is part of success.

Life and aspirations

I don’t have one, I don’t balance it, I blend it. I don’t look at what I do as a job. I am very, very lucky to be in a place in my life where I get to choose me. So, I kind of look at what I do for income as a part of what I want to do with my life. So my typical workday is probably a blend of work delivery products, as well as learning and exploring. So I start the day, usually by 6AM, checking emails, and making sure nothing on the east coast or internationally has to be responded to, and often there’s some email to do. And then I’ll quickly scan over the next 45 minutes, three or four newspapers and news feeds. Then I go for my walk and listen to a book on economics or history. My morning walk was always a learning book. And then by 8AM, I’m on Zoom and teams. It used to be in an airplane until COVID. In 2019, I probably traveled over 100,000 miles in the air, between Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa, and Australia. Now it’s all online, which is great. And then we have a team of six people, but we’re expanding to nine, so I have a business to manage there. Then I’m involved in other social enterprises and I teach. And then there’s evening reading and emails. Yeah, I don’t have a balance, I have a blend.

What parts? I don’t find my job challenging.

I think the long term goal would be that tomorrow, I’m doing the same thing. I think if I can continue to support and influence the trend we’re on, that would be success.

Advice for the next generations

I think it’s curiosity, passion, and focus. So if you’re passionate about it, and you’re always willing to learn, and you’re focused. That to me is key. Because none of us can do everything. A lot of people are very passionate, but they don’t get focused. Or they’re very passionate, but they’re not curious, so they’re not learning all the time. They get stuck in ‘here’s the answer.’ But the answer is evolving all the time? Because if we don’t evolve with the trend, you’re no longer relevant or prepared. Any job is not going to be like mine when I was your age. Back then, people were expected to have a job their whole life, and people looked at people like me and said ‘You just changed jobs again. What are you doing?’ So that’s curiosity, but focus becomes really important. And I think what happens is when we’re young, we hold passion, but then I think sometimes this is where that balance comes in. Is it balanced? Or blending? Can you blend family with career with friends?

For us a degree is not a critical thing. We look at the things that I was talking about, we’d look at commitment to the passion to a social value, that someone brings our values. We can teach the technical stuff, but what we can’t teach is passion. The degree stuff is only important if it’s related to the technical stuff. So if someone has learned all about procurement and has this passion, that would be ideal for us because we know that they understand some things that I will never understand. So those are tools. And I think the power of education is to provide tools. But the degree itself to me is becoming less and less critical, as much as the learning is more important.

I think it’s the same things. I would rather see someone curious and make a mistake than someone not try something and say, ‘Well, I didn’t know.’ We all have to have a willingness to admit what we don’t know, and I think that’s really, really hard. In most situations, people don’t want to say, ‘I don’t know how to do that.’ But I think we’re going to have to admit that we are building the plane while we fly it, which means that we’re trying different things as I go. So everyone talks about impact and I sometimes get criticized because people say how do you measure impact and I say ‘I don’t, I can measure outputs.’ But if we helped a social enterprise get another contract, and they hire three people facing barriers, that’s an outcome. Did that get them out of poverty? Check back in 10 years. Check back with their children. I mean, the things we’re trying to change are so systemic that you can’t measure that. So you can’t measure impact, you can measure outcomes. I think we have to be willing to admit that we don’t know all the time. That’s why curiosity and experimentation to me is important.

Yeah, I think I would have started earlier, understanding I needed certain tools to be better and to be more effective. When I say I didn’t study business in college, but I’m sure they taught it somewhere, it would have been nice to have had some better tools to try to do some of the things we did around building social enterprises. Because we just started businesses because we had to, but we didn’t know some of the things that CPAs learn. I had to learn all those things after, so they were more pragmatic learning than preparatory learning.

I think that constant learning is really critical. I think it would have been better earlier on to understand that work and passion can be integrated, because I think it was always seen as separate. It took me a while to learn that you actually could integrate your values into your day to day job. That might not be the job that you foresaw or it might not be the the job that is seen by others as your career path, but it’s what you are happy with. There’s more to it than a house in the suburbs with a picket fence. Which, when I was growing up, that was what we were told was the goal.