ONE YEAR OF _SOCIALSTARTERS: How your failures become your biggest lessons

It’s coming up to a year since we registered Social Starters Ltd, a company limited by shares, with two names on the certificate – mine, and that of my business partner, Anna Moran’s.

The last year has been an unimaginable journey that has basically kickstarted a wave of socially impactful entrepreneurship in Kenya, India, Sri Lanka and Brazil activated from the simple tagline #JoinUs? written on a post-it note placed against the backdrop of a dodgy image of a map taken in my living room, promising excitement and adventure. You could argue we gained some confidence this year when our marketing slogan became more of statement: #JoinUs.

So how did it start?

Like most people, I felt like there was ‘more’. More to do. More out there. More for me. More to see. I’d turned 34, had been freelancing for a year and a half, only I still had that itch. The kind that gives you very few clues but enough appetite to force you to move off the sofa into the unknown.

Volunteering in Kenya for a young social enterprise on what I was thinking at the time would be an annual freelancer sabbatical (perk of being a freelance marketeer), I had started to help a fellow volunteer – my now business partner – work through some ideas. It had always been a long term goal of hers to run her own volunteer programme, and after six years doing it for one of the biggest volunteer organisations in the world she had recognised an opportunity to do this with social enterprises in developing countries, offering volunteers placements at small to medium sized socially impactful organisations.

But on that trip we had learned that micro-entrepreneurs can apply contemporary business methods to basic business practices, and when we saw how that worked we wandered if these methods could create a new wave of social entrepreneurs in some of the world’s hardest to reach places. Anna’s dream for a social enterprise volunteer programme and my questions around creating an international career development programme were then potentially combined when an opportunity came up that would change everything – and so we decided to test if social entrepreneurship training could be the key to empowering local people – youth and women’s groups, and unemployed young people in that specific instance – to become social entrepreneurs.

Having just come from working in a social enterprise marketing agency in the UK, as well as having freelanced for a few socially impactful youth organisations, I was excited by this vision. Anna and I spent several late nights chewing over various ideas and started to realise no one else was quite tackling grassroots community and social enterprise development in developing countries, in the way that we thought (albeit boldly) maybe we could. Although there are similar(ish) programmes popping up now, and that’s really exciting – there is a big job to do.

Massively inspired by the social enterprise we were volunteering for, but equally keen to do something different, we felt strongly that we could develop a USP by creating a volunteer programme for people like us – career changers who would join our network to gain new skills from the experience that meant they could develop their own ideas for change, creating a ripple effect of change around the world.

It wasn’t just about ‘giving back’, like many traditional volunteer programmes, which certainly have their place. But we wanted to develop corporate leavers into social change designers, small start-ups into community leaders, and we believed local people should feel empowered to tackle their own community challenges, instead of receiving hand outs from outsiders who understand less about their world than they do.

Fast forward a year and we’ve now tested this in 4 countries, and worked with 100 aspiring social entrepreneurs and change makers along the way, half of which will have flown in to either Kenya, India, Sri Lanka or Brazil from over 15 different countries, including Taiwan, Holland and the US.

Perhaps part good timing, part good luck and part something else (a massive desire to redesign our lives and the lives of others), we seem to have created something that people are excited by.  We’ll interview around 30-40 people for each programme resulting in around 12 receiving an offer to join us. Our participants have worked in finance or consulting; or they’re young entrepreneurs, brand marketers or business development types for some of the world’s biggest brands and organisations. Our volunteers know how to sell, problem solve or creatively communicate – all skills that social entrepreneurs need help with. And our volunteers want to understand more about social impact, community development or what it means to work at the bottom of the pyramid in a developing country. It’s a win win.

I’m constantly blown away by the talent that we’re seeing in some of the hardest to reach places. And we’re continually kept challenged working with them. Language & cultural differences. Too heavy reliance on assumptions. Not always getting the balance right between career development and volunteering. Working long days, despite leaving the corporate world to work a little less, telling ourselves that Tim Ferris, our 4 Hour Work Week guru – must be a big fan of a metaphor!

We wouldn’t be here without the generosity and support of our team and partners, from our advisors, to our own volunteers who help us run the programmes, through to every single participant in the programme who has believed in our mission and taken a punt on that vision – putting real stake in the ground for it. Entrusting their futures and those of others, in themselves and us.

It’s not always perfect, we’re iteratively learning, listening and trying to stay true to our values. Things don’t always go according to plan – but that’s what’s beautiful about it. Nothing is certain, and if you enjoy finding creative solutions – often on the spot with little time to prepare – then social innovation is totally the space you should be in.

We keep saying to our trainee Social Enterprise Consultants, working with informal economy change makers and innovative young people requires a little acceptance that things will not always be predictable. Your failures become your biggest lessons. And you’ll learn to do that with a smile. Which is why this type of work is a lot of fun. It forces you to take bold steps into the unknown, not always in control of the outcome, and constantly searching for new ways to do things, without a manual, and very few precedents.

So it requires a little (or big) leap of faith, to get you there. But when you realise how powerful stepping outside your comfort zone is, how it can totally change your world view, or the way you approach making things happen; that initial fear you felt, those voices in your head who said ‘go back to your sofa!’ they stop becoming a blocker and in fact, more an indicator that you’re heading the right way.

We are currently running 8 programmes across India, Sri Lanka and Brazil, between now and May 2016.

Check our website for details.

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