The Social Entrepreneurs Who Still Don’t Know They’re Social Entrepreneurs

It’s very common for a volunteer to join us on our mission to tackle global poverty through enterprise, and to feed back to us that their client doesn’t know about social enterprise. And its not uncommon for them to then wonder what the hell they are doing on a social enterprise volunteer programme! So we find ourselves backing up defensively at the start of every programme, to explain a little something about this.

Believe it or not – social enterprise, or the concept / term, at least – is still relatively new around the world. Especially in some of the world’s poorest or hard to reach places.

I’ve been running volunteer programmes that match skilled professionals with an entrepreneur tackling issues in their community now, for around 2 years. I first started doing this on a soul-searching trip to Kenya where I wanted to get more experience in programme management. My background was in youth development, and prior to that advertising – quite a leap – but perhaps less so than it might be for your average career changer, since I’d spent the previous 4 years replacing public funding with brand money for a social enterprise, through the delivery of advertising campaigns which we ran in our youth programme’s own media product: Live Magazine.

I realised on this fateful trip to Kenya, amidst the world’s greatest modern ebola breakout, plus bombings by the terrorist group Al Shabab in the north of Kenya, that there are a tonne of amazing, incredible even, entrepreneurs tucked away doing inspiring things to positively impact their communities around them. And I knew – and saw – what an impact it made when I shared some of my knowledge and skills with them. I was able to coach a young teacher through developing a tech platform for his students to submit their homework to him electronically: improving IT literacy at the same time. I also had the privilege of working with the head of a women’s group who were collecting and disposing their slum community’s household waste – and I taught her how to get more money out of the community in order to cover costs, empowering the women’s group to feel valued, to get paid for their time even, reducing stress and exhaustion and a sense of wandering if they should just give it all up.

But lending my skills wasn’t going to change the world. I mean, sure it might help a few people whom I could come into contact with, but I wanted to go bigger. I wanted to provide this same level of support to even more of this fascinating group of relentless entrepreneurs. There’s plenty of them out there. I couldn’t get out of my head that the world didn’t know they existed really, and equally they didn’t know there was a world of likeminded entrepreneurs changing the world’s status quo (finding solutions for the increased lack of funding for social welfare) through business.

When my business partner, Anna Moran, and I launched _SocialStarters the big dream was two-way development. The idea was simple – we bring out volunteers to support social entrepreneurs, and in return we send the volunteer home a change-maker, ready to solve problems in their own communities too.

We thought maybe there was an appetite for this when we had convinced two amazing ladies to join us in Kenya during a time when the FCO were advising against all but essential travel. We knew for sure when a year later we’d seen 100 volunteers join us on our mission across India, Sri Lanka and Brazil.

And here we are two years on – and there are still entrepreneurs who sit clearly in the Social Enterprise box, and of course the ones who can be argued to sit somewhere outside of it, hovering, uncertain but clear they want to make an impact, just perhaps a little vague as to how. Our volunteers help them figure out their mission, vision, values. Or take them through their first impact assessment, one page business model, or marketing strategy. In India they’re slightly more self-aware (being part of a social enterprise incubator), but in Brazil say, in the communidades of Rio de Janeiro, there is much disparity here. Sri Lanka sits somewhere in between but not far from Brazil.

In India we’re about to run our 7th 6-week “Immersion Programme”, and four of the clients we’re supporting will be enjoying their 3rd time on the programme. One of them now has a partnership with Unicef. And they’re all ready to scale.

Social Entrepreneurship is a murky term, it’s not often fully understood and there are many efforts to define it. The way I understand it is this: you have a problem to solve, you’ve found a solution to potentially solve it, you want to test that out. You are finding a commercial, independent route to source the way you fund it. Or at least, you are partly finding your own revenue to fund it. It’s a balance between knowing your commercial worth, not being afraid to ask for it, and using that nouse in order to solve issues that perhaps one day no one will be able to get funded to solve. You’re a radical, you have natural talents that allow you to solve problems that often others aren’t dedicated to solve, and you have passion and determination to make your community better, for the good of the people who live and interact within it.

I’ve seen natural social entrepreneurs in all kinds of places this last few years. The look on their face when we show them videos from the Skoll World Forum (like the one called “Dare to Imagine” which always makes me get a bit emotional) and we start explaining what social entrepreneurs do it’s the most wonderful thing to witness. It’s a sense for them of approval, or sudden knowing that they’re not the only one. To feel a part of something greater than their granular experience of the thing that they do. It lifts them.

And then we get to work.