Having pioneered Singtel Ventures, a corporate venture capital arm, in the late nineties and through the subsequent years of working with social enterprises, I’ve observed some commonalities and unique qualities that set successful social entrepreneurs apart. In essence, they are extremely talented people who see opportunities in building sustainable and viable commercial businesses with a prime focus on solving social issues.
Take Singapore’s online marketplace, Bompipi.com, for example. The business was founded on the premise of encouraging more people to give back to society, and it developed a creative and sustainable revenue stream anchored on the growing demand for affordable online grocery shopping. The founders’ passion for giving back to society then inspired to an innovative reward system that allows customers to offset a part of their online shopping costs by volunteering with partner charities.
Bompipi.com was one of seven social startup ventures shortlisted to be part of a six-month long social innovation programme called Singtel Future Makers. Its novel pitch won the hearts of the judging panel from Singtel, Singapore’s National Council of Social Service, SPD, raiSE, 500 Startups and Adrenalin Group of Social Enterprises.
To become and stay successful as a social enterprise is a remarkable feat, considering how social entrepreneurship is a relatively new concept in a nascent ecosystem. It requires all the essential capabilities needed in running a commercial enterprise, while creating social good. The business challenges are compounded as often the social cause which they support is niche, lacks the scale or is costly to serve at the onset. Bear in mind that you could also be serving a need where the risks, stakes (and mistakes) can be a lot higher for the end beneficiary they serve, depending on the inherent vulnerability which they face.
So, what have I learnt from two decades of working with commercial start-ups, and more recently social start-ups? They all have the same ingredients needed to become successful entrepreneurs, albeit social entrepreneurs come with the additional factors of:
- Having an extremely deep sense of understanding or EMPATHY for the social issues that they seek to address. Often they have personally experienced the issue or through someone they know. Many of those whom I have met can tell a very personal story behind their causes. It’s analogous to having deep customer centricity in your business model. Going back to Bompipi.com, two of the founders grew up in families with financial difficulties and could not afford daily necessities. Even as both men became successful businessmen, they never forgot their origins and have turned their insights into a business opportunity built upon the social cause they champion.
- Having a deeper and more grounded sense of PURPOSE that may be missing in non-social entrepreneurs. It’s this sense of purpose that will be their core foundation of resilience when the going gets really tough. Many a time, they will ask themselves: Am I blinded by my cause and purpose, and will I ever make it through? Where do I draw the line between my purpose and cause, and the realities?
- Having the capacity and COURAGE to deal with the paradox of making money, sometimes from the needy and vulnerable ones. Sustainability is key to staying in business and achieving positive social impact. The successful ones are those who dare to challenge the stigma of profiteering from and helping those who are vulnerable and needy. But, vulnerability may not always mean one cannot afford. Sometimes the solution just doesn’t yet exist, even if one is willing and able to pay. Regardless, for those who cannot deal with this inherent paradox, it’s best to consider staying in the charity model.
That said, there are potential attributes of social entrepreneurs that can undermine their success, when:
- They become too fixated on their cause that they cannot adapt to the realities of the situation and are unable to see opportunities to ‘pivot’, especially when their solution is too customised to a cause, making it difficult to find scale.
- Their sense of purpose and passion toward the cause may undermine their openness, agility, and adaptability, thereby holding them back from collaborating, synergising and sometimes ceding to others who might hold the key to bringing the venture to the next level.
- They lack organisational skills to run a growing team, and don’t know how to build diversity and talent in their teams that can complement their own competencies.
Unfortunately, there are no panaceas to circumvent all of these potential pitfalls, but no successful social entrepreneur ever gets to the top alone. For most, if not all cases, there is always a mentor guiding them from behind. What a mentor can provide is the much-needed guidance and alternative perspectives to overcome common pitfalls as the ones I’ve highlighted earlier. It’s with this belief that the Singtel Future Makers programme puts a strong focus on mobilising a diverse set of mentors from every sector. Building capability and capacity goes beyond just providing cash funding.
No doubt, the social enterprise business model will continue to be refined and evolve. But, here in Singapore and Australia, the ecosystem of social enterprise is starting to take shape and will grow from strength to strength. Successful social enterprises can also demonstrate to larger corporations that profiting and effecting positive social changes are not mutually exclusive concepts. Only time will prove our fundamental belief that ‘DOING GOOD IS GOOD BUSINESS’ in the long run. It’s exciting to see what our seven start-ups from Singtel Future Makers can do.
Andrew Buay is Vice President Group Corporate Social Responsibility & Talent Coach at Singtel.
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