Social entrepreneurs: Everyday heroes
Published: Jun 14, 2013
Entrepreneurship isn’t about selling things - it’s about finding innovative ways to improve people’s lives. Until recently, most people in business focused on products and services that would appeal to consumers, and this resulted in the creation of many great companies and a lot of jobs. But attitudes are changing. A new generation of entrepreneurs is using approaches from the commercial world and employing technology to tackle social and environmental problems - these areas used to be the exclusive territory of government agencies and charitable organizations.
The British Cabinet Office says that there are 70,000 social enterprises helping people, communities and the environment in this country alone. These businesses and organizations contributed more than 54.9 billion pounds to the economy in 2012 and they employ almost 1 million people, yet we have only scratched the surface.
No matter what the structure of the company - whether it is for-profit, nonprofit, or a creative melding of the two - entrepreneurial solutions are offering engagement, jobs and hope in areas where we had none. The example set by Econet Wireless, which is led by Strive Masiyiwa, is one of my favorites. A couple of years ago, Econet, a telecom company based in South Africa, started to develop and distribute solar charging stations in the region, providing power for cellphones, lights and other devices. These stations are helping to transform the lives of people living in rural areas where the supply of electricity is erratic.
Econet shifted its business model to drive change for people and the planet, and at the same time it created a lucrative new revenue stream. This shift has opened up new avenues for the company, which is using its charging stations to power refrigerators that store vaccines for the community.
Business and government must encourage established entrepreneurs and young talent to focus on problem areas like health, education, climate change and social care. How can we speed up this process and make even more of an impact? There seem to be three key obstacles facing entrepreneurs who want to get social enterprises off the ground.
Funding: Where’s the money?
Entrepreneurs often struggle to raise seed money for such ventures, as it is far tougher to get funding for social enterprises than commercial counterparts, despite the fact that the financial returns can be just as big. If a startup team is proposing to launch a social enterprise with the potential to radically change the U.K.'s 87 billion pounds social care sector, they deserve a serious listen from people who can provide substantial funding, not just a little grant money.
We need to encourage more initiatives and competitions such as Google’s Global Impact Challenge, which set out to find four nonprofits in the U.K. that would be awarded 500,000 pounds each to help them tackle some of the world’s toughest problems through technology. The quality of the entrants was amazing, and the winners ranged from CDI Apps for Good, which teaches children how to code, to the Zoological Society of London, which uses tracking devices to monitor and protect endangered wildlife.
Others are following. The Founders Forum, a community for entrepreneurs started by Brent Hoberman and Jonnie Goodwin, has partnered with the social investor Nominet Trust to put up 1 million pounds in order to encourage the best and brightest to apply their technological talents to social problems. Called Social Tech, Social Change, the program will provide seed funding for startups. These sorts of initiatives will help to shine the light on the social enterprise sector and will encourage more funding and more good ideas to come to life.
Networking: It’s who you know
It is tough for the leaders of a social enterprise to know who to speak to within tech businesses and vice versa, so it’s important for government and business to create links between technology entrepreneurs and those leading social change. It simply makes financial sense to encourage collaboration between those skilled in tech and those working in the social sector, since it will spark new ideas - everything from online giving platforms to education analytics businesses - and result in the creation of jobs.
The solutions to this problem don’t have to be costly or elaborate. Online forums, networking events and conferences would all help to forge ties between the two sectors.
Mentoring: Advice from those who have been there
Every startup team needs a mentor: someone to help team members to understand and overcome those tricky early situations and, later, to coach them through the process of expansion. Using business skills to grow a social enterprise is a fairly new idea, and so the teams that found such startups need help solving problems and getting the job done.
Successful tech entrepreneurs should be encouraged to mentor entrepreneurs who work in the social space. Again, the solutions can be very simple, and might build on networking tools.
If you’d like to get involved in the social business sector, take a look at your own business or the company you work for: Do you and your team have skills and energy that would be valuable for helping others? If so, should you find new partners and take on a new sector? And do you have spare time to help a young nonprofit tackle its tough first few years?
• Richard Branson is the founder of the Virgin Group and companies such as Virgin Atlantic, Virgin America, Virgin Mobile and Virgin Active. He has recently published two books: “Screw Business as Usual” and “Like a Virgin.” He maintains a blog at www.virgin.com/richard-branson/blog. You can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/richardbranson. To learn more about the Virgin Group: www.virgin.com.