I recently spent five days with 60 entrepreneurs from 22 countries. There is nothing unusual about this, but what was special about this group was that they were all social entrepreneurs – incredible individuals all contributing to programs that address local and global social issues.
I call these people “incredible” because I have spent my entire professional life in the commercial world and the projects these individuals are focusing on have opened my eyes to the good going on. Most of us have no idea who these people are. We go about our daily lives ignorant of their work – but, for me, meeting this group was a wake up call.
From a project that supplies reusable menstrual cups to teenagers in Kenya to protect them from humiliation during their monthly cycle, to a woman from Hong Kong using the power of singing to empower underprivileged children struggling with shyness: these were the types of initiatives I encountered.
During the five days, it became clear there is so much social enterprise can contribute here in the Arab world. Our social space is virtually untouched and we are all aware of the challenges we face from women’s rights to the environment, youth unemployment… the list goes on. But what we are not clear about is whose responsibility it is to bring about social change. I do not believe that governments alone can shoulder this responsibility; we, as residents, must all take it on.
Now, my definition of a social enterprise is the act of creating social impact in a community, a city or in a country but at the same time generating a fair and acceptable return. I must be clear: this is not a social cause, this is a social company that makes a return. And it is this return that attracts commercial interest and therefore investment which allows these projects to reach a scale that has impact.
That return manifests itself either as a dividend, or perhaps at the sale of the company or an IPO. The combined percentage of the two – depending on which stage of the enterprise cycle an investor enters – can be anywhere from 6 per cent if you are lending, to 15 per cent for the investor seeking to capture the dividend or exit.
So how can individuals or companies embrace this notion of social enterprise and make 2014 the year of the social entrepreneur? Well, we now understand it is our responsibility – but who are “we”? “We” are not just big corporations or even small to medium-sized businesses. “We” are also individuals – CEOs, the employed, new graduates or even students.
If you are a CEO, why not make social impact part of your corporate agenda? Yes, you need to talk about shareholder value, your customers and all the commercial necessities to keep the board happy. But in 2014, how about considering making the second item on your agenda social enterprise? This should not just be a CSR box that gets ticked. This should be a well-thought out social program that generates results.
You need to measure the impact of that program in the same way you analyze your business. If you have pledged to fund the college education of 1,000 underprivileged children in the developing world, then track your progress. Did you succeed? Did all of the children graduate? And if not, why not and what needs to be done to ensure the next 1,000 do?
If you are not a corporate entity, but simply an individual, then you too can be part of this new agenda to solve our social challenges. It is not just the fortunate who are able to help but anyone who is capable, and that doesn’t necessarily come from wealth. It also comes from a willingness to take part, whether itʼs setting up or getting involved in a social business, volunteering or simply spreading the message that change is afoot. Capability can come from all of us. Are you on board?