Social Entrepreneurs: Innovate and win hearts

Emilia McElvenney
Emilia McElvenney Head of Development and Programmes Youth Business International (YBI)

Emilia McElvenney is Head of Development and Programmes at Youth Business International (YBI). As part of the Development Team, she delivers global partnerships and works with members to build organisational sustainability.

We expect entrepreneurs to innovate gadgets, designs, tastes and services ­– but with social entrepreneurs, we get so much more. They also innovate their business models, not only winning over the customer with quality and profitable products but also with their compassion and heart. Not to mention their often clever and pun-tastic business names.

I am a big and long-term fan of social enterprises.  Wherever I go, I seek out businesses with a conscience. I obsess over them, tell all my friends, volunteer for them and kit myself out in their entire collections. But for a long time, despite my good intentions, I would stop myself from buying an ethically made dress if I thought it was ugly or choosing an environmental cleaning product if once tried I thought it didn’t work. Happily, the social enterprise landscape seems to be changing. Social entrepreneurs are now combining quality and aesthetically pleasing products with viable financial business models and a wallet-friendly price. All of which means I am having to compromise less and less and as more and more of my choices are businesses who combine environment, people, society and impact. And that makes me very happy indeed.

This global movement of sound and successful social enterprises is being driven by young people who are more connected to the world and concerned about their footprint than previous generations. They are invested in doing right for their community and have designed their businesses to reflect their principles. In 2016, the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) published a report on social entrepreneurship which found that across the world almost one in every two new businesses has a primary social or environmental purpose rather than a purely commercial one.

It is these social entrepreneurs who are addressing global issues like hunger, access to education [Bosh Bosh] and health care [Cabbages and condoms]. They are the ones adapting to and tackling climate change, driving forward green and circular economies [Ecover]. They have created support networks [Drop Earrings Not Bombs], and opportunities for the homeless [Invisible Cities], for the elderly [Good Gym] and marginalised communities [The Mug Shot and Birdsong]. They have creatively plugged gaps in social welfare [Migrateful], are shining a positive light on social issues [Arthouse Unlimited] and making a positive change for people [Stemettes]. They are the ones building inclusivity through business [Britain’s Bravest Manufacturing].

Entrepreneurship will play a vital role in the global recovery

Despite the benefits these businesses bring, social entrepreneurs face significant barriers in starting out and growing. The World Economic Forum has just released a report on ‘Why Social Entrepreneurs Are Needed Now More than Ever‘ and I couldn’t agree more. Right now, the world is on a cliff edge and businesses with a social mission are not just nice-to-haves – they are essential.

The dramatic economic fallout from COVID-19 will further expose and exasperate structural inequalities and hit the most vulnerable the hardest. Entrepreneurship will play a vital role in the global recovery and by creating the right environment for social entrepreneurship to thrive, we can do this in a way that tackles social and environmental challenges as well as creating decent jobs and reigniting the economy.

The World Economic Forum lays out the steps we need to take to foster this ecosystem; larger corporates should start to include social enterprises into their supply chain. There needs to be an expansion of financial support aimed at social enterprises. Governments should increasingly recognise the contribution of these impact-focused businesses.

The brightest and best minds on social entrepreneurship call for more investment in business support organisations and networks, like YBI, to ensure the success and sustainability of social enterprises. We do this by assisting people with ideas for social enterprises to develop solid business plans, help them work out good governance structures and clearly articulate their social impact. Crucially, we support them to improve their investment readiness and look into supporting them to grow and access new markets.

Invest in people and planet

In addition, policy makers designing COVID-19 recovery packages should choose and be encouraged to invest in an economy that works for people and the planet. Governments need to think about how they can improve the pipeline of young social entrepreneurs, and education policy makers and practitioners must devise more education and training programmes that nurture entrepreneurial attitudes and skills within mainstream education.

Social entrepreneurs stand at the nexus of creativity, society and business. In their wake, they leave communities and the planet happier and healthier and customers very satisfied. The sites I have listed are ones I know, have used and love. They have educated, cleaned, clothed and entertained me and I am always eager to hear of other social enterprises that have blazed the trail in recreating ‘business as usual’.

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