What are Social Enterprises? That’s the question Dan Matthews kicked us off with at LEF2015’s evening sessions amongst a myriad of fascinating topics explored. Sure there were the pioneers such as John Bird from The Big Issueas well as other exceptional people, some you might have come across before and others not. One of the distinguishing features was for the aspiring entrepreneurs to realise the subtle differences between enterprises that are rewarding and those that are indeed a business; sometimes interchangeable. Can they both work together? That become the overarching theme of the evening.
It’s one thing to want to change the world but your business needs to be sustainable so you are there once the world is changed to continue doing the work that you are doing - this was probably the most challenging statement to come to terms with, an essential one nonetheless. USP (unique selling point) is important if you’re into products but it’s perhaps even more crucial when positioning yourself as a business in a crowded market. A room full of people gathered eagerly to discuss social entrepreneurship except when the question was posed back at the audience; embarrassingly no one was confident enough to respond to it with a definitive answer. What is so special about social work that makes it difficult to define itself? The difficulty lies within the idea that social work isn’t one that inherently pays. We managed to settle for the definition that social enterprises are “commercial strategies used to achieve social order”. The Big Issue for example, is a business response to a social crisis as Bird himself pointed out. So how can we as businesses respond to the needs of the social? More importantly, how can we introduce enterprising culture within the modern social?
As a writer I often reflect upon ways modern societal architecture impacts not just our everydayness but also the seeds it lays for our future social fabric. Are there lessons we could learn from capitalistic businesses in terms of transforming the rubrics of society? That was possibly the biggest mind shift lesson we all took away from the evening.
As the evening progressed, it quickly became apparent that social enterprises often get confused between their mission versus commercial value which gets misplaced in the evolution of a business. How do you bridge these two apparently binary models of structure? There can only be purpose driven business which can yield actual commercial viability - what does that even mean? We need a business that has its own identity and mission to succeed not just for its own causes but also as a business itself that leads to commercial success. Success is undefinable objectively but commercial success almost always translates into the viability of your organisation. So what is it about your company that makes it so special and is the value you provide worth converting into actual revenue? If you can answer those two questions, social enterprising doesn’t sound too challenging from there on forwards.
We did get a few takeaways from the whole evening and I’m going to do my best to sum it up as coherently as possible:
Approach foundations and funding bodies with a cohesive business plan that is mutually beneficial
You must always have your elevator pitch etched in your mind for 1,3 and 5 minutes
Raising your profile should be your number one priority, success will follow from there onwards
Get into as many accelerator programmes as possible and actively seek out mentors, either professionally or personally
Read and constantly expand your knowledge base
As inspiring as all of these talks were the evening concluded with far more larger questions around the impact of social enterprises and their right in todays society; are social enterprises so adamantly bound into the dominant structures that gave birth to them in the first place? If yes, how do we adequately respond to such an economy that yields a recurring change in its climate thats almost always invariably intertwined to produce the same results?
In essence, are there always going to be the capitalists/consumers and the rich/poor divide that we are going to have to forever negotiate and find smaller wins as we get them? I suppose this really brings us back to the question; what is so enterprising about social enterprises? Enterprise in its definition is ‘a project or undertaking, especially a bold or complex one’ so one can only hope that a collective bold move will persistently create a ripple effect eventually leading us to revisit the very notions of change and how the social can be redefined.
Bhavani Esapathiis a Writer and Speaker on Digital Innovation specifically within the creative sector. Her research ranges from digital education to cultural productive using technology. You can follow her on Twitter as @bhaesa as well as subscribe to her newsletter The Bhaesa Times to find out more about the projects she’s working on as well as ways to get involved. Her most recent project Chronically Driven engages those living extraordinary lives with a chronic diagnosis by creating a digital narrative challenging the mainstream. It has been recognised by The British Council as a Digital Social Innovation Project.