If developing Social Enterprises is so tough then why are so many engaged?

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I had many thoughts while attending the Sankalp Social Enterprise & Investment Forum last week, some are shared below. However, one particular comment made during a panel session remained in my mind, “By definition creating a Social Enterprise will be more challenging – it is where Government or NGOs have failed to have lasting impact, and the traditional private sector sees no viable business opportunity.” So the question becomes: if the task is so challenging, why are so many engaged? Because if attendance at Sankalp is any indication, many are indeed passionately engaged.

Although not the first conference focused on Social Enterprise and Investment, Sankalp 2009 was a first for me. Surprisingly, I found myself most excited not by any particular panel session or keynote address, but by the enthusiasm and genuine interest in the ‘space’. A year ago when I completed my MBA, I felt I was one of the only students talking about the power of market-based solutions to address social change. I also worried about career prospects for an MBA who wanted to work in this field. Attending Sankalp, despite a rough global economic climate, I felt the possibilities were widespread.

As part of the conference awards were presented to notable social enterprises. Many of the categories are ones you would expect to see: Education for All, Healthcare Inclusion, Agriculture and Rural Innovation, Environment and Clean Energy. However, it was within the catch-all category of ‘Highly Scalable Social Models’ that I found myself most engaged. The majority of social entrepreneurs here were working on income generation for the BOP or ‘lifestyle improvement’. The models were simple – for example, developing an online platform accessible by mobile to connect job seekers in the informal sector to employers. For maids, drivers, security guards, nannies, etc. this tool enables seeing which jobs are closest to home (min. travel cost), and most importantly which employers are paying the best salaries. The CEO of Babajob, Sean, used the example of two nannies working down the street from each other…one could be making $20USD/month, while the other earns $160. An online platform forces much needed transparency into the system. What I like best about income generation models is that they seem to answer an inherent “want” that exists for those living below the poverty line, vs. assuming what they “need”. Monitor Inclusive Markets talks about the importance of distinguishing between ‘wants’ vs. ‘needs’ at the BOP in their recently released report, Emerging Markets, Emerging Models. Knowing how difficult it is to change behaviours and attitudes, it makes intuitive sense to work on developing social business models that build on what the lower income communities want. I believe this is necessary to ensure scalable impact.

I have not yet found my answer to why so many are engaged in the Social Enterprise space despite the challenges. For myself it is because I see opportunity to create powerful and lasting social change.

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2 Responses to “If developing Social Enterprises is so tough then why are so many engaged?”

  1. priyasng002 Says:

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