A Place in the Sun
How do you take a social enterprise abroad? What challenges would you face? Would social enterprise even make sense where you were going? Don’t ask me. My minimal mastery of social enterprise basics permits all sorts of fantastic solutions: tell the embassy, alert the press, we’ll be fine.
Would social enterprise even make sense where you were going?
My ignorance also forces me to ask: what even is a social enterprise? On the train to the joint RSA and Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship event in Oxford, RSA Catalyst Programme Manager Alex Watson offered an answer: it’s an organisation that aims to reinvest in human and environmental development, not merely to maximise profit. Satisfied with the answer and a few healthy examples, I began to consider the initial question again: how would you take that abroad?
Oxford’s Said Business School was a good place to learn more. The collaboration between RSA and Skoll attracted a great mix of socially enterprising Fellows, students and business people to discuss the issue. Talking with the delegates after the speeches, it was clear the mix of abstract and practical advice from speakers Charmian Love and Rosanne Gray was exceptionally useful.
Charmian, CEO of Volans , outlined 5 pathways to scale for a social enterprise:
- Eureka: the initial moment of inspiration when a social enterprise idea is born.
- Experiment: refining the idea through trial and error.
- Enterprise: building a workable business model to get the project underway.
- Ecosystems: developing partnerships to expand the project.
- Economy: considering the future, and taking the project overseas.
Emphasising the need to develop contacts and networks, she referred to the RSA Fellowship as one key way to assist social enterprise development. Charmian also spoke about the way in which the Fellowship allows one to meet specialists; people who have the knowledge of regions and businesses that can help take a social enterprise abroad. To disseminate the enterprise’s message abroad, she commented that social entrepreneurs needed to use social media more effectively and more frequently.
Rosanne Gray took a different angle, challenging the audience with a question: what’s the one thing we all have in common? We all own something made of cotton. This simple fact disguises some serious problems, particularly with the energy inefficiency of cotton supply chains. In an effort to reduce carbon emissions from these supply chains, Rosanne set up Cotton Connect, and as Global CEO, she faced many unforeseen challenges when taking it abroad.
What’s the one thing we all have in common? We all own something made of cotton.
She reminded the audience that to take an enterprise abroad, one must first have a solid enterprise at home; considering that 75% of all social enterprises fail in their first year due to problems with staff, getting to the ‘taking it abroad’ stage seems more and more difficult.
Again, when asked what the most difficult part of taking Cotton Connect abroad was, she answered ‘managing people, and making sure both abroad and at home, people were committed to the project’. It was a sombre reminder that an enterprise’s success depends not only on the brilliance of the idea, but also on the mundane, day-to-day elements of any job: managing people, monitoring results and putting the kettle on. But she too emphasised the need to be creative in network-building, and pointed to the RSA’s commitment to developing networks outside the UK as a great facility for social entrepreneurs.
Chairing the event, Matthew Taylor provided a few examples of Fellows who have taken projects abroad. Hugh Whalan FRSA co-founded Energy in Common which aims to make affordable, clean energy accessible to the very poor, and to reduce reliance on expensive, unsafe and polluting fuels such as firewood, charcoal and kerosene. Catalyst awarded Hugh £1000 to help with the first pilot, and the project has now expanded from Ghana to Kenya and Philippines. In addition, Nick Sireau FRSA and now Ashoka Fellow, founded SolarAid to install solar energy generators in schools, community centres and clinics in rural areas across East and Southern Africa.
I realised my initial expectations of going gung-ho and taking an enterprise abroad were woefully misconceived. But after the speeches and meeting many other people, I felt equipped with the knowledge and contact to start my own social enterprise. Now, I just have to wait for that eureka moment…
Following the event, the RSA ran a Social Entrepreneurs Breakfast. You can check out some videos from that event here: http://vimeo.com/rsanetworks/videos/page:1/sort:date
Gurmeet Singh is a Fellowship Researcher. You can contact him on firstname.lastname@example.org.